Scared of Supper


“I’m nervous. If firecrackers don’t come out of my ears, people will yell, ‘Catastrophe!’ ”

Barbara Walters had every reason to be overwrought. Even after 12 years on the Today show, she recalls that “every Sunday night I would get a tightness in my stomach—it was always like the first day of school.” Now she faced the first week of the climax of her career (which she’s the first to admit is a disproportionate part of her life). Actually “this is a new career,” she figured fretfully on its eve. “I’m being tested again, and it will be my luck to flub the first four words.” And with all the foofaraw and hype, undoubtedly under maximum audience exposure. Worse, there was a sort of bullfight tingle about the occasion, and Barbara couldn’t be sure whether she was the matador or the bull.

Walters is entering a new ring, and some of the curiosity seekers tuning in to ABC this week were there so as not to miss the potential Sally Quinn or the Howard Cosell of 1976. Not a few were uncharitably rooting for just such a calamity. After all, Walters was the first woman ever to co-anchor a network. And, even among nonchauvinists, she is contentious, by all industry surveys one of America’s both most and least admired TV personalities because of her dogged interviewing style. Finally, too, there was the resentment over her much-publicized $5 million, five-year contract. Even Walter Cronkite confessed that his flash reaction was “nausea, the sickening sensation that all of our efforts to hold network television news aloof from show business had failed.” Even more unsettling was the instant response of the man with whom she now shared the ABC anchor desk: Harry Reasoner had threatened to quit.

So much for the bad news. All that aside, the worst season of Barbara’s 44 years has not just begun but rather ended. After confirming last summer what she always feared—that she’s an incurable workaholic—she was allowed to appear on the air this week for the first time in four miserable months. ABC raided her away last April, but NBC still had her under contract into September and was not about to make an accommodation. “It was the worst ‘vacation’ I ever had,” she says after attending the two political conventions as a spectator.

What did Barbara do? She parleyed with ABC staffers, wrote two newspaper pieces and a self-interview about her new job. “So many people said I was a singer and a dancer,” she says, “that at least I wanted them to know I could type.” Later she was coaxed away for a week at a friend’s villa on the French Riviera and, with the love of her life, adopted daughter Jacqueline, 8, dallied another 10 days at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Jackie mastered diving, and her mother braved tennis lessons. As she expected, “I’m one of those people who will never play. It was agonizing.” She also has been dismayed to find her body clock still locked into the Today regimen: “I wake up at 5 a.m.” But Barbara exults, “I no longer have to think before I go out at night, ‘This isn’t worth it,’ and I don’t have to send friends home at 10.” Men friends? She’s twice divorced, and her closest man now is probably White House economist Alan Greenspan, but she went without seeing him for five weeks.

Whatever changes she does manage in her life will have little to do with her new seven-figure tax bracket. “Now I can put some away for the future,” she says. “Everybody expected me to move into a penthouse.” Everybody, that is, who didn’t know about her traumatized mid-20s. The daughter of nightclub impresario Lou Walters, Barbara’s natural habitat was penthouses. She was expensively educated at Sarah Lawrence and summered in Europe. Then her father went bankrupt and suffered a coronary in the same year. “Suddenly I didn’t even have enough money to buy lipstick,” she recalls. It was not easy to forget. She still supports her parents.

So Barbara is staying in her same rented Manhattan apartment but “having it painted for the first time in six years.” She doesn’t own a country place or even a car (“I’m afraid to drive”). She retains a maid and a nanny plus, briefly during all the publicity, a bodyguard for Jacqueline. As for clothes, she has elegant taste but hates to shop. “I have designer friends like Kasper and Halston who send things up, or I see them in a magazine and ask.” She pays for what she keeps.

Barbara is not the woman depicted by NBC as making demands “more befitting a movie queen than a journalist.” Walters, in turn, may have been unseemly in attacking her late colleague, Frank McGee, for refusing to accept her as an equal and preempting the choice interviews. She also noted that she succeeded McGee as host, after his death at 52, only because it was written into her contract. “At the time the clause was put in,” she explained, “NBC thought that McGee had many years ahead.”

Any problems with new deskmate Reasoner will not likely be sexist. “My reservations,” Harry now insists, “were never based on the fact that she is a woman. My general conclusion is that they are no worse than men.” The fact is that TV co-anchors traditionally don’t get along, and that hiring Walters unsettled Reasoner’s ego because it confirmed his failure to raise the ratings as a solo anchorman. When he was teamed with Howard K. Smith, the standing of the ABC Evening News was occasionally higher, if not quite competitive. At last count Reasoner alone had a 17 audience share (versus 28 for CBS and 26 for NBC).

There are several questions about whether a Reasoner-Walters duo will do any better. As Barbara admits herself, “I do not know whether people want to watch a woman giving the news.” Other liabilities are the inferiority of ABC’s correspondent force visà-vis the NBC and CBS opposition plus the limitation of the present half-hour newscast—that span (actually 22 minutes 30 seconds, after commercials) virtually eliminates Walters’ proved strength as an interviewer. But there is industry speculation that, with its prime-time ascendancy and the acquisition of Walters, ABC has the leverage to chivvy its affiliated stations into accepting an expanded 45-or 60-minute network news.

In any case, Barbara doesn’t intend to be a mere announcer. Having started in the business as a writer, she’s still enamored of her own prose and intends to tap out as much of her material as possible on her own typewriter. “Harry and I will each have our own stamp,” she says. “He may do special sports reports, and I would focus on women’s issues like the bill banning Medicaid payments for abortions.” (Walters eschews her normally neutral political posture on this one: “I could get an abortion,” she says. “But what about poor people?”) She will also headline four prime-time specials and make a dozen appearances on Issues and Answers.

Nerved up and perpetually insecure as she is, Barbara feels no regrets about her jump to ABC. “I’m not a novice,” she points out. “I’ve been preparing for this job for 20 years.” She adds: “What I did at Today was so safe, so comfortable, and the ABC offer was exciting and fresh.” Still, she has intimations of her own mortality. “If I’d been five years older,” she admits, “I wouldn’t have done it.”

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