Picks and Pans Review: Barbara Walters

by Jerry Oppenheimer

No matter how well-intentioned or well-written an unauthorized biography may be, there is something very sleazy about the whole enterprise. The pages fairly ooze with thirdhand gossip; irrelevant, unflattering stories are told by those with an ax or perhaps an ex to grind.

And almost without fail, in the preface of the book, the author tries to justify the opus, assuring readers of the endeavor’s high-mindedness. This unauthorized bio of Walters, by the co-author of an unauthorized Rock Hudson book, is no exception. “I was intrigued and perplexed as to how someone with her apparent handicaps—the speech impediment, the lack of journalistic credentials, the fact that she didn’t have the prerequisite blond, blue-eyed ail-American look—was able to become so enormously successful as an on-air news personality, particularly at a time when the few women in TV were considered window dressing.” Oppenheimer writes in his preface.

Barbara Walters’s detractors will, no doubt, adore what follows: the tale of a woman who is older than reported (60, not 58) married more often than reported (three times, not twice) and who concealed the fact that she had a retarded sister.

Walters was born in Boston, the daughter of a social-climbing mother and a philandering, nightclub impresario father. She grew up shy, directionless and insecure. Even with her success on the Today show, Walters’s insecurity—about her professional competence and ability to attract men—”fed on Barbara,” as Oppenheimer so memorably puts it, “like tapeworms.”

One beau, wine merchant Alexis Lichine “often felt that what she was searching for was a father to pat her on the head and say ‘You’re a good girl. Barbara.’ ”

Walters was usually attracted to powerful, wealthy men, like lawyer Roy Colin. But, Oppenheimer says, most of Walters’s relationships were platonic. “Barbara never viewed sex as a priority, and it didn’t exist in our relationship.” noted Lichine. “It was apparent that it was not important to her.”

Oppenheimer portrays his subject as difficult, manipulative (she whined to get an interview with Jackie Kennedy), pushy and not above using her own position to scotch unfavorable stories about her.

Walters may well be difficult, manipulative and pushy, as well as a preternaturally annoying on-air presence, And yet, and yet.

If Walters were a man, would the same adjectives be used? Is there anyone better than she at celebrity interviews? Certainly not Chung, Norville, Pauley or Sawyer, Oppenheimer acknowledges that Walters is a hard worker with a sense of humor. When she became Harry Reasoner’s co-anchor on the ABC Evening News, pulling down a then-record $1 million a year, Walters had trouble pronouncing the in Mount Ararat during a rehearsal. “Why,” she asked, “couldn’t it be Mount Kisco?”

Even so, there is something unrelentingly mean-spirited here. Oppenheimer notes at one point that when Walters joined the school newspaper at Sarah Lawrence College. “They ran her heavily edited pieces to encourage more students to work for the paper. The hope was that others would say. ‘Well, if Barbara Walters can do it….” In fact, some heavy editing would have made this book more readable if not more palatable. TV critic John Leonard once wrote of Walters that “she makes the morning squeak like a toothbrush.” Better a morning with Barbara than with this book. (St. Martin’s, $19.95)

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