Barbara Walters, a First Among TV Newswomen, Is Dead at 93
Barbara Walters, who broke barriers for women as the first female co-host of the “Today” show and the first female anchor of a network evening news program, and who as an interviewer of celebrities became one herself, helping to blur the line between news and entertainment, died on Friday. She was 93.
Her death was reported by ABC News, where she was a longtime anchor and a creator of the talk show “The View.” It did not give a cause or say where shedied.
Ms. Walters spent more than 50 years in front of the camera and, until she was 84, continued to appear on “The View.” In one-on-one interviews, she was best known for delving, with genteel insistence, into the private lives and emotional states of movie stars, heads of state and other high-profile subjects.
Ms. Walters first made her mark on the “Today” show on NBC, where she began appearing regularly on camera in 1964; she was officially named co-host a decade later. Her success kicked open the door for future network anchors like Jane Pauley, Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer.
Ms. Walters began at NBC as a writer in 1961, the token woman in the “Today” writers’ room. When she left NBC for ABC in 1976 to be a co-anchor of the evening news with Harry Reasoner, she became known as the “million-dollar baby” because of her five-year, $5 million contract.
The move to the co-anchor’s chair made her not only the highest-profile female journalist in television history, but also the highest-paid news anchor, male or female, and her arrival signaled something of a cultural shift: the moment when news anchors began to be seen less as infallible authority figures, in the Walter Cronkite mold, and more as celebrities. A disgruntled Mr. Reasoner privately dismissed her hiring as a gimmick.
Gimmick or not, the ABC experiment failed. Chemistry between the co-anchors was nonexistent, ratings remained low, and in 1978 Mr. Reasoner left for CBS, his original television home, and Ms. Walters’s role changed from co-anchor to contributor as the network instituted an all-male multiple-anchor format. Shortly after that she began contributing reports to ABC’s newsmagazine show “20/20.” In 1984 she became the show’s permanent co-host alongside Hugh Downs, her old “Today” colleague.
But it was her “Barbara Walters Specials” more than anything else that made her a star, enshrining her as an indefatigable chronicler of the rich, the powerful and the infamous. The specials, which began in 1976, made Ms. Walters as famous, or nearly as famous, as the people she interviewed.
At a time when politicians tended to be reserved and celebrities elusive, Ms. Walters coaxed kings, presidents and matinee idols to answer startlingly intimate questions. She asked Jimmy Carter, shortly after he won the 1976 presidential election, if he and his wife slept in separate beds. (They did not.) She asked Prime Minister Morarji Desai of India whether it was true that he drank his own urine for medicinal purposes. (It was.)
Ms. Walters was a celebrity journalist who reveled in the role — driving a motorcycle with Sylvester Stallone, dancing the mambo with Patrick Swayze, riding a patrol boat with Fidel Castro across the Bay of Pigs. She was the reporter who urged Mr. Carter to “be good to us” and asked the former White House intern Monica Lewinsky — in an interview that attracted some 50 million viewers — why she kept that stained blue dress that had figured in the sex scandal involving President Bill Clinton.
Throughout her career Ms. Walters raised eyebrows — and competitors’ ire — by courting high society and cultivating friendships with high-placed officials. The Shah of Iran was a friend; so were Roy Cohn and Brooke Astor. She was the only female television reporter on President Richard M. Nixon’s trip to China in 1972. When the former Israeli foreign minister Moshe Dayan died in 1981, Ms. Walters lent his wife, Raquel, a black dress for the funeral.
Her ambition and competitive spirit never let up. She was in Vietnam on vacation when Michael Jackson died in 2009, and sped across 8,000 miles and many time zones to sit with the Jackson family at the memorial in Los Angeles — and to host a special tribute on “20/20.” She continued to pop up in the gossip pages, notably when she tried to intervene in a vitriolic spat between her “View” colleague Rosie O’Donnell and Donald J. Trump in 2007.
(Ms. Walters could be gushing when around Mr. Trump, comparing his family in one “20/20” segment to “American royalty” and, at one point, as Michael D’Antonio recounted in his 2015 Trump biography “Never Enough,” asking him, “If you could be appointed president, and you didn’t have to run, would you like to be president?”)
“The View” was yet another ratings triumph for Ms. Walters, who created it with Bill Geddie and served as an executive producer in addition to frequently appearing on camera as a member of the show’s all-female panel, which over the years also included Whoopi Goldberg, Meredith Vieira and many others. The show, which is in its 24th season, is now seen in several countries and has inspired imitations.
From Hepburn to Arafat
The list of famous people Ms. Walters coaxed into going on camera with her is long. It includes Michael Jackson, Katharine Hepburn, Princess Grace of Monaco and Barbra Streisand. She interviewed every American president and first lady from Richard and Pat Nixon to Barack and Michelle Obama, as well as Mr. Trump and his wife, Melania, during his presidential campaign; world leaders like Margaret Thatcher, Boris N. Yeltsin, Yasir Arafat and Muammar el-Qaddafi; and famous criminal defendants like Claus von Bülow, Jean Harris, Mike Tyson, Mark David Chapman, and Erik and Lyle Menendez.
From 1981 to 2010, she presented an annual Oscar-night special that included interviews with nominees and other celebrities. When she announced that the 2010 Oscar special would be her last, she explained that celebrity interviews had become ubiquitous — and that celebrities were not what they used to be.
“Too often,” she said, “the celebrity is a celebrity because he or she just came out of rehab; otherwise they are not interesting. I didn’t want to do that.”
She did, however, continue her annual “10 Most Fascinating People” specials, which began in 1993. In the final special, in 2015, Caitlyn Jenner topped the list, but she declined to be interviewed; Ms. Jenner was already negotiating an interview with Diane Sawyer, Ms. Walters’s longtime professional rival.
In her heyday, few turned down the chance to be interviewed by Ms. Walters, but there were others who got away. Ms. Walters said in her autobiography, “Audition” (2008), that her greatest ungotten “gets” were Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whom she knew socially but could never persuade to go on camera, and Diana, Princess of Wales, who, despite all Ms. Walters’s powers of persuasion, instead gave her first interview after her separation from Prince Charles to Martin Bashir of the BBC.
She had other regrets. She told The Toronto Star in 2010 that she was sorry that in 2000 she had pressed the Latin pop star Ricky Martin to say whether he was gay; he evaded the question and did not come out until 10 years later. She said in her autobiography that in retrospect she was also sorry that she had decided not to broadcast the 1976 tape of a White House tour that Betty Ford, the first lady, gave her while visibly drunk.
“If I were interviewing a first lady today, and she was obviously inebriated, I would certainly air it,” she wrote. “Times have changed.”
“Having it all” was not part of the cultural lexicon when Ms. Walters began combining career and family. She and her second husband, the theatrical producer Lee Guber, raised a daughter,Jacqueline, during her time at “Today.” She was married three times in all, and between marriages she dated many prominent and powerful men, among them Senator John Warner of Virginia and the Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan. In “Audition” she revealed that in 1973 she began a long, secret affair with Senator Edward W. Brooke III of Massachusetts, who was married at the time.
Information on her survivors was not immediately available.
Many a male colleague groused that Ms. Walters used her femininity and social connections to get ahead, but she had a drive that would almost certainly have propelled her to fame no matter what. She was a perfectionist and a worrier who did her own research, wrote her own questions on index cards and was often her own best editor.
Her ferocity paid off, notably when she obtained the first joint interview with President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel as they were negotiating the terms of what would become their historic 1979 peace agreement. Ms. Walters boasted that CBS, desperate to compete, persuaded the two leaders to sit down together again with Cronkite.
One measure of her fame was her ubiquity as a target of parody on “Saturday Night Live.” Gilda Radner was the first cast member to impersonate her, as Baba Wawa, in acknowledgment of the difficulty Ms. Walters had pronouncing her R’s and L’s. (The impression did not amuse Ms. Walters.) It was not just the way Ms. Walters spoke that Ms. Radner parodied. She also tapped into the contradictions in Ms. Walters’s on-air persona: her slightly affected enunciation layered on top of a tabloid reporter’s unsqueamish appetite for juicy gossip.
She was later impersonated on the show by Cheri Oteri, Rachel Dratch and Nasim Pedrad. But by 2014, her opinion of her imitators had clearly softened. That May, days before her final appearance on “The View,” she made her “S.N.L.” debut. Appearing on the “Weekend Update” segment, she declared that it had been an honor “to see my groundbreaking career in journalism be reduced to a cartoon character with a ridiculous voice.”
The writers of “S.N.L.” were far from her only critics. Many objected to Ms. Walters’s cozy, at times cloying manner with guests, as well as her apparent determination to bring her interviewees to tears. Ms. Walters even made Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of allied forces in the Persian Gulf war, cry when she asked about his father in 1991.
But the ratings were always on her side.
Nightclubs and Cheap Rentals
Ms. Walters said she had inherited both her ambition and her insecurities from her father, Lou Walters, a Boston booking agent and vaudeville impresario who founded the Latin Quarter nightclubs in Boston, New York and Miami and whose fortunes rose and fell, dragging the family from Florida manors and penthouse apartments on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to shabby rentals in Miami.
“I was old enough to recognize how other families lived, and they were not like mine,” she wrote.
Barbara Walters was born in Boston to Mr. Walters and Dena (Seletsky) Walters on Sept. 25, 1929. In her memoir she wrote that her father, though “not especially good-looking,” exuded a “certain elegance,” being always “impeccably dressed” and having retained his English accent — “very appealing then as now.” Her mother — “quite striking,” she wrote — had been working in a men’s neckwear store when she met her future husband. The couple — both were children of Jewish immigrants who had fled anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe — remained married for nearly 60 years despite a “torturous relationship,” Ms. Walters wrote.
Barbara attended private schools in New York and public schools in Miami.There were trips to Europe and Broadway openings; there was hobnobbing with celebrities; there were also tax collectors who seized the family car, the furniture and even the dining room chandelier. Her childhood, she said, was shaped by her complicated relationship with her elder sister, Jacqueline, who was mentally disabled. She died in 1985.
When Ms. Walters graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1951 with a degree in English, her father was broke again, and she needed to find a job to support her parents and her sister. “I wanted to be normal,” she once told Newsweek.“I wanted to make the marriage and have the children and be one of the popular girls.”
Like many women of her time and education, she started as a secretary, at a public relations firm. That led to a stint in the publicity department of CBS and then a writing job on “The Morning Show,” where Ms. Walters was occasionally brought out of the writers’ room: once in a bathing suit when a model ran late, another time to interview survivors of the wreck of the Italian luxury liner Andrea Doria.
She was hired by “Today” in 1961. At the time, the show had always had an on-camera “girl,” usually an actress or a pageant winner (Ms. Walters called them “tea pourers”), and Ms. Walters’s job was to write for them. She was occasionally seen on camera herself — she covered Jacqueline Kennedy’s 1962 trip to India and Pakistan — but she was not a full-time member of the on-air team until 1964, when the actress Maureen O’Sullivan abruptly left. Having a proven, if less glamorous, candidate already on hand, the producers gave Ms. Walters the job, without fanfare.
Ms. Walters would later recall that at first she had an almost paralyzing fear of being fired. But she was bold when it came to finding a way around barriers. She said Frank McGee, who became host of “Today” in 1971, persuaded the network to mandate that he ask the first three questions of any guest in the studio, worried that viewers might assume that he and Ms. Walters were of equal stature. Ms. Walters began staking out famous people she could interview outside the studio, to get around the three-question rule.
After Mr. McGee’s death in 1974, Jim Hartz replaced him as anchor, and Ms. Walters was officially, if belatedly, designated co-anchor.
‘Ahead of the Game’
At her peak, Ms. Walters was extravagantly rewarded — and extensively criticized — for bringing showbiz pizazz to news programs, but networks’ mores followed her lead. She did not change; the industry did.
By the end of her career, Ms. Walters saw herself as a guardian of old-school journalistic values. She complained that for her final “20/20” interview as co-host, in 2004, ABC News chose Mary Kay Letourneau, a schoolteacher who went to jail for having an affair with a student, over President George W. Bush.
Ms. Walters ended her autobiography on a reflective note, saying that in the age of internet news, cellphone videos and blog journalism it would be difficult for any one journalist to have the kind of career she had. “If I was, perhaps, atop of the game,” she wrote, “I also had the advantage of being ahead of the game.”
On May 12, 2014, four days before her last day on “The View,” the ABC News building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan was renamed the Barbara Walters Building.
“I’m not going to cry,” Ms. Walters said at the ceremony. “I make other people cry, but I’m not going to cry.”