Sunday, September 8, 2013

86. Walter Winchell, a New Kind of Terrorist

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Winchell in 1960, with his signature fedora.
     "Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America, and all the ships at sea!  Let's go to press."  Along with this, the sound of a telegraph key, giving a sense of urgency.  So began the broadcast that I heard so many times back in the early 1940s. The voice was crisp, terse, vibrant; it cut you like a knife.  A series of facts followed at breakneck speed, each one fired like a bullet.  The speaker's style was energetic, unique, differing greatly from the quiet dignity and smugness of H.V. Kaltenborn, the self-proclaimed dean of American newsmen, and the orotund pronouncements of Gabriel Heater, whom my father christened "the angel Gabriel," and who announced importantly, "Good evening, everyone, there's good news tonight!"

     The vibrant, cutting voice was that of Walter Winchell (1897-1972), whom I knew only from his staccato performance on the radio, but about whom I would in time learn abundantly more.  He seemed the epitome of the New Yorker, brash, self-confident, abrasive.  Indeed, he was born to a family of Jewish immigrants from Russia and grew up in East Harlem, escaping poverty first by performing in vaudeville and then by becoming a newspaper columnist.  By the mid-1920s he was making a name for himself as a Broadway gossip columnist reporting on the rich and famous, their romances and marriages and divorces, but he had connections to mobsters as well.  In 1929 he was hired by the New York Daily Mirror, where in time he launched the first syndicated gossip column, and a year later he made his debut on radio.

     Can a gossip columnist have too many contacts?  In Winchell's case, yes.  His gangster connections soon made him fear for his life because he knew too much, so in 1932 he vamoosed to the fair clime of California, only to return a few weeks later with a newfound enthusiasm for G-men, Uncle Sam, and the flag; soon he was a close friend of J. Edgar Hoover, whose FBI had never looked so good to him.  By the time I first encountered him in the early 1940s his column was carried by hundreds of newspapers nationwide, and his radio audience surpassed that of the most popular comedians of the day.  He was then at the height of his power and influence.

     In print and on the air Winchell bent, stretched, enriched, and abused the English language, putting a stamp on it all his own.  Two people in love were "sizzling" or "garbo-ing it," newly marrieds were "welded" or "lohengrinned" or "merged," and a divorced couple were "sharing separate tepees."  A pregnant woman was "infanticipating," and the happy parents would soon join "the mom and population."  Other Winchellisms include "sextress," "messer of ceremonies," "shafts" (legs), "debutramp" (debutante), "Chicagorilla" (gangster), and "giggle water" (liquor).  He referred to Broadway as "Baloney Boulevard" and the "Hardened Artery" of the city, and to Times Square as  "Hard Times Square."

     Some of his quips were also memorable: "Nothing recedes like success."  "Gossip is the art of saying nothing in a way that leaves practically nothing unsaid."  "I usually get my stuff from people who promised somebody else that they would keep it secret."  "Hollywood is where they shoot too many pictures and not enough actors."  "An optimist is someone who gets treed by a lion but enjoys the scenery."

     Winchell's columns and broadcasts were meant to shock and surprise, and sometimes to infuriate.  He was, or pretended to be, a moralist, judging the fools and villains out there, vast numbers of nefarious persons and events.  From 1930 on he was a regular at the Stork Club, which later moved to 3 East 53rd Street, where it became New York's most prestigious nightclub.  Holding court like a prince at Table 50 in the ultra exclusive Cub Room, Winchell summoned athletes, movie stars, debutantes, and royalty into his august presence, where he plied them for information about themselves and others.  They went because they were afraid not to.  A hostile Winchell could skewer you with scandal, impale you on barbs of scorn.  So they wooed, flattered, and cajoled him, giving him tidbits of gossip he could use.  Just as Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons dominated Hollywood, he held Broadway in a reign of fear.  The syndicated columnist was a new kind of terrorist, hobnobbing with celebrities, learning their secrets, exercising vast power by threatening to tell all.  Few of us are without haunting deep fears and reservoirs of shame.  Winchell and his Hollywood counterparts knew this and used it without pity.

     In the 1930s Winchell eulogized President Roosevelt, who invited him to the White House,  and J. Edgar Hoover, who gave him tips from the FBI.  One of the first to denounce Hitler and pro-Nazi groups in America, he also supported civil rights for African Americans and attacked the Ku Klux Klan.  So far, he would seem to have been on the right side of history.  But after World War II that  changed.  As the Cold War loomed, he became an ardent supporter of Senator Joseph McCarthy and, like him, detected Communists everywhere and saw himself as the nation's savior.  When the New York Post ran a series criticizing him, he counterattacked viciously, labeling it the"Compost," the "Postinko" and the "Postitute," and calling its columnists "presstitutes."  In 1951 the singer Josephine Baker asserted that she had been refused service at the Stork Club and that Winchell, who was in the restaurant, had refused to come to her aid.  Winchell insisted that he knew nothing of the incident, which may have been the case, but he was attacked by others, and rival columnist Ed Sullivan announced that he despised Winchell as symbolizing evil and treacherous things in America.

     I never encountered Winchell face to face, but my friend Ken told of an encounter with relish.  It happened at Lindy's restaurant, another legendary midtown haunt at 51st  Street and Broadway, made famous by Damon Runyan's stories.  Ken was at a counter in front, buying a wedge of their famous cherry-topped cheesecake to take out, when suddenly all around him he heard awed whispers:  "Walter Winchell ... Walter Winchell ... here comes Walter Winchell!"  Sure enough, striding in like a conqueror, came Winchell.  As he brushed by Ken, he jostled him.  Furious, Ken spun around and delivered a quick kick to his ankle.  Winchell gave no hint of a reaction, but marched on into the nether depths of the restaurant, where he was no doubt persona most grata.  Of all my friends and acquaintances, Ken is the only one who ever assaulted a demigod.

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A postcard showing Lindy's, including the famous cheesecake.

     As McCarthy's influence faded, so did the demigod's; he began to be seen as ruthless and arrogant.  The growing popularity of television helped accelerate his demise, since the nervous energy that worked well on radio made him look, in the words of an actor who saw him essaying TV, "like a strange, nervous elf."  His radio show was canceled, he lost his column when the Mirror folded.  By the late 1960s he was a has-been, and in 1969 he announced his retirement, saddened by his son's suicide and a daughter's failing health.  The man once wooed and feared by the famous spent his last years as a recluse at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, far from the Broadway he had loved.  In 1972 he died of cancer; his funeral was attended by one person, his surviving daughter.  Indeed, nothing recedes like success.

The Stork Club

Sherman Billingsley, November 1944.
Billingsley in the Cub Room, 1944.
Would he have let you in?
     The famous Stork Club was owned and operated by Sherman Billingsley (1896-1966), a native of Oklahoma where, before establishing himself in New York, he served fifteen months for selling illegal booze.  In 1929 the ex-bootlegger with gangster connections opened the Stork Club as a speakeasy on West 58th Street.  How Billingsley came up with the name is a mystery, since he later had no recollection of it.  His gangster involvement is said to have led to his kidnapping and the murder of the rival mobster responsible, following which Billingsley bought out his gangster partners and began to operate a bit more respectably ... and safely.  The first club was closed by the authorities in 1931, after which he moved it to East 51st Street and then, in 1934, after the repeal of Prohibition, to its final location at 3 East 53rd Street, where it became the famous Stork Club of cafe society history.  Walter Winchell was an early regular, proclaiming it "New York's New Yorkiest place," and his column brought many patrons flocking, as did Ethel Merman, with whom Billingsley had an affair, and who brought in the theater crowd.  In gratitude, a waiter was assigned to her just to light her cigarettes.

     Soon, movie stars and other celebrities, the wealthy and the notorious, show girls and politicians and playboys, and an assortment of international riffraff were mingling there and being reported on by Winchell and other columnists.  It was the meeting place of power, money, and glamour, but also of people watching people, celebrities being watched by non-celebrities.

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     If it was hard to gain entrance to the main dining room, it was even harder to access the inner inner sanctum of the Cub Room, reserved exclusively for recognized celebrities who could party there unannoyed by fans.  Seated at Table 1 in a plain or pinstriped suit with a flashy tie and a welcoming grin, Billingsley, his receding dark hair neatly combed, presided carefully, using hand gestures to indicate to the staff who deserved attention, who deserved special attention, who deserved little attention at all, and who should be got rid of as soon as possible.  This was where Winchell held forth at Table 50, summoning the rich and famous for brief interviews where he gleaned useful tidbits of gossip.  Among the guests over the years were Lucille Ball, Tallulah Bankhead, Charlie Chaplin, Frank Sinatra, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Judy Garland, Ronald Reagan, the young Kennedy brothers, Ernest Hemingway, Orson Welles, Grace Kelley, and a good friend of the owner named J. Edgar Hoover.  A house photographer recorded their presence and rushed his photos to the tabloids.  But not every big name got in.  Among those banned from the premises were Humphrey Bogart and Jackie Gleason, exclusion from its hallowed precincts being also a distinction of sorts.

     But Billingsley wanted more than just celebrities; he wanted everyone.  
His uniformed doorman with a solid 14-karat gold chain at the entrance was the gatekeeper to elysium, allowing a few of the hoi polloi in as well: a college boy and his date, a Chicago businessman with his wife (or girlfriend), a stray tourist from just about anywhere.  These lucky few paid handsomely for the privilege of having dinner and dancing to one of the club's three bands, and then going home to tell friends that -- miracle of miracles! -- they had been admitted to the Stork Club, as proof of which they might display a stolen ashtray.  It was better than winning a lottery, and all their friends could then dream of going themselves to New York and maybe, just maybe, getting past the gold chain barring entrance to the Stork Club.

     How did Billingsley keep the big names coming?  Through extravagant gifts: diamond- and ruby-studded compacts, champagne and other liquors, French perfumes, flashy ties, even automobiles.  Often the gifts were made specially for the Stork Club and bore the club's name and logo.  Also, at Christmas the regular patrons received a case of champagne.  Nor was it a bad place to work for the staff.  A bartender received a new Cadillac from a grateful customer, and a headwaiter a $10,000 tip from a tennis star.

     The Stork Club's golden years did not last forever.  The times of trouble began in 1951, with Josephine Baker's charges of racism following an incident that has been variously reported.  Whatever the truth of the incident, Billingsley harbored certain Wasp prejudices, was leery of blacks, Jews, the Irish and Italians.  In 1956 the club lost money for the first time, and in 1957 the unions tried again to organize the club, having already organized the city's other well-known clubs.  Billingsley resisted, and many employees joined a picket line outside that continued until the day the club closed.  This situation cost the club many patrons who refused to cross a picket line, and business steadily declined.  Billingsley grew more remote and paranoid, fired staff arbitrarily, alienated even his friends, and impoverished himself spending large sums to keep the club open.  Finally the last band was dismissed, replaced by recorded music playing for a dwindling clientele.  When, in 1963, the Stork Club advertised a hamburger and french fries for $1.99 in the New York Times, it was clear to all that the end was near. The club closed in 1965, and one year later Billingsley died of a heart attack.

     A television show bearing the club's name and hosted by Billingsley had run from 1950 to 1955, and the club appeared in several movies, including All About Eve (1950), where Bette Davis and other characters are seen in the exclusive Cub Room.  There was even a television drama entitled Murder at the Stork Club, likewise aired in 1950, with Billingsley playing a small part in it.  All of which shows the club's prestige in its heyday.

     Me and the Stork Club:  Once, just once, I set foot in the legendary Stork Club.  I was in midtown with some fellow graduate students when my friend Ken (yes, him again, so knowledgeable about the elite and their haunts) suggested that we have a drink at the Stork Club bar, which was open to the hoi polloi.  So we went.  There, so close to the inner sanctum frequented by celebrities and moneyed out-of-towners, and the inner inner sanctum of the Cub Room where the elite could revel undisturbed, we knew ourselves to be on the fringe of grandeur, on the very threshold of forbidden pleasures.  But I knew as well at a glance that the East Siders crowding round the bar were different from the West Siders that I had encountered in and around Columbia.  They were better dressed, but also more exclusive, not to say snobbish.  They gave us a glance or two, for we were unknown to them and they couldn't figure us out.  This delighted me, though we were really of no significance to them.  Still, there I was at the Stork Club!

     Thanks to Ken I also set foot in the Latin Quarter on Times Square, where we sat at the bar and watched Mae West spin out her familiar quips backed up by a pageant of muscle men.  And thanks to him again, I once found myself sitting at a table in the back of Sardi's on West 44th Street, the theater crowd's hangout, with the singer who had played the executive secretary in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.  And sure enough, people recognized her and came over to congratulate her on her past performance.  Without Ken's urging I would never have stuck my nose in any of these haunts of the elite, for I would always be an outsider there and had no inclination to become, or pretend to be, an insider.  New York is many worlds; one has to sniff out one's own.

     Vivaldi in the subway:  For the last three Wednesday mornings, coming back from the Union Square Greenmarket, I have been astonished to hear Vivaldi in the subway station there.  And not just recorded amplified music, but a real-life violinist playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which I dearly love, with the rest of the orchestra recorded.  And this in a crowded, noisy station.  Most people hurry past, a few stop momentarily, and I now linger, watching as she deftly manipulates her instrument, completely absorbed in what she is doing.  Last Wednesday I took her card and, when she finished “Autumn,” asked if I could mention her in my blog; she said she would be delighted.  She is Susan Keser, a concert violinist, with a website: And she’s good!  Vivaldi in the subway: one more example of what makes New York New York, and why, with all its faults, I love it.

     Blog to be published:  I’ve just signed a contract with Brown & Sons, a new small press, for the publication of a segment of this blog (length at this point undetermined).  There will be both a print version and an e-book, with emphasis on text; illustrations will be limited.  I’ll post updates as publication nears; it will take some time.

©  2013  Clifford Browder

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