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Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity Hardcover – October 4, 1994


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Amazon.com Review

On our cultural radar screen, politics and celebrity are quickly merging (have merged?) into a single blip. Although this is the definitively postmodern development, it's not without precedent, and perhaps the granddaddy of it all is the subject of this engrossing book: Walter Winchell. By catching the rising star of radio Winchell was able to transform himself from poor boy to media superstar--and he was just as big as the politicians and movie stars he covered. When Winchell broadcast an unbecoming story about an actress, her career was in trouble; when he championed the cause of Joe McCarthy, the country was in trouble. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Inventor of the modern gossip column in the 1920s, pioneer in the mass culture of celebrity and a political opportunist who turned from populism to Red-baiting with the prevailing winds, Walter Winchell (1897-1972) changed 20th-century journalism and society, asserts Gabler (An Empire of Their Own). His thorough biography stylishly tells of Winchell's tortured personal life and high-flying career. Born to Russian-Jewish immigrants in Harlem, Winchell drew on deprivation for his drive, which took him from vaudeville to writing Broadway gossip with a jaunty slang that matched "the syncopated rhythm of the twenties." By the 1930s, he had become a "journalistic entertainer" on radio, on the stage and in movies; he helped establish the new, glamorous cafe society. In 1934, he injected himself into the trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who was eventually convicted of the kidnap-murder of the Lindbergh baby; he became a prominent New Deal supporter and a mouthpiece for the Roosevelt administration. After the war, however, Winchell foundered in both family and professional life; he fought his enemies in public feuds, and proved too hot for the "cool" medium of television. His radio broadcasts ended in 1959; his column, after 38 years of association with Hearst, in 1967. Winchell's legacy, Gabler notes, is today's mania for gossip. Photos. Film option to Martin Scorsese.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 681 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (October 4, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679417516
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679417514
  • Product Dimensions: 2 x 6.8 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #415,668 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 8, 1999
Format: Paperback
Although most of us remember Walter Winchell fo rhis rapid-fire narration for the old "Untouchables" television show, he was much more than that. Neal Gabler chronicles Winchell's career and life, but it's his analysis of Winchell's affect on his times and culture that makes this book transcend routine biography. Winchell's became a powerful voice for a time: businessmen wanted to be his friend, celebrities needed him, and politicians feared him. In fact, most people feared him. But somehow, Winchell created a definition of celebrity that has endured even today. Although he may be forgetton in our conscious memories, Winchell still looms large in our cultural memory. This is a stunning biography of a man who fought hard to get it all and fought equally hard to keep his fame and recognition as lost it in a blaze of self-destructiveness. One of the best books I've read in years.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 30, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a great story of a strange man. Someone who got power, defined the celebrity personal interest story, exploited the influence he developed, thought he was God, and ruined his own life. It is especially compelling reading when it becomes clear that our fascination with famous people and their love lives and personal faults is really whipped up by these media people. It is also great when talking about Lucille Ball and how the public embraced her. When you see Winchell making the fateful mistake when siding with McCarthy, it seems like karma. This is a fantastic book.
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36 of 47 people found the following review helpful By Philip Caudill on May 21, 2005
Format: Paperback
Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity is an historical biography of Walter Winchell, a lower class Russian-American Jewish boy who morphed himself from a teenaged vaudeville performer into a nationally famous gossip columnist and radio personality that helped shape Depression-era and World War II America.

Walter Winchell was born in Harlem on April 7, 1897. As an adult, Winchell recalled an unhappy childhood of poverty, deprivation and neglect, surrounded by people who insulted and reviled him because he was poor. Author Neal Gabler says Winchell's childhood made him antagonistic, suspicious and resentful throughout his life. As an adolescent, he found the attention he craved and the skills he would use later in his career on the vaudeville stage. From vaudeville, Gabler says Winchell learned the values of mass culture and how to appear to be incautiously independent, unselfconscious and liberated. In reality, he was none of these. Gabler maintains "vaudeville made Walter Winchell an entertainer for life and in life."

When he was 12, Winchell taught himself to dance and was hired as a "song plugger" at a decrepit movie theater across from his apartment building. Song pluggers sang new tunes before the movie began, often leading the audience in group singing designed to sell them sheet music. When he was 13, Winchell won an audition with six other boys to fill parts in a show called the "Song Revue" that toured the country for a year on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit. Winchell performed with vaudeville companies and in a two-person act with his first wife, Rita Greene, until he was 23 when he escaped the stage to the poorly paid world of trade journalism as an assistant editor of "The Vaudeville News.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Arnold Ziffle on October 21, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Next time you see an item about Brangelina, Brittany or the Gosselins, you might take a minute to remember Walter Winchell, who all but invented the modern culture of celebrity. Though he is virtually forgotten today, Winchell's column was once syndicated in more than 2000 newspapers daily, and 20 million listeners tuned in every Sunday night for the high-pitched, staccato delivery of his trademark opening: "Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America, from border to border and coast to coast and all the ships at sea. Let's go to press!"

Mr. Gabler deftly traces Winchell's rise from a second-rate vaudeville performer to one of the most famous and powerful men in the country, and his decline which paralleled that of his chosen media, newspapers and radio. By the time of his death in 1972, this man who once had the ear of Presidents was an obscure anachronism: poetic justice perhaps for a man ruthlessly obsessed with his own fame. The book is exhaustive in its coverage of Winchell's long career and tragedy-marred personal life; yet, even at 681 pages, it seldom flags. Mr. Winchell led a very interesting life.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By S. Wollin on February 22, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
If you are looking for a quick "Wikipedia" read of Winchells life, this is not the book for you. Mr. Gabler has dug much deeper than just a recitation of times, places & facts. He regularly goes into details of the lives of the people who lived with, worked with and dealt with Winchell as well as the times they lived in. At first I thought this was a bit much. Then I began to appreciate that this was integral into what made Winchell Winchell. This is an interesting book of a fascinating person.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By reader sam on March 20, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book is an interesting study of a inordinately power driven and self-destructive person in the world of celebrities, suggesting valid psychological insights in the process. I found the parallels and actual connections with J. Edgar Hoover particularly interesting. The material also sheds a thorough and engrossing light on a unigue era of American social history, weaving in many other interesting "characters" in addition to WW - overall, a satisfying and worthwhile read.
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