Barbara Jill Walters (September 25, 1929 – December 30, 2022)

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Barbara Jill Walters (September 25, 1929 – December 30, 2022) was an American broadcast journalist and television personality.[1][2] Known for her interviewing ability and popularity with viewers, Walters appeared as a host of numerous television programs, including TodayThe View20/20, and the ABC Evening News. Walters was a working journalist from 1951 until her retirement in 2015.[3][4][5]

Walters began her career on The Today Show in the early 1960s as a writer and segment producer of women’s interest stories. Her popularity with viewers resulted in Walters receiving more airtime, and in 1974, she became co-host of the program, the first woman to hold such a title on an American news program.[6][7][8] In 1976, she continued to be a pioneer for women in broadcasting by becoming the first female co-anchor of a network evening news program, alongside Harry Reasoner on the ABC Evening News. From 1979 to 2004, Walters worked as a producer and co-host on the ABC newsmagazine 20/20. She also became known for an annual special aired on ABC, Barbara Walters’ 10 Most Fascinating People. Walters interviewed every sitting U.S. president and first lady from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama.[9] She also interviewed both Donald Trump and Joe Biden, though not as presidents.

Walters created, produced, and co-hosted the ABC daytime talk show The View, on which she appeared from 1997 until her retirement in 2014.[10] Thereafter, she continued to host a number of special reports for 20/20 as well as documentary series for Investigation Discovery. Her final on-air appearance for ABC News was in 2015.[11][12][13][14][15]

Walters was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1989, and in 2007 received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2000, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Contents

Early life

Barbara Walters was born in 1929[16] (although she claimed 1931 in an on-camera interview)[17] in Boston, Massachusetts, to Dena (née Seletsky) and Lou Walters (born Louis Abraham Warmwater).[18][19] Her parents were both Jewish,[20] and descendants of refugees from the former Russian Empire.[21] Walters’s paternal grandfather, Abraham Isaac Warmwater, was born in Łódź, Poland, and emigrated to the United Kingdom, changing his name to Abraham Walters (the original family surname was Waremwasser).[22] Walters’s father, Lou, was born in London in 1898 and moved to New York with his father and two brothers, arriving August 28, 1909. His mother and four sisters arrived in 1910.[23] During her childhood her father managed the Latin Quarter nightclub. This club was owned in partnership with E. M. Loew and was initially located in Boston. In 1942, her father opened the New York version of the Latin Quarter. He also worked as a Broadway producer where he produced the Ziegfeld Follies of 1943.[24][25] He also was the Entertainment Director for the Tropicana Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he imported the “Folies Bergère” stage show from Paris to the resort’s main showroom.[26] Walters’s brother, Burton, died in 1944 of pneumonia.[27] Walters’s elder sister, Jacqueline, was born mentally disabled and died of ovarian cancer in 1985.[28]

According to Walters, her father made and lost several fortunes throughout his life in show business. He was a booking agent, and unlike her uncles who were in the shoe and dress business, his job was not very safe. During the good times, Walters recalls her father taking her to the rehearsals of the nightclub shows he directed and produced. The actresses and dancers would make a huge fuss over her and twirl her around until she was dizzy. Then she said her father would take her out for hot dogs, their favorite.[29]

According to Walters being surrounded by celebrities when she was young kept her from being “in awe” of them.[30] When she was a young woman, Walters’s father lost his night clubs and the family’s penthouse on Central Park West. As Walters recalled, “He had a breakdown. He went down to live in our house in Florida, and then the government took the house, and they took the car, and they took the furniture.” Of her mother, she said, “My mother should have married the way her friends did, to a man who was a doctor or who was in the dress business.”[31] During her childhood in Miami, Walters briefly lived with the mobster Bill Dwyer.[32]

Walters attended Lawrence School, a public school in Brookline, Massachusetts, to the middle of fifth grade, when her father moved the family to Miami Beach in 1939, where she also attended public school. After her father moved the family to New York City, she went to eighth grade at Ethical Culture Fieldston School, after which the family moved back to Miami Beach. Then, she went back to New York City, where she attended Birch Wathen School,[33][34] graduating in 1947. In 1951, she completed her Bachelor of Arts in English from Sarah Lawrence College.[35] After about a year working at a small advertising agency in New York City, she began working at the NBC network affiliate, WNBT-TV (now WNBC), doing publicity and writing press releases. She began producing a 15-minute children’s program, Ask the Camera, directed by Roone Arledge in 1953. She began producing for TV host Igor Cassini (Cholly Knickerbocker). However she left the network after her boss pressured her to marry him and engaged in a fistfight with a man she preferred to date. Then she went to WPIX to produce the Eloise McElhone Show; it was canceled in 1954.[36] She became a writer on The Morning Show at CBS in 1955.[37]

Career

The Today Show

Gene Shalit, Walters, and Frank McGee on The Today Show, 1973

After a few years as a publicist with Tex McCrary Inc. and a job as a writer at Redbook magazine, Walters joined NBC‘s The Today Show as a writer and researcher in 1961.[38] She moved up becoming the show’s regular “Today Girl,” handling lighter assignments and the weather. In her autobiography, she describes this era before the Women’s Movement as a time when it was believed that nobody would take a woman seriously reporting “hard news.” Previous “Today Girls” (whom Walters called “tea pourers”) included Florence HendersonHelen O’ConnellEstelle Parsons and Lee Meriwether.[39] Within a year, she had become a reporter-at-large developing, writing, and editing her own reports and interviews. One very well-received film segment was “A Day in the Life of a Novice Nun,” edited by then-first assistant film editor Donald Swerdlow (now Don Canaan), who was subsequently promoted to become a full film editor at NBC News.[40][full citation needed] She had a great relationship with host Hugh Downs for years. When Frank McGee was named host, he refused to do joint interviews with Walters unless he was given the first three questions. She was not named co-host of the show until McGee’s death in 1974 when NBC officially designated Walters as the program’s first female co-host. Beginning in 1971, she also hosted her own local NBC affiliate show, Not for Women Only, which ran in the mornings after The Today Show.[41][42]

Walters in her office, as photographed by Lynn Gilbert in 1979

ABC Evening News and 20/20

Walters and Harry Reasoner co-anchored the ABC Evening News from 1976 to 1978. Reasoner had a difficult relationship with Walters because he disliked having a co-anchor, even though he worked with former CBS colleague Howard K. Smith nightly on ABC for several years. Walters said that the tension between the two was because Reasoner did not want to work with a co-anchor and also because he was unhappy at ABC, not because he disliked Walters personally. [43] In 1981, five years after the start of their short-lived ABC partnership and well after Reasoner returned to CBS News, Walters and her former co-anchor had a memorable (and cordial) 20/20 interview on the occasion of Reasoner’s new book release.[44]

In 1979, Walters reunited with former The Today Show host Downs on the ABC newsmagazine 20/20.[45] Throughout her career at ABC, Walters appeared on ABC news specials as a commentator, including presidential inaugurations and the coverage of the September 11 attacks. She was also chosen to be the moderator for the third and final debate between candidates Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, held on the campus of the College of William and Mary at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall in Williamsburg, Virginia, during the 1976 presidential election.[46] In 1984, she moderated a presidential debate held at the Dana Center for the Humanities at Saint Anselm College in Goffstown, New Hampshire.[47]

Interviews

Walters interviewing President Gerald Ford and Betty Ford in 1976

Walters was known for “personality journalism” and her “scoop” interviews.[40][full citation needed] In November 1977, she landed a joint interview with Egypt’s president, Anwar Al Sadat, and Israel’s Prime Minister, Menachem Begin. According to The New York Times, when she went mano a mano with Walter Cronkite to interview both world leaders, at the end of Cronkite’s interview, he is heard saying: “Did Barbara get anything I didn’t get?”[48] Her interviews with world leaders from all walks of life are a chronicle of the latter part of the 20th century.[40][full citation needed] They include the Shah of IranMohammad Reza Pahlavi, and his wife, the Empress Farah Pahlavi; Russia’s Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin; China’s Jiang Zemin; the UK’s Margaret Thatcher; Cuba’s Fidel Castro, as well as India’s Indira Gandhi, Czechoslovakia’s Václav Havel, Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi, King Hussein of Jordan, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, among many others. Other interviews with influential people include pop icon Michael Jackson, actress Katharine HepburnVogue editor Anna Wintour, and in 1980 Sir Laurence Olivier. Walters considered Robert Smithdas, a deaf-blind man who spent his life improving the lives of other individuals who are deaf-blind, as her most inspirational interview.

Walters was widely lampooned for asking actress Katharine Hepburn, “If you were a tree, what kind would you be?” On the last 20/20 television episode in which she appears, Walters showed a video of the Hepburn interview, showing the actress saying that she felt like a strong tree in her old age. Walters followed up with the question, “What kind of a tree?”, and Hepburn responded “an oak” because they don’t get Dutch elm disease.[49] According to Walters for years Hepburn refused her requests for an interview. When Hepburn finally agreed to one she said she wanted to meet Walters first. Walters walked in all smiles and ready to please, while Hepburn was at the top of the stairs and barked, “You’re late. Have you brought me chocolates?”

Walters hadn’t but said she never showed up without them from then on. They had several other meetings later, mostly in Hepburn’s living room where she would give Walters her opinions. These included that careers and marriage did not mix as well as her feelings that children and careers were out of the question as a combination. Walters said Hepburn’s opinions stuck with her so much, she could repeat them almost verbatim from that point onward.[29]

Her television special about Cuban leader Fidel Castro aired on ABC-TV on June 9, 1977. Although the footage of her two days of interviewing Castro in Cuba showed his personality, in part, as freewheeling, charming, and humorous,[50] she pointedly said to him, “You allow no dissent. Your newspapers, radio, television, motion pictures are under state control.” To this, he replied, “Barbara, our concept of freedom of the press is not yours. If you asked us if a newspaper could appear here against socialism, I can say honestly no, it cannot appear. It would not be allowed by the party, the government, or the people. In that sense we do not have the freedom of the press that you possess in the U.S. And we are very satisfied about that.”[51] She concluded the broadcast saying, “What we disagreed on most profoundly is the meaning of freedom—and that is what truly separates us.”[52] At the time, Walters kept quiet about seeing New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, pitcher Whitey Ford, and several coaches in Cuba who were there to assist Cuban ballplayers.[53]

On March 3, 1999, her interview with Monica Lewinsky was seen by a record 74 million viewers, the highest rating ever for a news program.[54] Walters asked Lewinsky, “What will you tell your children when you have them?” Lewinsky replied, “Mommy made a big mistake,” at which point Walters brought the program to a dramatic conclusion, turning to the viewers and saying, “And that is the understatement of the year.”[55]

The View

Main article: The View (talk show)

The View‘s panel (left-right Whoopi Goldberg, Walters, Joy BeharSherri Shepherd and Elisabeth Hasselbeck) interview United States President Barack Obama on July 29, 2010

Walters was a co-host of the daytime talk show The View, of which she also was co-creator and co-executive producer with her business partner, Bill Geddie. It premiered on August 11, 1997.[56]

In the original opening credits Walters said the show is a forum for women of “different generations, backgrounds, and views.” “Be careful what you wish for…” was part of the opening credits of its second season. On The View, she won Daytime Emmy Awards for Best Talk Show in 2003 and Best Talk Show Host (with longtime host Joy Behar, moderator Whoopi GoldbergElisabeth Hasselbeck, and Sherri Shepherd) in 2009.

Walters retired from being a co-host on May 15, 2014. Although retired, Walters returned as a guest co-host on an intermittent basis throughout 2014 and 2015.

Retirement

After leaving her role as 20/20 co-host in 2004, Walters remained a part-time contributor of special programming and interviews for ABC News until 2016. On March 7, 2010, Walters announced that she would no longer hold Oscar interviews, but will still be working with ABC and on The View.[57]

On March 28, 2013, numerous media outlets reported that Walters would retire in May 2014 and that she would make the announcement on the show four days later.[58][59][60][61] However, on the April 1 episode, Walters neither confirmed nor denied the retirement rumors; she said “if and when I might have an announcement to make, I will do it on this program, I promise, and the paparazzi guys—you will be the last to know”.[62][63] Walters confirmed six weeks later that she would be retiring from television hosting and interviewing in May 2014, as originally reported; she made the official announcement on the May 13, 2013, episode of The View while also announcing that she will continue as the show’s executive producer for as long as it’s on the air.[64][65][66][67][68]

On June 10, 2014, it was announced that she would be “coming out of retirement” to do a special 20/20 interview with Peter Rodger, the father of the perpetrator of the 2014 Isla Vista killings, Elliot Rodger.[12][69] In 2015, Walters hosted special 20/20 episodes featuring interviews with Mary Kay Letourneau[11] and Donald and Melania Trump.[13] In 2015, Walters hosted the documentary series American Scandals on Investigation Discovery.[14]

Walters continued to host her 10 Most Fascinating People series on ABC in 2014[70] and 2015.[15] Her last on-air interview was with Donald Trump for ABC News in December 2015,[71] and she made her final public appearance in 2016.[72][73]

Personal life

Walters was married four times to three different men. Her first husband was Robert Henry Katz, a business executive, and former Navy lieutenant. They married on June 20, 1955, at The Plaza Hotel in New York City.[1][74] The marriage was reportedly annulled after eleven months,[75] in 1957.[76] Her second husband was Lee Guber, theatrical producer and theater owner. They married on December 8, 1963, and divorced in 1976. After Walters had three miscarriages, the couple adopted a baby girl named Jacqueline Dena Guber (born in 1968, adopted the same year).[77] Her third husband was Merv Adelson, the CEO of Lorimar Television. They married in 1981 and divorced in 1984. They remarried in 1986 and divorced for the second time in 1992.[78]

Walters dated lawyer[79][80] Roy Cohn in college; he said that he proposed marriage to Walters the night before her wedding to Lee Guber, but Walters denied this.[27] She explained her lifelong devotion to Cohn as gratitude for his help in her adoption of her daughter, Jacqueline.[81] In her autobiography, Walters says she also felt grateful to Cohn because of his legal assistance to her father. According to Walters, her father was the subject of an arrest warrant for “failure to appear” after he failed to show up for a New York court date because the family was in Las Vegas, and Cohn was able to have the charge dismissed.[82] Walters testified as a character witness at Cohn’s 1986 disbarment trial.[83]

Walters dated future U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan in the 1970s[84] and was linked romantically to United States Senator John Warner in the 1990s.[85]

In Walters’s autobiography Audition, she wrote that she had an affair in the 1970s with Edward Brooke, then a married United States Senator from Massachusetts. It is not clear whether Walters also was married at the time. Walters said they ended the affair to protect their careers from scandal.[86] In 2007 she dated Pulitzer Prize–winning gerontologist Robert Neil Butler.[87]

Walters was close friends with Tom BrokawWoody Allen, and Joan Rivers as well with former Fox News head Roger Ailes from the late 1960s until he died in 2017.[88]

In 2013, Walters said she regretted not having more children.[89][90]

Health and death

In May 2010, Walters said she would be having open heart surgery to replace a faulty aortic valve. She had known for quite a while that she was suffering from aortic valve stenosis, even though she was symptom-free. The procedure to fix the faulty heart valve “went well, and the doctors are very pleased with the outcome,” Walters’s spokeswoman, Cindi Berger, said four days later.[91] Walters returned to The View and her Sirius XM satellite show, Here’s Barbara, in September 2010.[92][93] Walters retired permanently from both shows four years later.[94]

Walters died at her home in Manhattan on December 30, 2022, at the age of 93.[95][96]

Legacy and awards

Walters in 2007

Walters was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1989.[38] On June 15, 2007, Walters received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.[97] She won Daytime and Prime Time Emmy Awards, a Women in Film Lucy Award, and a GLAAD Excellence in Media award.

In 2008, Walters was honored with the Disney Legends award, given to those who made an outstanding contribution to The Walt Disney Company, which owns the network ABC. That same year, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the New York Women’s Agenda. On September 21, 2009, Walters was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 30th Annual News and Documentary Emmy Awards at New York City’s Lincoln Center.[98]

Walters’ status as a prominent figure in popular culture was reflected by Gilda Radner‘s gentle parody of her as “Baba Wawa” on Saturday Night Live in the late 1970s,[99] featuring Walters’ distinctive speech with its rounded “R”. Her name appeared in the January 23, 1995 New York Times Monday Crossword Puzzle.[100]

Awards and nominations

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Daytime Emmy Awards

  • 1975 Award for Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Talk Show Host (Today)
  • 1998 Nomination for Best Talk Show (The View)
  • 1998 Nomination for Best Talk Show Host (The View)
  • 1999 Nomination for Best Talk Show (The View)
  • 1999 Nomination for Best Talk Show Host (The View)
  • 2000 Nomination for Best Talk Show (The View)
  • 2000 Nomination for Best Talk Show Host (The View)
  • 2001 Nomination for Best Talk Show (The View)
  • 2001 Nomination for Best Talk Show Host (The View)
  • 2002 Nomination for Best Talk Show (The View)
  • 2002 Nomination for Best Talk Show Host (The View)
  • 2003 Award for Best Talk Show (The View)
  • 2003 Nomination for Best Talk Show Host (The View)
  • 2006 Nomination for Best Talk Show (The View)
  • 2006 Nomination for Best Talk Show Host (The View)
  • 2007 Nomination for Best Talk Show (The View)
  • 2007 Nomination for Best Talk Show Host (The View)
  • 2008 Nomination for Best Talk Show (The View)
  • 2008 Nomination for Best Talk Show Host (The View)
  • 2009 Award for Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Talk Show Host (The View) (with Whoopi Goldberg, Joy Behar, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, and Sherri Shepherd)
  • 2010 Nomination for Best Talk Show Host (The View)

NAACP Image Award

  • 2009 Award for Best Talk Series (The View)
  • 2010 Nomination for Best Talk Series

Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Award

  • 1998 Lucy Award in recognition of her excellence and innovation in her creative works that have enhanced the perception of women through the medium of television.[102]

Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement[103]

Walters at the Metropolitan Opera in 2008

Bibliography

In the late 1960s, Walters wrote a magazin

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