Book Review | Audition

Distinguished storyteller Barbara Walters tells her story

Barbara Walters pushed her way into the competitive field of TV news more than 45 years ago and decided she wanted to stay.

New York Times

Barbara Walters pushed her way into the competitive field of TV news more than 45 years ago and decided she wanted to stay.

Even before Barbara Walters' long-awaited memoir Audition hit the bookstores, some of her spicier revelations were making news, and Internet bloggers were having a field day at her expense.

What caused the biggest stir was her confession that she had had an affair in the 1970s with Edward Brooke, a black, married Republican senator from Massachusetts. On its blog, New York magazine wrote that her confession was old news, pronounced her a "diva," and ran several reader responses. One called Walters "an egotistic nymphocoop,' " while another dismissed her and her book as "trash."

But love her or hate her, Walters has established herself as the most successful woman in the history of television journalism. She has been reporting — and making — news for more than 45 years, and at age 76 shows no sign of slowing down.

Her career began in the 1960s when she was one of the few women in TV news and had to work twice as hard as her male counterparts to get recognized. "And that's where I got the reputation of being ambitious and aggressive, the pushy cookie," she writes.

All that pushing has paid off, as Walters makes clear in this sometimes irritating but always engrossing book, full of surprising details about her difficult childhood, unsuccessful marriages, affairs with rich and famous men, acrimonious relationships with co-anchors Frank McGee and Harry Reasoner, and interviews with movers and shakers.

Looking back now, "I realize I was never young," Walters writes. She became her mother's confidante, and later, after her father's business failures led to a suicide attempt in 1958, the sole financial provider for the family.

Television news is a dog-eat-dog world, and it was particularly so for women in the '60s. Walters writes about her struggle to be taken seriously by McGee, who replaced Hugh Downs as her co-host on the Today Show, made twice her salary and called her contributions "girlie interviews."

Later, when ABC hired her to be the first woman co-anchoring a prime-time news program, she would face the same resentment from Reasoner. The program was a flop and got a lot of negative press, much of it aimed at her. But she got a telegram from a man she'd never met that cheered her up for days: "Don't let the bastards get you down." It was signed "John Wayne." (There's a photo in the book of Walters and Wayne on his yacht, Wild Goose, where she interviewed him in 1979.)

A special touch

The job at ABC paid her $1-million a year and included producing four one-hour specials a year featuring a mix of newsmakers and celebrities. The Barbara Walters Special shows kept her "from being considered a total disaster," she writes. She started doing them at NBC in the '60s, continued them at ABC, and is still doing them today, nearly four decades later.

Of all the presidents she interviewed, she knew George H.W. Bush best "on a personal level," she writes. She interviewed him for Today, occasionally had dinner with him during his years as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and "liked him a lot. He was smart, experienced and had a sense of humor."

She liked Lyndon Johnson, who called her at her office on her 40th birthday after she had celebrated it on the Today Show and told her she was "an inspiration to women all over America." As for Bill Clinton, she says, "I never experienced his renowned sex appeal. He never sparkled with me," adding that Hillary Clinton "is the most interesting member of that family."

Interwoven throughout the book is the story of her three marriages. The longest (eight years) was to theatrical producer Lee Guber in 1963, with whom, after three miscarriages, she adopted a baby. Between marriages she dated some of the country's most eligible bachelors, including investment banker Alan Greenberg, former Ford White House economic adviser Alan Greenspan and Sen. John Warner, whom she would later interview with his wife, Elizabeth Taylor.

Walters' most surprising confession is about Brooke, whom she calls "the most attractive, sexiest, funniest, charming, and impossible man." Brooke asked his wife for a divorce, Walters writes, but the wife was furious, hired detectives and contacted the National Enquirer. Walters and Brooke were afraid news of the affair would ruin their careers and reluctantly ended their relationship.

The first part of the book covers her early years growing up in a home where "conditions were difficult." Walters' father was a nightclub booking agent who made and lost several fortunes, and the family moved frequently. Her mentally retarded older sister, Jackie, lived at home, which added to what Walters calls her parents' "often tortuous relationship."

A wealth of stories

Writing this book, Walters says, she was determined to hold nothing back, and that's one of the minor irritations. Her attempts to be amusing sometimes fall flat, as when she writes in parenthesis, following a long listing of relatives, "Don't worry, there won't be a quiz." And some readers may grind their teeth when reading (and perhaps remembering) how she once ended an interview with President-elect Jimmy Carter: "Be wise with us, Governor. Be good to us."

That said, Walters tells some wonderful stories. She has been a role model for an untold number of young women in and out of journalism, and she may now be inspiring older people with her latest venture: a weekly live program on Sirius satellite radio discussing topics of the day with Bill Geddie, who produces her TV specials.

"I don't need to put on makeup or get my hair done for Sirius," she concludes, "and I expect to be doing radio until my dotage."

Elizabeth Bennett is a freelance writer in Houston.

.Book Review

Audition:
A Memoir

By Barbara Walters

Knopf, 612 pages, $29.95

Distinguished storyteller Barbara Walters tells her story 05/12/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 13, 2008 11:30am]

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