Archivist of Gothomania
By Hye Bossin
From the Canadian Jewish Standard, September 1936
New York’s prize piece of human curiosa is Walter Winchell. He climbed over Shaw, Stalin, Hitler, Roosevelt, etc., to top the New York Post’s poll. Suckers stare at him in night clubs instead of the floor show. You are likely to hear his name any place. The alliterative appellation of the Bronx boy who capered across the continent as a fair-to-middlin’ vaudeville hoofer is a byword in the city of big names. Gotham’s Palace theatre was the hoped-for top rung of every Variety toiler. Winchell was thirty-seven and grey as Pike’s Peak when he got there, but he gave the house records an all-time licking.
For him a detour broadened into the road to fame. An incorrigible scribitzer, he tacked his typed trivia on backstage bulletin boards. His comical critiques on thespian behaviourism were stirring — if only trouble. A poke in the eye from an over-serious fellow was his first journalistic highlight. A show weekly put him in print. The Graphic requisitioned him to do it daily. Soon he became head of its drama department. He was jumping from point to higher point as surely as a mountain goat when the Daily Mirror lassoed him. King Features gave him to America, London and Paris. Radio brought him to Canada and Mexico.
He blows hot and cold and when it’s cold — look out! The lame and the halt come in for their share of space. So do the smug and the sure. Walter loves to torpedo the latter breed. St. John Irvine, imported from London as a guest theatre critic, left America as well known for his vagaries as his opinions. His style irked Walter, who printed his day to day contradictions as “Deadly Parallels.” Ethel of the royal Barrymores deigned to comment on the state of journalism in her native land. Winchell, she said, should be shot at dawn. Walter proved over and over again that she had been acting for years — before and after theatre hours. She made peace.
Is usually on sneering terms with some contemporary. Links his flair for word-welding with withering wit and uses the result as a weapon. Russell Crouse became “Sour Crouse” and O. O. McIntyre, “McIntyresome”. Marlen Pew, of Editor and Publisher, kept telling journalism classes that Winchell had too much brass. The brass was turning into gold under public approval, but Pew kept declaring against it with vivid phrases such as “Gangster Journalism”. Walter revealed that the righteous one was no mean libeler himself, having been sued for it several times. He piped down after that.
Always managed to dig up a K.O. from nowhere. The late New York World attacked him editorially for “washing Broadway’s dirty linen in public.” IN rebuttal Walter showed that the paper had sought his services. Rian James of the Eagle was a bit tartarish though. He admitted stealing Winchell’s patterns and struck a So What! stance. What can you do with a guy like that? The Bernie-Winchell running battle is a gag, as you probably know. Ed Sullivan of the News is his present pick-on.
The flying fist contacts him now and again. His pal Jolson gave him one and its impact rang around the country. They made up after the misunderstanding was ironed out. In the subway recently two Nazi proponents whaled into him for his incessant harpooning of Hitler. They were paid off later in the same currency — turnabout being fair play. Banging him around was threatening to grow into a national characteristic. Now a bodyguard stands off the grudge-bearers.
Watching him broadcast is a thrill. As the studio clock moves toward the moment of action the watchers grow still and the tension mounts. Everyone leans forward as though waiting for the switch at an execution. Suddenly he’s away to the clickety-clack of the telegraph. Breathing falls away to a minimum as the verbal fireworks pop into the mike. When he is through there is an after-climax let-down.
Everyone seems to have a bit of news they want to share with him. People are coming to his table constantly to say hello — all kinds from chorus kids to politicians. Suffers from pencilitis, like all jotters. Contrary to general opinion, he gets his domestic items without intrusion. The people involved give him the news first. He’s a newspaperman’s newspaperman. Reporters everywhere mail or wire him the stories considered too hot for type by the boss or the ad department. Night club owners in particular like his sense of fairness. Foisting friends on them or going checkless isn’t in his line.
He brought personal journalism to the cities and a unique school of scribblers grew from it. People are column conscious today. Columnists are harassed by persons with allegedly important or clever things to tell. Winchell is good hunting because over one hundred and thirty papers carry his efforts daily. In his field he is the hare the hounds cannot catch. Creates new column designs and discards them when they become hackneyed from use or imitation. He is still master of his section of the Estate.
Walter’s car contains one of the few auto short-wave sets permitted individuals in New York. Likes to chase police calls to earth in the early hours. We chased around with him a few times. It’s thrilling sport; you get there on the heels of the cops. One near-dawn his car went dead in a remote part of the waterfront. We left it there and jumped a hack. Daylight came as we rolled along.
On Broadway repair men were climbing the huge signs like sailors on rigging. The glitter was gone; now there was only the litter. We were all sleepy but Walter. He was talking brightly of his kiddies. He is house-broken and homey in spite of his professional interest in the domestic defections of others. We dropped off at our hotel and Walter went on to Lindy’s to see who was still around. ♦