Barbara Walters Opens Up To Dr. Gail Saltz About Career, Family And Love
Last night, in an interview at New York City’s 92nd Street Y, trailblazing journalist Barbara Walters sat down with psychiatrist and author Gail Saltz, MD, to share her thoughts on her life and career. She spoke candidly about women in the workplace, marriage, her controversial affair with married Senator Edward Brooke, and the highly successful career she began in 1961 and continues to build today.
As the child of a father whom she said attempted suicide and whom she described as a “gambler” and a mother with “a lot on her plate,” Walters said her family’s uncertain financial status led her to seek a serious career: “I always felt I had to work. Women of my generation didn’t have to work but I did, and that made a difference.”
‘There Was A Feeling I Could Cover Other Things’
Walters described the beginning of her career as an accident. “I never thought it was going to happen. I was a writer,” she said. “I wasn’t beautiful. I didn’t sing or dance. Most women on the TODAY show were models and actresses... I didn’t pronounce my Rs...” On that show in 1961, she said, “there were eight writers, seven male one female.” Walters joked, “The only way to get that writing job was if that one woman ‘got married or died -- preferably both.”
The sexism she was initially up against was apparent in a video shown before Walter’s entrance on stage. The film traced the trajectory of her career, going from shots of her in full Playboy bunny getup in what she called “fluffy TODAY show pieces,” to her breakthrough as a hard news reporter and the emotional footage of her covering the funeral of John F. Kennedy, Jr., a moment which Barbara identified as the “first time there was a feeling I could cover other things.”
And what didn’t she cover? After ten years, Walters became the first female co-host on network TV at the TODAY Show, then, with 1967’s “Not for Women Only,” she changed daytime TV, becoming the first female anchor on a major network. She has interviewed every American President and First Lady since Richard Nixon, as well as countless celebrities like Christopher Reeve and Barbara Streisand and other major figures on the world stage, such as the Dalai Llama.
Walters also spoke to the choice women make in order to have successful careers: “I think that there still is this feeling, to some degree, that the successful woman, the ambitious woman, what has she given up?” and added, “I don’t think a career is necessarily the greatest thing in the world. I think you do pay a price.”
Walters recalled working on her birthday, working on New Years Eve, and having to send a producer to interview one of her idols, Nelson Mandela, because she -- echoing the words she used to describe her mother -- “had too much on her plate.”
She said it was difficult on her daughter to have a mother who was always traveling, and admitted that her career has led her to pay a price in her romantic relationships. Walters was married four times to three different men. “Whether I did it deliberately or not, my career came first,” said Walters. “Whether it’s good or bad I don’t think it’s [marriage] as necessary for women who have careers,” adding, “I certainly don’t want to get married now.”
At the end of the day, Walters recognizes, “My life is not like most women’s of my age.” She described her lunches with a dear friend with many children and grandchildren whom she always tells “you are so rich!” before her friend insists, “no, you are so rich!”
The most tense part of the evening came when Dr. Saltz asked Walters point-blank about her affair with married U.S. senator Edward Brooke, the first African-American to be popularly elected to the senate. When asked how it felt to her at the time, Walters replied:
“He was fascinating. It was a dangerous thing to do and he knew it and I knew it and eventually we had to break up ... I think that there would have been a lot of affiliate stations that would not have been very happy with me.”
She was contemplating her move from ABC from NBC at the time.
‘When I Talk About Drive, I Think Of My Women Colleagues’
When asked to identify what lay behind the success of her female peers, Walters said, “When we talk about drive I think of my women colleagues. I think of Diane Sawyer or Katie Couric. We are all driven. I don’t know anyone who works harder than Diane. Where does it come from? Is it ambition? is it insecurity? I don’t think its wanting fame and money.”
Walters touchingly described her worries for her friend Oprah, who is about to embark on a new chapter in her career. In an interview Oprah did with Walters for O Magazine, the talk show host and media mogul asked her: “What do you think about when you think of the things that have been accomplished and the places you have been?” Walters replied: “I wish I had enjoyed it more,” recalling, “Oprah looked at me with tears in her eyes, and she said, ‘I do, too.’” (Oprah talked about her own fear of doing too much in a recent interview with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.)
With so many accomplishments behind her, will Walters be retiring from the air anytime soon? She avoided answering that question directly. “I’ve had such a long career … I couldn’t be more gratified by the kinds of things I do on 'The View,'” she said, but she knows that one day, “I am going to leave television and I will be fine with it.”
“I’ve had a wonderful life,” she said, identifying her legacy in the number of female broadcasters now on television: “There is nothing that a women journalist can’t do now.” And that legacy is a rich one, indeed.
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