Barbara Walters, who is retiring after 50 years in television today, has had the kind of career that sends writers to their thesauruses, scrabbling around to find another synonym for "legendary" or "pioneering" or "iconic." The scope of her professional life is nearly impossible to sum up coherently. But let's try.
Television news looks the way it does today in large part because of her. She was one of the first people to so fully fuse journalism and celebrity, often looming larger in her interviews than the people she was talking to. And, most importantly, women are taken seriously on TV because people like her battled their way through a deeply sexist world. Walters was the first, and, because she triumphed, there will never be another like her.
Walters herself certainly never intended to make it in television, though she was born into a showbiz family. Her father, Lou, was a nightclub owner who, after several failures, finally managed to open a successful club called the Latin Quarter. Walters' mother was a housewife, and she had a sister, Jackie, who was mentally disabled. (She would later name her adopted daughter Jackie.)
After college, Walters managed to finagle a job at a local NBC station as a PR staffer, before being made a producer. She told an interviewer in 2000 that her first appearance on television came when a model dropped out and she had to fill in during a swimsuit demonstration.
Her career had one of its many strokes of luck when the sole female writer on "Today" left the show. (The thought of having more than one woman writer was anathema.) Walters was hired in her place in 1961, gradually moving to a more prominent on-camera reporting role. She did a segment dressed as a Playboy Bunny, among other things.
She joined the hosting crew on "Today" in 1964, when then-"Today Girl" (for that is what the female hosts on the show were called) Maureen O'Sullivan was deemed incapable of handling political material. From then on, Walters' fame soared.
None other than Gloria Steinem paid tribute to her in 1965: "The shift from the old 'Today Girl'—who was usually a coffee-server and amiable lightweight—to Barbara Walters is the television industry's change of attitude in microcosm."
Not everything had changed, though; the Boston Globe could still get away with calling her "the longest-running girl interviewer and story-getter the 'Today' show has ever had" in 1968. (She was 39.) For the majority of her time on "Today," Walters wasn't even called a co-host of the program; in the early 70s, the New York Times referred to her as "a prominent if supportive member of the 'Today' cast." But it also noted that she was "the only woman in television to occupy such an exalted position on a regular network program of news and commentary."
Her stature grew as the decade progressed, and by 1974, she became the first female co-host on "Today." She stayed until 1976, having interviewed everyone from Henry Kissinger to Judy Garland:
She also did something no "Today" anchor would ever do now (at least, not so blatantly): commercials.
If she had quit in 1976, Walters' status as a television superstar would have been secure. She reigned supreme at "Today," and had already interviewed an eye-popping gallery of people.
And, of course, she had been immortalized in pop culture fame by Gilda Radner's "Baba Wawa" impersonation on "Saturday Night Live." Walters initially hated the mockery, but came around eventually:
But Walters' notoriety increased immensely when ABC poached her for the then-stunning salary of $1 million a year to co-host the "ABC Evening News" with Harry Reasoner, who made it clear that he'd rather keep hosting the show by himself. He also sniffily opined that a female network news anchor "may well be an idea whose time has come."
Walters instantly became the highest-paid journalist on television — ever. The salary, and her past on the fluffy "Today," caused an outbreak of scandalized tut-tutting in the press: was this the news industry's surrender to the world of Hollywood? (Given the fact that anchors today routinely earn anywhere between 10 and 20 million dollars, the shock seems a little quaint.)
Walter Cronkite publicly said that he had initially found Walters' salary "sickening," adding, "Her background is not what I'd called well-rounded, but who is to say that there is only one route to a career in journalism?"
But there was also excitement; Time magazine called the hiring "the furthest advance of the women's movement in television."
The pairing, however, was a legendary disaster. "They would all sit and talk about how terrible I was," Walters told an interviewer decades later.
Watching this clip from Election Night in 1976, the mismatch is clear. Walters and Reasoner might as well be in two different rooms.
Within two years, Walters left nightly news, never to return. That medium was probably too confining for her, anyway. She instead concentrated on the thing that had made her famous: interviews. They poured forth, a never-ending gallery of the iconic and the fleetingly famous. On "20/20," in her "Barbara Walters Specials," her "Most Fascinating People" episodes, and on and on, she spoke to seemingly everyone who ever reached any place of even the most minor prominence in public life. . Walters was an infamously tough competitor who based a huge portion of her reputation on her ability to secure the big "get" of the day. Her style—not too soft, not too hard—proved just the ticket, and her batting average was fearsomely high.
A few interviews have inevitably been selected by general consensus as standouts. For instance, Fidel Castro sat down with her, twice.
And she famously got Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin to do a joint interview with her. It was seen as a momentous occasion; she beat Cronkite's own interview with the two men to the punch by mere moments. As she recounted in her memoir, Cronkite could be heard saying to Sadat and Begin, "Did Barbara get anything I didn't get?" She always said it was the interview she was proudest of.
Then, of course, there was her interview with Monica Lewinsky—the highest-rated interview in TV history. Its opening question is perhaps the ultimate distillation of the Walters technique: "You have been described as a bimbo, a stalker, a seductress. Describe yourself." Not too soft, but not too hard. She has asked a version of the same question to many, many people, always finishing by asking them to give their side of their story.
Her scores of interviews with entertainers, her unapologetic embrace of many of them—"Frankly, I'm crazy about Dolly Parton!"—and her uncanny ability to get them to cry drew inevitable brow-furrowing and accusations that she went for the emotional angle over the more substantive one. She developed a standard sort of response—one that noted the often gendered aspects of these critiques.
"No one questions Mike Wallace when he does [Barbra] Streisand and then does a very serious interview with Colin Powell," she said once.
She did, however, admit that her question to Katharine Hepburn about the tree was probably an error.
Walters also drew fire for her unabashedly insider approach to journalism. She moved in very powerful circles, and never hid her closeness to some of the people she covered, as this passage from her memoirs about a dinner party she threw in the late 70s makes clear:
Among the guests were Katharine Graham, Ben Bradlee, and Sally Quinn; the humorist Art Buchwald; President Carter’s close adviser Hamilton Jordan; Carter’s press secretary, Jody Powell; Carter’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski; the outgoing secretary of state, Henry Kissinger; and my old friend Bill Safire, by then a columnist at the New York Times. I also asked Sam Donaldson, our incomparable White House correspondent, Peter Jennings, and about thirty others.
Sometimes, these associations have gotten her into trouble; in 2012, she was forced to apologize after it was revealed that she had attempted to secure a place at Columbia University for an aide to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, whom she had interviewed months earlier.
Much of the criticism of Walters has died down, though, if only because everyone else raced to do the kinds of things she was doing. These days, nobody bats an eye when journalists flit between hard and soft news, or show up on entertainment programs, or get paid millions of dollars for their work.
Not that Walters rested on her laurels. When many others would have long since packed it in, Walters launched "The View," a show that spawned a host of imitators, became something of a political powerhouse and kept her in the cultural eye for nearly another two decades. Oh, and got her talking about things like (eep!) vibrators:
Moreover, she never stopped trying to get the scoop. It is a testament to her nature that, mere days before retirement, she was on a plane to Los Angeles, trying to beat out the competition on the Donald Sterling scandal.
Now, at 84, Walters has decided to step away from the limelight, though she has stressed that she will come back from time to time. While it's uncertain what she'll do with the rest of her life, what is clear is that her career will never be replicated. The media world is too fractured for anyone to hold the spotlight in the way that she did. The audience appetite for in-depth interviews has waned. And the barriers are no longer there to be broken, because she already broke them.