Walter Winchell

Walter Winchell

Walter Winchell was born in New York City on 7th April 7, 1897. After leaving school he worked for a vaudeville troupe. It soon became clear that he was not going to be a success in this profession and in 1920 he found work as a journalist for Vaudeville News . Four years later he joined the Evening Graphic .

Winchell's career did not take off until he was recruited by the New York Daily Mirror in 1929, a newspaper owned by William Randolph Hearst. Winchell started a gossip column, entitled On-Broadway. Winchell used his connections to publish confidential information about people in the public eye. His work appeared in nearly 2,000 newspapers and he also did a Sunday radio broadcasts. Combined, they reached 50 million homes. His attorney, Ernest Cuneo, has argued that "when Walter finished broadcasting on Sunday night, he had reached 89 out of 100 adults in the U.S." Bernard Weinraub has pointed out: "From Table 50 at the Stork Club - he never picked up the tab - Winchell held court like a prince, beckoning prizefighters, movie stars, debutantes, royalty and gangsters to his table. He demanded to know what they were doing but talked most of the time himself." Jennet Conant has argued that "Winchell was a powerhouse widely feared because of his penchant for exposing the private lives of important public men - from mistresses and pregnancies to divorces - which gave him plenty of bargaining chips to trade for information about what was going on inside their businesses or agencies."

Ralph D. Gardner, a fellow journalist, has argued: "Feeding the public’s craving for scandal and gossip, he became the most powerful - and feared - journalist of his time.... The columns, written in his own style, were composed of short sentences connected by three dots. Fed by press agents, tipsters, legmen and ghost writers, he possessed the extraordinary ability to make a Broadway show a hit, create overnight celebrities; enhance or destroy a political career. The workaholic Winchell was first to announce big-name marriages and divorces, Hollywood romances, exploits of socialites, international playboys, debutantes, mobsters and chorus girls, plus latest reports of café society antics... He would also give timely plugs to show-biz unknowns or has-beens who were sorely in need of a helping hand. At the same time he savaged any whom he perceived to be his enemies." Winchell was a powerhouse widely feared because of his penchant for exposing the private lives of important public men - from mistresses and pregnancies to divorces - which gave him plenty of bargaining chips to trade for information about what was going on inside their businesses or agencies. The New York Times described Winchell as "the country’s best-known, widely read journalist as well as its most influential."

Winchell, who was Jewish, was one of the first journalists to condemn Adolf Hitler and isolationist groups such as the American First Committee. Winchell argued that "isolation ends where it always ends - with the enemy on our doorstep", and introduced a regular feature called "The Winchell Column vs. the Fifth Column." Later, Ernest Cuneo, who was working with the British Security Coordination (BSC), claimed: "FDR was at war with Hitler long before Chamberlain was forced to declare it. I was eyewitness and indeed, wrote Winchell's stuff on it."

Winchell was a staunch supporter of President Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal throughout the 1930s. He also held strong views on civil rights and frequently attacked the Ku Klux Klan. The author of The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington (2008) has argued: "He had morphed from a Broadway critic to a political commentator who thought nothing of weighing in on domestic and international affairs... A typical Winchell column would contain several dozen separate references to individuals and events, ranging from minor celebrity sightings, along the lines of spotting Marlene Diettrich at the Stork Club, his nightly hangout, to an impassioned denunciation of Nazi sympathizers or some other disreputable homegrown fascists."

Benjamin de Forest Bayly has suggested that William Stephenson, who was head of BSC, was very close to Winchell: "He liked propaganda. And propaganda was really one of the important things he did. He saw to it, before even Pearl Harbor, that the anti-British feeling there was squelched by writers. He got all sorts of people to write things that helped that... Winchell was a man who actually got a reputation for being a very straightforward person, and he did a lot of propaganda work for Bill Stephenson. If Bill could sell him on why the U.S. should do this, and if it did that, then Winchell would be your man."

Winchell became a close friend of J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, in 1938. Curt Gentry, the author of J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets (1991): "Unquestionably each used the other. It was Winchell, more than any other journalist, who sold the G-man image to America; while Hoover, according to Cuneo and others, supplied Winchell with inside information that led to some of his biggest scoops.... In addition to the tips, Hoover often supplied Winchell with an FBI driver when he was travelling; assigned FBI agents as bodyguards whenever the columnist received a death threat, which was often."

In early August 1939 Winchell received a message from a contact that suggested that Louis Lepke Buchalter was willing to surrender to the FBI if a deal was possible. Lepke was unwilling to surrender to New York's district attorney, Thomas Dewey, as he had vowed to execute him. Winchell now made a radio broadcast appealing to Lepke to give himself up: "Attention Public Enemy Number One, Louis 'Lepke' Buchalter! I am authorized by John Edgar Hoover of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to guarantee you safe delivery to the FBI if you surrender to me or to any agent of the FBI. I will repeat: Leapke, I am authorized by John Edgar Hoover."

On 24th August Winchell received another message from Lepke. He phoned J. Edgar Hoover: "My friends, John, have instructed me to tell you to be at Twenty-eighth Street and Fifth Avenue between ten-ten and ten-twenty tonight. That's about half an hour. They told me to tell you to be alone." Curt Gentry explains that "Hoover was not on foot, and he wasn't alone. Unknown to Winchell, more than two dozen agents had the corner under surveillance. Having picked up Lepke several blocks away, per instructions, Winchell pulled up beside the director's distinctive black limousine. Then he and Lepke got into the back of the FBI vehicle." Winchell later recalled that Hoover was "disguised in dark glasses to keep him from being recognized by passersby".

Louis Lepke Buchalter was tried on federal charges and sentenced to fourteen years in Leavenworth (Hoover had promised him he'd get only ten years and that with good behaviour he'd be out in five or six). The Chicago Tribune published a story that the FBI and the Justice Department had made a deal with Lepke, to keep him from telling what he knew about the Roosevelt administration's links with Murder Incorporated. President Franklin Roosevelt was so angry about the accusation he ordered that Lepke should be handed over to Thomas Dewey. When Abe Reles agreed to provide evidence against Buchalter, he was tried for murder. Found guilty, Buchalter was executed at Sing Sing State Prison on 4th March, 1944.

After the Second World War Winchell became obsessed with the threat of communism. When Josephine Baker complained about the racial-discriminatory policies of the Stork Club in New York City he retaliated by calling her a communist and began a campaign which prevented her from getting her visa to enter the US renewed. He was criticised by fellow journalists, including Ed Sullivan, who said, ''I despise Walter Winchell because he symbolizes to me evil and treacherous things in the American setup.''

Winchell also gave his support to Joseph McCarthy. As Ralph D. Gardner has pointed out: "In the 1950’s Winchell’s direction took an odd turn that was distressing to millions of readers. He became a supporter of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, filling his pages and broadcasts with vindictive, denunciatory tirades and mean-spirited accusations that resulted in lawsuits and loss of media outlets. He had climbed to the top and tumbled." In 1963 New York Daily Mirror, a newspaper who he worked for 34 years, closed, his life as a columnist came to an end.

Walter Winchell died of prostate cancer on 20th February, 1972.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Jennet Conant, The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington (2008)

Winchell was a powerhouse widely feared because of his penchant for exposing the private lives of important public men - from mistresses and pregnancies to divorces - which gave him plenty of bargaining chips to trade for information about what was going on inside their businesses or agencies. He had morphed from a Broadway critic to a political commentator who thought nothing of weighing in on domestic and international affairs... A typical Winchell column would contain several dozen separate references to individuals and events, ranging from minor celebrity sightings, along the lines of spotting Marlene Diettrich at the Stork Club, his nightly hangout, to an impassioned denunciation of Nazi sympathizers or some other disreputable homegrown fascists.

While there were a number of prominent American journalists who were sympathetic to the British plight, Lippman, Pearson, and Winchell went beyond publishing Ministry of Information handouts to actively aiding the cause whenever they could, and they were in close contact with British intelligence... There was a long list of ink-stained crusaders who had been fighting against Hitler and Mussolini since as far back as 1933 - among them Dorothy Thompson and Edmund Taylor - and who had proved helpful to the BSC in its covert campaign against isolationism and defeatism.

Ernest Cuneo, the affable, Falstaffian attorney and sidekick to Winchell, who was known to be a member of Roosevelt's "palace guard" and a behind-the-scenes operator bar none... Cuneo had such close ties to the BSC that he was considered a member of the club, had his own code name - CRUSADER - and was empowered to "feed" select British intelligence items about Nazi sympathizers and subversives to Pearson, Winchell, and other handpicked outlets. At the time, he was actually ghostwriting many of Winchell's columns and radio broadcasts, which parroted the British propaganda line of the day. For the BSC, journalists like Ingersoll, Lippmann, Pearson, Reid, and Winchell, and the facilitator Cuneo, were stealth operatives in their campaign against Britain's enemies in America.

(2) Curt Gentry, J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets (1991)

Unquestionally each used the other. It was Winchell, more than any other journalist, who sold the G-man image to America; while Hoover, according to Cuneo and others, supplied Winchell with inside information that led to some of his biggest scoops.... In addition to the tips, Hoover often supplied Winchell with an FBI driver when he was travelling; assigned FBI agents as bodyguards whenever the columnist received a death threat, which was often.

(3) Walter Winchell, radio broadcast (August, 1939)

Attention Public Enemy Number One, Louis 'Lepke' Buchalter! I am authorized by John Edgar Hoover of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to guarantee you safe delivery to the FBI if you surrender to me or to any agent of the FBI. I will repeat: Leapke, I am authorized by John Edgar Hoover.

(4) Bernard Weinraub, The New York Times (18th November, 1998)

From Table 50 at the Stork Club - he never picked up the tab - Winchell held court like a prince, beckoning prizefighters, movie stars, debutantes, royalty and gangsters to his table. He demanded to know what they were doing but talked most of the time himself.

He mingled with the mob, interviewing Al Capone and palling around with Frank Costello, and defiantly dominated a Broadway world that no longer exists.

One of his biggest coups came in 1939 when Louis (Lepke) Buchalter, described by Hoover as ''the most dangerous criminal in the Untied States,'' surrendered to him. Buchalter was electrocuted in 1944.

Winchell's reach into politics and sports was also huge. He adored the New Deal, supported civil rights and repeatedly denounced Hitler and Fascism far sooner than more Establishment journalists did.

His two favorite public figures were President Franklin D. Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover. Shortly after his 1932 Presidential election, Roosevelt asked Winchell to the White House, where he thanked him for his support and told him to call whenever he wanted. From then on Winchell flattered Roosevelt in print, but the columnist was far better known for invective...

For a while he seemed power mad. Through his radio show and his aggressive push for a military buildup before World War II, he viewed himself as nothing less than the nation's savior. His personal behavior was marked by tantrums...

By the 1950's Winchell had become obsessed with Communism and, through his friendship with Roy Cohn, embraced McCarthyism. He also began shrill attacks on the singer Josephine Baker, who created front page headlines by saying she had been snubbed at the Stork Club because she was black.