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Book Review

A celebrity interviewer takes a turn at tell-all

Barbara Walters (above with daughter Jackie Danforth) was born in Brookline. Her father owned a nightclub. Barbara Walters (above with daughter Jackie Danforth) was born in Brookline. Her father owned a nightclub. (DONNA SVENNEVIK/ABC)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Chuck Leddy
May 8, 2008

Audition: A Memoir
By Barbara Walters
Knopf, 612 pp., illustrated, $29.95

Barbara Walters has helped create today's media landscape of obsessive focus on the personal lives of celebrities and, in the realm of politics, a preference for personalities above policies. She was the first woman to co-host NBC's "Today" show and the first woman to co-anchor a network news program. While she opened doors for women in media, Walters's legacy as a pioneer of celebrity culture is more problematic.

Walters's memoir, "Audition," focuses on herself as a celebrity confronting countless personal challenges, from finding the right mate to interviewing high-maintenance celebrities to dealing with family issues. She offers personal revelations, such as feeling guilty about not being there when her mother died, dealing with a rebellious teenage daughter, experiencing three miscarriages, having affairs with married men (such as Edward Brooke, the former US senator from Massachusetts), and working with controlling celebrities like Barbra Streisand.

Walters was born in Brookline. Her father owned the Latin Quarter, a successful Boston nightclub that he later moved to New York. Because of her father's showbiz connections, Walters grew up around performers like Milton Berle and Jackie Gleason: "Behind these fantasy figures were real people. They may have been glamorous onstage, but I saw them offstage . . . and they had problems, just like everyone else."

She used her father's name to get her first real job, working in the publicity department for a television station. "I was soon going out with my boss, Ted Cott," reveals Walters; "he was the first man I slept with." Cott eventually became "so obsessive and controlling that I had no choice but to quit."

Walters's first marriage, to hat manufacturer Bob Katz, failed, she says, because "we had nothing in common." Her second marriage, to Lee Gruber, a theater producer, foundered because "I loved him, but I wasn't passionately in love with him." Her third marriage, to TV producer Merv Adelson, got off to a bad start when she "swallowed a Valium (which I never take), and more or less zonked my way through the wedding."

Walters got her first big break when she became a writer for the "Today" show. The "NBC bosses" gave her a co-hosting role because, she says, they figured "she'll work cheap." She tells us she struggled with insecurity, worrying that "no matter how high my profile became, how many awards I received, or how much money I made . . . it could all be taken away from me." Yet after moderating a televised debate during the 1976 presidential campaign between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, Walters declares: "Afterward a poll declared that Carter came out ahead of Ford, but as far as I was concerned, I came out ahead of both of them."

Every celebrity Walters meets is wonderful. Bette Midler is "hilariously funny and seriously touching. She is such a talent that when she sings 'Wind Beneath My Wings,' it brings tears to my eyes." Tom Cruise is "one of the nicest people I know." And as for another woman who's a defining force in the media, Walters takes credit for launching her career: "I mentored Oprah Winfrey."

She has a few unkind moments - "George W. Bush may also seem predictable and not always wise to me, but he certainly has been good to me" - and the occasional lapse of memory: Walters asked Barack Obama in 2007 if he'd consider appearing on "The View." A surprised Obama patiently explained that he'd already appeared on the show. Walters "gushingly apologized for not remembering" and added that she hadn't been there. Obama replied that she had indeed co-hosted.

Barbara Walters is a true trailblazer in television and American cultural history. Her tell-all celebrity interviews have set the standard for today's infotainment. In "humanizing" famous people, Walters has given her viewers what they've wanted. But in her chapter on interviewing heads of state (including Saddam Hussein), Walters opens with: "Heads of state. Oh, the power! Oh, the glory! Oh, the climb up! Oh, the fall!" One isn't sure if such writing is meant to be news, gossip, or trivializing world affairs because they're too dull for our limited attention spans.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

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