Sunday, June 10, 2012

Dots and Dashes

Those of you who are younger than most mineral formations and/or are not obsessed with the long, lethal decline of American journalism may not be familiar with the name Walter Winchell.

And why should you be?  He became a syndicated columnist (America's first) back in 1929 and he was well past his days of grimy glory by the time he was finally permitted to slip the surly bonds of earth and head for parts unknown (although I can guess) in 1972.  But Winchell was an important force in the dumbing down of America and was certainly the first practitioner of that most melancholy of all oxymorons, "celebrity journalism." 

He started on the bottom rung of show business and developed a sideline by dropping in backstage at theaters all over Broadway and sending little items to the long-defunct Evening Graphic.  From there, it was a short hop to the New York Daily Mirror and a national syndicated audience.

Winchell wrote in short spurts, anticipating the modern American interest span, separating "items" between ellipses and, occasionally hyphens, a telegraphic style that became known as "dots and dashes."  A few examples from a single column:  "An eyebrow-raiser--the Roman salute, invented by d'Annunzio, which has now become the German salute, was copied from some statue or fresco . . . Maurice Chevalier has fallen ka-plunk for a songstress in Paree named named Nita Raye.  He has showered her with diamonds and is serious for the first time, chums say . . . The Garbo-Stokowksi matter allegedly is in a coma . . ."

The scope is breathtakingly hair-brained and indicative: from the political (the "Italian salute") to the imprecise ("some statue or fresco?") to shameless flackery (the Nita Raye item was absolutely certainly bought and paid for by Miss Raye's publicist) to the classical (Garbo and--and Stokowsky?  Leopold Stokowsky?  Are you kidding me?  It's in a coma?  Was it ever upright and walking?  And who planted that bit, anyway?)

Later in his career, Winchell would use his column to bash "pinkos"; and throughout it he tripled his income by running items for a fee from press agents.

He also, to his infinite discredit, invented the "blind item."  Blind items, later wielded with bludgeon-like force by Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, were simple slander made uncontradictable by omitting names.  For example: "What rising Hollywood pretty boy was spotted at 4AM Monday night leaving the Beverly Hills manse of an older male star who is very much that way?"

A blind item could arise from simple dislike or as a signal to the subject that more would be forthcoming, and with better vision, unless there was money in the mail, and immediately.

Later he took his act to radio, beginning each broadcast with characteristic modesty (this is a man who named his only daughter "Walda') "Good evening Mr. and Mrs. America, from border to border and coast to coast and all the ships at sea."  

At his prime, he was a massive force for potential,and often actual, harm, viciously parodied (but not until he was on the skids) by Burt Lancaster as the Broadway gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker in "The Sweet Smell of Success."  By then, his style seemed more dated than dangerous.  He died almost entirely alone, unvisited  and largely forgotten, in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where he had a suite for the last two years of his life.  It was reported by Larry King that at the end, Winchell wrote his columns, mimeographed them, and handed them out on the sidewalks.  His daughter was the only person at his funeral.

But he lives on in People and Us and TMZ and Access Hollywood and the other breathless fannies, both print and electronic.  And I've been thinking about him because of the most recent (as yet unpublished) Junior Bender book, The Fame Thief, much of which is set in 1950s Hollywood.  I kept trying to get the story around to an appalling female version of Winchell named Melly Crain, a sort of uber Hedda, wrecking careers right and left to take vengeance on those who made it where she couldn't.  But somehow, Melly never got into the book.

But she got me thinking about Winchell.  And you know?  It's difficult for me to pity him that terrible end.

Tim -- Sundays


  1. Very interesting.

    Yes. When I was a child, I heard of Walter Winchell -- and in a negative way -- in my household. I remember him as slanderous to many people in and out of Hollywood.

    However, I didn't know all of this about him, that he ended up handing out mimeod columns or that his daughter was his only funeral attendee. Couldn't have happened to a more deserving fellow, I'd say.

    There must be a lot of this around though in the New York Post, National Enquirer, etc.

  2. I think a lot of his success and subsequent failure is due to the scandal loving populace. Today, it moves along at high speed pace. Loving the info one minute, then on to the next big thing. We just want to know, and then move on. It's sort of sad that about Winchell, but in many ways he just didn't see enough or have enough talent to move on. In my opinion, if more people had lives that they really tasted, and relished, they would be less hung up on the so-called lives of so-called celebrities. But I think gossip has been around a long, long time :)

  3. There is a woman, whose name I never remember, who seems to have been the source of the birther movement. She started to repeat a lie so often that a sizable percentage of the non-reading US population believes the president was not born a citizen of the United States. Do these people honestly think that the John McCain and the Hillary Clinton campaigns didn't investigate this beyond the bounds of reason in 2008?

    The hatred that is aimed at him is, at its core, simple virulent envy. I can't think of any other president who was hated simply because he exists.

    Rush Limbaugh tries to be Winchell but no one will remember his name eighty years from now.

  4. Hi, everyone>:

    Well, he was a piece of work, that's for sure.

    Beth, all you have to do is remember Goebbels' faith in "the big lie" and a lot of things become explicable. People are sometimes reluctant to dispute a really breathtaking lie because they figure anything so preposterous has to be true--who would try to get away with a lie like that? I think Rush is just an old-fashioned rabble-rouser. If he'd lived in England in the 19th or early 20th century he'd have been standing on a box at Hyde Corner getting the occasional egg thrown at him.

    Lil, you're right that gossip has been around forever, but Winchell created modern American celebrity gossip. Before him "gossip columnists" wrote mainly about society, and they did it decorously. Franklin Pierce Adams (FPA) broadened it to include theater and the arts, but it documented mainly the doings of the intelligentsia and the extended Algonquin Rount Table crowd. Winchell pitched it lower, was the first to be printed nationally, and was the first to take it to radio.

    Kathy, yes, the exploitation of celebrity has exploded in all media. Kind of a melancholy fact. You have to assume that the people who devour this endless stream of trivia could more productively pay attention to their own lives.

  5. And, in an ironic double entendre, Winchell's last gig was narrating "The Untouchables" on TV.