“She is like the autumn cherry tree,” said Time magazine in 1995, “in full flower.” When a hard-edged news magazine waxes this lyrical about a woman, one would expect her to be a movie star. In this case, the object of the admiration is a journalist with a reputation for integrity, professionalism, and, at times, unscrupulous competitiveness. But then, Barbara Walters has always elicited extreme responses.
Barbara Walters was born on September 25, 1931, in Boston, to Louis Edward and Dena (Selett) Walters, and grew up in Boston, Miami and New York City. Her father, known as Lew, was a well-known nightclub owner whose life was filled with celebrities, excitement and financial success. She had two older siblings, a sister, Jacqueline, who was developmentally disabled, and a brother, Burton, who died of pneumonia at a young age. Barbara attended both public and private schools, completing the Miami Beach Senior High School in 1949 before attending Sarah Lawrence College, from which she graduated in 1953 with a bachelor’s degree in English. “Until I was about twenty-three or twenty-four,” she told interviewer Tabitha Soren in 1996, “we were very rich. I can go around New York and show you all the penthouses we lived in. And then in my later twenties it was all gone.” From that point on, Walters focused on supporting herself and helping to take care of her family.
Walters worked briefly for a New York advertising agency before taking her first position in television. She began not as a broadcaster but as assistant to the publicity director for the NBC-affiliated television station in New York City. She was soon the youngest person ever to become a producer at the station. After going from there to another local station, she joined the CBS network staff as a news and public affairs producer and as a writer.
Walters took a break from television to work for a theatrical public relations firm, but she was back in broadcasting by 1961. Working as a writer for NBC’s successful morning show Today, she began for the first time to make occasional appearances on the air. These feature-story appearances led to an opportunity to try out as the “Today Girl.” Walters took the role of the pretty, smiling small-talker and turned it into an essential part of the program. Before long she was reading news and acting as a commentator. She also worked in the field, going in 1972 to China as part of the NBC News team covering President Richard Nixon’s historic visit.
It was at Today that Walters began doing interviews, an area of broadcasting that would become her specialty. Her interviews with such eminent figures as Golda Meir, Robert Kennedy, and Coretta Scott King led to a reputation as a serious interviewer of serious people.
Walters’s professionalism—along with her remarkable intelligence and presence—elicited a powerful response from audiences. In 1974, she became the show’s cohost, working beside veteran Hugh Downs. In 1975, she won an Emmy for her work on the show. She also acquired her own syndicated talk show, Not for Women Only. This spectacular rise peaked in 1976 when she became the first woman to cohost a new network show—the ABC Evening News. So convinced were they that Walters was the woman for the job, the network offered her a record-breaking million-dollar annual salary and a five-year contract. It made her the highest-paid journalist, male or female, up to that time. That fact was trumpeted in the press, and Walters was suddenly a bigger celebrity than many of the people she interviewed.
This particular triumph, however, did not last. Her cohost, Harry Reasoner, did not cooperate. “Harry did not want a partner,” Walters says. “It was very painful. Definitely the worst year of my life.” Only a year and a half after she took the job, she was out of the anchor desk—but not off the air. The highest-paid journalist in history fulfilled her contract with ABC by producing her own television specials.
Under attack in the press as a five-million-dollar bomb, Walters suffered considerable anguish, but the disaster led to even greater success. Her interviewing skills made The Barbara Walters Specials legendary. According to broadcaster Mike Wallace, a friend and rival, “She’s the best damn interviewer in the business. It’s taken all this time to perfect her craft, and she never stopped working at it. Everything she has invested—the phone calls, the contacts, the letters, the knowledge—has paid off. For a long time, people didn’t understand what a good journalist she is.”
Walters herself had doubts after the conflict with Reasoner, and her work in the 1970s reflected it. “There was a long time when I was working my way back from the tough times in the ’70s and I felt I had to prove myself journalistically.” During that time Walters developed a reputation for stealing interviews and fawning over celebrities. Certainly she has been intensely competitive. Once, Diane Sawyer was set to interview Katharine Hepburn when Walters reportedly called to say, “Strike the lights, turn off the cameras. I’ll be right there to do it myself.” It is impossible to say, however, how much of the resentment was due to Walters’s personality and how much to her success.
In any case, Walters earned the respect of those celebrities and political figures everyone in journalism wanted to interview. She was able to obtain one exclusive interview after another. Princess Grace of Monaco agreed to talk to Walters, as did Henry Kissinger. She conversed on the air with Prince Philip, Fred Astaire, and Mamie Eisenhower. She has interviewed every president since Richard Nixon and every first lady since Lady Bird Johnson. In 1977, she arranged the first joint interviews with President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel. She also interviewed President Fidel Castro of Cuba.
In 1982 and 1983, Walters won Emmy awards for her interviewing. In 1984, she was back on a regularly scheduled show. With old friend and cohost Hugh Downs, she helped to develop one of the first, and still one of the best, investigative news shows, 20/20.
Personally, Walters has sometimes suffered for her success. After two divorces and an annulment, she is now happily unmarried. Her relationship with her adopted daughter, Jacqueline Dena Guber (b. June 14, 1968), has survived many difficult and painful times. She reminded USA Weekend interviewer Tabitha Soren that the world was very different when her daughter was growing up. “There were women leaving their husbands and children because they had to fulfill themselves. It’s no longer like that. Joan Lunden or Katie Couric can bring her kids to work. [If I’d brought my baby] into the studios, people would have looked at me like I was bringing in a puppy that wasn’t housebroken.”
Walters has collected virtually all of the broadcasting industry’s highest awards. She received the National Association of Television Program Executives Award and was named the International Radio and Television Society’s Broadcaster of the Year in 1975, the year she received the first of her four Emmy awards (1970, 1980, 1982, 1983). In 1988, she was honored with the President’s Award by the Overseas Press Club and was given a retrospective at the Museum of Broadcasting. In 1990, she was inducted into the Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame and received the Lowell Thomas Award for journalistic excellence. She received the lifetime achievement award of the International Women’s Media Foundation in 1991, and that of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2000.
In 1994, Walters made the news when another ABC broadcaster, Diane Sawyer, was offered a contract worth an extraordinary seven million dollars a year. As always, Walters was the standard against which any woman journalist was measured. The press immediately reported that Walters made ten million dollars, but that the production costs of her specials cut into that figure. Her agent was soon renegotiating her contract.
As host of the program, Walters helped to keep 20/20 at the top of the newsmagazine shows, in spite of the proliferation of rivals. She won acclaim for her interviews of General Colin Powell and actor/director Christopher Reeve. She also conducted the first interview on American television of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and the first interview with President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.
The View, a talk show forum for women’s issues which Walter co-owns, co-produces and co-hosts, premiered in 1997. But she remained as host of 20/20--becoming its sole anchor in 1999—until September 2004. Since then, she has continued to do several ABC News interview specials a year and to host The View. When Walters announced her intention to leave the show, 20/20 was averaging just under ten million viewers a week.
Hugh Downs explains her success this way: “Barbara has operated on the premise that her first allegiance is to the person tuning in. She represents the viewer and does it without hostility.” From someone who has himself mastered the art of nonconfrontational interviewing, that is praise indeed. And according to Time, Walters often elicits praise from the specialists. “Walters is a terrific editor, say her editors. She is a great writer, say her writers. She is her own best booker, say her producers. She is her own best publicist, say her publicists. She works us hard, but she works harder than we do, they say.”
“Barbara Walters.” Her Heritage: A Biographical Encyclopedia of Famous American Women (1995); “Barbara Walters Talks Back.” USA Weekend; “The Big Time! 8 Who Got Where Only Men Got Before.” Cosmopolitan; “Singing Walters’ Praises.” USA Today.