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Barbara Jill Walters

b. September 25, 1931

by Kathleen Thompson
Last updated June 23, 2021

Barbara Walters.
Courtesy of a private collection.
In Brief

Barbara Walters was a writer on NBC’s morning show Today when she began to appear on the air. Eventually she became a regular on the show, making her mark as an extraordinary interviewer. Her increasing success at NBC led to her hiring, in 1976, as co-anchor of the ABC Evening News at a famously high salary. However, opposition from her male co-anchor led to what she called the worst year of her life, and she shifted her focus to her interviews on The Barbara Walters Specials, winning great acclaim. For more than twenty years, she also co-hosted the newsmagazine 20/20. In 1997, she created the daytime talk show The View.

“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.

Early Life and Family

Barbara Jill 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. She had two older siblings: a sister, Jacqueline, who was developmentally disabled who died of ovarian cancer in 1985, and a brother, Burton, who died of pneumonia at a young age. Her father, known as Lew, was a well-known nightclub owner whose life was filled with celebrities, excitement, and financial success. Barbara attended both public and private schools. She graduated from Miami Beach Senior High School in 1949 and from Sarah Lawrence College 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.

Television Career

Walters worked briefly in an advertising agency before taking her first position in television, 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,” a title she would soon discard. Walters turned the role of the pretty, smiling small-talker into an essential part of the program. Before long she was reading news and acting as a commentator. In 1971, Hugh Downs left the program and was replaced by Frank McGee, a former evening news anchor who felt that Today was a demotion. He also felt that Walters needed to be kept in her place. He insisted that, if there was an interview from Washington, Walters could not ask a question until he had asked three. That policy was taken all the way to the president of NBC, who approved it. “And so,” said Walters in a later interview, “the only way I could do an interview that had great substance was if I got it myself…. If I got it myself, I could do it outside the studio.” Outside the studio she was free to do interviews as she wanted to do them with people like Henry Kissinger and Dean Rusk, Secretary of State during the Vietnam War.  

Interviewing was an area of broadcasting that would become Walters’ 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, Frank McGee died of a cancer he had told no one about. Walters became the show’s cohost, working beside Jim Hartz. In 1975, she won an Emmy for her work on the show and soon acquired her own syndicated talk show, Not for Women Only. 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 and went again two years later with Gerald Ford. She interviewed presidential candidates and helped cover political conventions.

This spectacular rise peaked in 1976 when she became the first woman to cohost a network news show—the ABC Evening News. So convinced was the network that Walters was the person for the job that she was offered 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. In fact, her salary as anchor was $500,000, and the rest of the contract was for four interview specials, but nuance is often lost in press coverage, and Walters was suddenly a bigger celebrity than many of the people she interviewed.

This particular triumph, however, did not last. Her cohost on the Evening News, Harry Reasoner, did not cooperate. “Harry did not want a partner,” Walters said. “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 was 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 actions 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. 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. For decades, she interviewed every president and every first lady.

Walters’ specials were repeatedly nominated for Primetime Emmy awards. In 1979, she was back on a regularly scheduled show, and in 1983, she won the Emmy. With old friend Hugh Downs, she helped to develop one of the first, and still one of the best, investigative news shows, 20/20. She became Downs’ official cohost in 1984, job she held until 1999, when Downs retired. She remained sole host until 2004. After that, she left 20/20 but continued to do several ABC News interview specials a year.  

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. When Walters announced her intention to leave the show, 20/20 was averaging just under ten million viewers a week.

In 1994, Walters made 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.

While continuing to do 20/20 and frequent specials, Walters conceived, produced, and cohosted the daytime talk show The View, beginning in 1997. Geared towards women, the show was immediately successful, although there were sometimes controversial personnel changes over the years. The View won a Daytime Emmy in 2003, and Walters won a Daytime Emmy for her hosting of the show in 2009. With the exception of one hiatus for heart surgery, Walters appeared regularly on the The View until May 2014, when she retired from television while remaining co-executive producer. The next year, she made one final appearance on ABC in 2015, to interview then presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Personal life

Personally, Walters has sometimes suffered for her success. After two divorces and an annulment, she is now happily unmarried. Her relationship with her 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, whom she adopted with her second husband Lee Guber in 1968, 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.”

Recognition

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. She received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2007 and in 2008 the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 30th Annual News and Documentary Emmy Awards.

Her old friend and co-host Hugh Downs explained 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.”

Selected Writings by Barbara Walters

How to Talk to Practically Anybody about Practically Anything, with June Callwood.  New York: Doubleday, 1970.

Audition: A Memoir. New York: Knopf, 2008.

Bibliography

“Barbara Walters.” Her Heritage: A Biographical Encyclopedia of Famous American Women. New York: Pilgrim New Media, 1995.

“Barbara Walters Talks Back.” USA Weekend.

“The Big Time! 8 Who Got Where Only Men Got Before.” Cosmopolitan; “Singing Walters’ Praises.” USA Today.

“Barbara Walters.” Biography.com. Accessed 5/10/2020 at https://www.biography.com/media-Bfigure/barbara-walters

“Barbara Walters.” The Interviews. Television Academy Foundation. Accessed 5/10/2020 at https://interviews.televisionacademy.com/interviews/barbara-walters?clip=chapter4

“Barbara Walters.” The Awards and Nominations. Television Academy Foundation. Accessed 5/10/2020 at https://www.emmys.com/bios/barbara-walters

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How to cite this page

Thompson, Kathleen. "Barbara Jill Walters." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 23 June 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 25, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/walters-barbara>.