Cheer IV: Gossip as Commodity
I. Winchell's Way
There was a day about fourscore years ago when a Broadway hoofer of the middling grade, who had never been asked to play the Palace on Times Sqaure, was seeking greener pastures in journalism. Walter Winchell, a hungry young man with a quick eye and a gift for catchy phrases, had begun a career of sorts by pasting up items of chitchat about fellow performers backstage at theaters. Later, he began to feed bits of Broadway news to the newspapers. A tabloid daily called The New York Graphic was then unfolding its wings ("we intend to dramatize and sensationalize the news", it announced in its first issue), and it gave Winchell a job writing short items about show business. For a while he wrote about plans for forthcoming productions, what actor was being considered for what part, where the money was coming from, shop talk like that. Then one day he took a giant step forward and wrote the following:
Helen Edy Brooks, widow of William Rock, has been plunging in real estate...
It's a girl at the Carter De Havens...
Lenore Ulric paid $7.00 income tax...
Fannie Brice is betting on her horses at Belmont...
S. Jay Kaufman sails on the 16th via the Berengaria to be hitched to a Hungarian...
Reports have it that Lillian Lorraine has taken a husband again...
Your or my reaction on being shown this little line-up of items from a distant century might well be one of impatience. Why should we be expected to waste our time bothering to read this sequence of inconsequential events which do not even have the exotic charm that might arouse a flicker of interest if we were shown, for example, inter-office memoranda scratched on clay bricks by bureaucrats at the court of Tiglath-Pileser III? Tiglath, whom we have met previously destroying the kingdom of Israel and carrying the prophet Hosea off into captivity, might seem an exotic historic figure worth a moment's curiosity for his big beard and his sanguinary ways. But what can be expected from Helen Edy Brooks and Carter de Haven? Who were these people? Some old-timers may remember Fannie Brice as a musical comedy star because a movie was made about her in a rapidly receding past, and it is possible to deduce from the context that the others were the sort of people who wold get a good table in a New York speak-easy in 1923. But who in the world fourscore and more years later has the slightest concern in how much they cheated on their income tax, or how or why they got hitched to a Hungarian?
This would be a short-sighted reaction. For here in the yellowing pages of the Graphic is a historical document of the first order, a milestone marking one of those points where the habits of a people or of mankind in general can be seen to be shifting to a new direction, the symbolic moment when an aeon sheds its skin.
This is one of the defining moments of the 20th century.
Today, in the 21st century, every literate person in up-to-date countries reads a gossip column, sometimes surreptitiously but almost as faithfully as he or she washes his or her hands before dinner (a rite which was a major innovation of the nineteenth century). And the gossip column was born in those few lines in The New York Graphic.
Those who are given credit for inaugurating such changes are known to anthropologists as culture heroes: Tubal Cain in the Bible who taught mankind how to hunt, Dionysus who taught the Greeks how to cultivate the vine, Gutenburg who taught mankind how to print,.. In the last century we have had such figures as Henry Ford, the Wright Brothers, Steven Jobs, Dr. Rock creator of the Pill, Caresse Crosby who invented the brassiere, and whoever they were who invented the motel and the credit card. In this Olympian company Walter Winchell earned the right to sit.
It took a rootless vagrant kind of man like Winchell, scurrying along the sidewalks of Broadway with his finger on the pulse of Mr. and Mrs. America, to realize that countless people, in Wichita and Walla Walla and all the ships at sea, were ready for a new direction in their age-old activity of gossiping. The world of gossip was one which had always been divided into two totally distinct spheres: what was happening to people just like ourselves next door, and what was happening to extraordinary people like the Prince of Wales or Greta Garbo on mysterious islands beyond the horizon In the new form invented by Winchell, the two spheres were melded. Just as your Tin Lizzie could take you to Magic Kingdoms, the gossip column could bring into your humdrum home a constant procession of people with magic names like Helen Edy Brooks. Traditional critics may ask impatiently, what is the magic of the name of Helen Edy Brooks? The simple and overwhelming answer is that she is in a gossip column. She and the Prince of Wales and Greta Garbo and the cheating husband next door are all in Winchell and hence in Wichita and Walla Walla.
Everything is there in those few original items in the Graphic. There is the standardization -- the parts, separated from one another by the three dots that emphasize their essential consubstantiality, move down the assembly line with well-timed precision. And then there is the commercialization: the parts are people, and the people have become parts like any other, interchangeable commodities whose value will be increased by the publicity they are getting. In form and content, these items are indistinguishable from the "messages" which periodically interrupt your television programs and your e-mail today. These messages use the techniques of persuasion developed over thousands of years in sermons and political oratory, like them aiming to convince in order to sell -- a new religion, a new foreign policy, a new soap powder. What has the gossip column got to sell? Why, the same old Helen Edy Brookses, and S. Jay Kaufmans, and eventually any one who catches Walter Winchell's eye.
Within a few months of the publication of his first column, every one who could spare two cents for the Graphic wanted to read Winchell. More important, every one wanted to be in Winchell. You needed to do no more than get yourself hitched to a Hungarian, and there you were in print the same size as, and only three dots away from, John D. Rockefeller or Albert Einstein or Fannie Brice.
Enthusiasm grew so rapidly that within a few months Winchell realized that he did not have to waste time hunting down items of gossip like a hound let loose in fox country. Why should he wear out shoe leather prowling alleyways and speakeasies for hints or snatches of gossip he could overhear or pick up, when now he could sit on his throne at table 50 in the Cub Room of the Stork Club and play Louis XIV to his own Saint Simon, receiving a continuous file of movie stars, Congressmen, millionaires, public enemies, priests, rabbis, divorced women, Pulitzer-Prize-winners and advisers to presidents who besieged him with hot tips about themselves and their sexual partners and their business competitors? It was as much as his three ghostwriters could do to sort them out and help him reduce them to the rapid three-dot barrage that came out every morning in his new outlet the Daily Mirror. "Howard Hughes never phones or mails news to me," he said once. "He has one of his people fly across the country and hand it to me in person".
Franklin D. Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover fed him items to further their devious designs and save the republic. The rich and the powerful did their best to butter him up, and when there was not enough butter he knew how to replenish the supply. "A top New Dealer's mistress is a mobster's widow", ran one item modestly one day. Joseph P. Kennedy, the former bootlegger and movie producer who was now chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, apparently had reasons of his own for not seeing that story developed any further, and for years afterward he was a steady source of scoops from Washington, while the widow faded away like Goethe's Teutonic gods into night and fog.
The Winchell column branched out in all directions. He crusaded against the Nazis before World War II and against the communists afterward. He interspersed his gossip with jokes and bits of practical philosophy contributed by a stable of admirers and paid assistants which included Truman Capote, Clifford Odets, Clare Booth Luce, Woody Allen and George Bernard Shaw. Like the
Duke de Saint Simon, his curiosity was insatiable, his energy boundless, his style unorthodox and supremely colloquial. He made up words too: onomatopoeic words like making whoopee or marriages that go phfft; portmanteau words like cinemogul, playbore. When some one offended him, he could demonstrate what malicious gossip really can be:
A few years ago Taylor Caldwell invited the Duchess of Windsor for a luncheon with fifteen others. The Duchess' secretary phoned Mrs. Caldwell to ask what transportation she was using, and Mrs. Caldwell replied her husband would drive over to pick her up. The secretary said, "I'm sorry, Mrs. Caldwell, 'your husband is Jewish and the Duchess is Protestant and does not mix socially with Jews". Mrs. Caldwell exploded, "Tell the Duchess I am Dutch Protestant and I don't mix socially with prostitutes".
He could appear on the public scene himself, as when Lepke Buchalter, the head of Murder Incorporated (who would later appear, lobotomized, in a jail cell, in a gossipy poem by a fellow convict, Robert Lowell) decided it was time to turn himself in, and phoned Winchell to meet him at a street corner where he could personally hand him over to J. Edgar Hoover.
But the heart of his column, the heart of his appeal, always remained in the bits of private folklore, the peep into the hidden wonders of gossip land:
Helen Henderson, ex-Follies femme, who divorced Bob Rice of George Olson's crew to wed rich Aaron Benisch only to phfft with Aaron and be resealed to Rice, was melted from him last month...
With these worthies, he had led his millions of readers to within sight of the utopia that would later be formulated by Andy Warhol as a world where everyone and anyone can be a celebrity -- or, as Henry James more elegantly put it, "enjoy the distinction that waits on vulgarity sufficiently attested" -- for fifteen minutes. The world had come to Walla Walla.
Master builders of this new utopia popped up everywhere in the wake of Winchell, and by now, at the dawn of the 21st of the century, only the stuffiest organs of the press like the Wall Street Journal can exist without at least one gossip columnist to pursue the Helen Edy Brookses of all the civilized countries through the endless round of their hitchings, phffts and Reno-vations.
It is the fate of gossip to be ephemeral, and this fate is shared by most people who make a living out of it. Even Walter Winchell, who for decades was a light to millions who regularly flicked on their radios to hear him or fluttered through the pages of the Daily Mirror to read him, fell out of fashion and spent his later years in a constantly deepening obscurity. When he died in 1974, only his daughter bothered to attend his funeral. He was remembered, if all, as a clownish vulgarian. I myself, in my reminiscence of a ride on a Ferris wheel with Marilyn Monroe, which you can read in this website, in the section labeled Memories, called him a "poor slob."
But just as stray items of gossip may turn up enshrined in our history books, so the name of Winchell shows signs of turning up, fresh as ever, if in unlikely forms, in the 21st century.
The French literary world - a world in which Winchell would not have had the slightest interest even if he knew it existed - was going through painful years in Winchell's lifetime, and critics are increasingly coming to agree that it produced only one truly innovative, stimulating if exasperating, prose style, touching human life to the quick. This was the style of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, with which he aimed to give emotion back to the written language, which he said had dried up, become unemotional, unlyrical, fit only to be read on the toilet seat . For half a century he was considered out of bounds, because of his hysterical anti-Semitic screeds written before and during the Second World War, which might have been written by Father Coughlin in Michigan or any hack in Doctor Goebbel's propaganda ministry in Berlin. But now the academics have reluctantly accepted him as their darling because of the extraordinary vivacity, the immediacy, the emotional flow of his prose.
Now, what is the secret of Céline's prose style? It is really, he says in his explosive little text called Entretiens avec le Professeur Y -- devoted mostly to proving that his publisher, Gaston Gallimard, was a greedy exploitative son of a bitch -- a very simple trick. The trick of the three dots...
Three dots...Put them between your phrases....your sentences...your paragraphs...your gutter expletives and your learned subjunctive...grab your reader as you might bump into him at curbside and send him sprawling into the street...give him the full dose of horror and boredom and mischief-making Chance...kick him in the balls and laugh at his pained smile...and keep the three dots rolling till they have rolled all over the copycat Nobelprizewinning toiletseat bestsellers and kicked the dead language back to life...
Céline claimed he got the idea for the three dots by riding the in a subway car every morning to the hospital in a Paris suburb where he was an intern, watching the endless stream of passengers getting on and off, all of them with their own petty peeves and major miseries, their jokes and fears and daily papers.
But why the dots instead of some other typographical device? Surely it is significant that between 1924 and 1928 Dr. Destouches, which was Céline's real name. worked on League of Nations medical missions to South Africa and the United States, that he spent time both in Detroit and in New York. Material he picked up in both cities turned up in his first and most famous novel, Voyage to the End of the Night. While he was there, he would have had plenty of time to read, and be fascinated by, the daily three-dotted parade of multicolored humanity in the Walter Winchell column in the Daily Mirror.
And soon we will have academic studies precisely fixing the place of blabbermouth Winchell in the multicolored pattern of the style of the 20th-century novel.
Still more was to come. In 2004 a book was published in New York by the prizewinning author Philip Roth called The Plot Against America, which is an imaginative account of what might have happened if Charles Lindbergh had been elected president of the United States in 1940.
Horrible things happen. Members of the Roth family, leading a peaceful life in a pleasant New Jersey ghetto, are shipped off to Auschwitz, Kentucky. The wife of a renegade rabbi dances with Adolf Hitler's Foreign Minister in the oval room of the White House (a livelier and more descriptive title for the book might have been, Dancing with Jo Ribbentrop) while President Lindbergh is off in Iceland carving up the British Empire with Hitler. War is about to be declared on Canada. Fascist ideologues like Henry Ford and Burton K. Wheeler are throttling liberty at home and arresting Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and ex-President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The democratic forces are in disarray and despair until the voice of Walter Winchell is heard on the radio issuing daily calls for resistance against the Axis of Evil, The Axis reacts by having Winchell murdered by an American Nazi as he is giving a campaign speech in Louisville Kentucky. But then it turns out that there are decent people in America, and they have had enough. The cowardly murder stirs up such a tsunami of public indignation that the fascists are swept away, Roosevelt returns to the White House, America joins the righteous war against Hitler, and wins it, just the way we see it won in the conventional history books.
So the glib-tongued, keyhole-peeping Broadway hoofer goes down in history as Walter Winchell, saint and martyr.
And perhaps we can look forward to day when Louisville, named for an egomaniac king of France, will vote to rename itself Winchell City.
Dame Gossip has passed along odder things in her day