June 18, 2013
Kasia Anderson on Barbara Walters
Posted on Aug 1, 2008
Somewhere around the middle of “Audition: A Memoir,” Barbara Walters lets fly with what might be the most startling comment in her massive autobiography. No, it’s not her much ballyhooed revelation—dished out with the kind of peep-show sensibility that can only come from years of coaxing confessions from enough celebrities, convicts and world leaders (or various combinations thereof) to populate a small island nation—that she was once embroiled in a lengthy affair with a married black Republican legislator, Sen. Edward Brooke. Well-placed pickups of that tabloid-baiting teaser no doubt contributed to the book’s impressive sales figures, currently hovering near the half-million mark, but it’s hardly the most compelling detail from Walters’ secret history.
Rather, she makes a more surprising statement when she declares, in an unintentionally ironic or perhaps falsely modest aside: “Journalists, I felt, are supposed to report the news, not be the news.” That’s an admirable ideal, and one that many in her profession also esteem highly, along with that other quaint journalistic relic, objectivity. But considering the fact that she offers this opinion while describing, in a 624-page behemoth of a best-seller dedicated to all things Barbara Walters, the controversy she sparked when she scored an unprecedented $5-million deal to jump from NBC to ABC in 1976, it reads more like lip service than a personal motto. If there’s anyone whose experience demonstrates how certain broadcast journalists have become newsmakers themselves in recent decades, it’s Walters; in fact, she practically invented this subspecies of celebrity. But that’s just one of many contradictions in her lengthy and somewhat unruly life story, which is as much a story about the television news industry as it is about the veteran newswoman herself.
Reading “Audition” is a bit like watching Walters on “The View,” the female-focused morning coffee klatch she has presided over since its launch on ABC in 1997. Despite the show’s central conceit—that the proverbial fourth wall has come down between the hostesses in their homelike setting and the audience—“The View” is an exercise in staged intimacy and controlled spontaneity. Walters admits in her new book that she and her four co-stars plan most of their discussions before each episode, and they’re definitely not all best friends (they just play them on TV), but when the cameras roll, the pantomime begins: Oh, hello—you’ve just caught me and my four besties here, who happen to represent a marketably diverse range of target demographics, chatting over our brand-name morning coffee about today’s most compelling political and cultural news items!
Throughout all the show’s ups and downs, Walters has maintained an air of steady, if somewhat forced, amicability, mugging for the camera when tensions run high, gamely handling bad PR when they boil over, and generally playing the part of den mother for her sometimes prickly protégés. But her act on “The View” engenders the unsettling feeling that she’s trying a little too hard to be “just one of the girls” in a vaguely incongruous way, one which doesn’t quite jibe with her self-described former incarnation as a scrappy go-getter in a power pantsuit who landed her dream job years ago as the country’s first female network news co-anchor. Whither pantsuit-wearing Walters? Comparatively speaking, the image she presents on “The View” seems about as empowering as a Virginia Slims ad.
Unfortunately, she adopts a similar pose in “Audition,” especially when discussing her personal life. She seems unable at times to break out of cutesy-girly mode, as though she were composing a script for a TV dramedy about her life that was guaranteed neither to scandalize advertisers nor the good people of Peoria—in the 1950s. For example, referring to her waifish figure as a young girl, she says in one aw-shucks aside: “My nickname, as I’ve told you, was ‘Skinnymalinkydink.’ (If only someone would call me that today—and mean it!)” Or, later on, again returning to a discussion of her appearance, she muses: “I have sometimes said that the ‘Specials’ are primarily a retrospective of my hairstyles. How many hairdos can a girl have?” How many indeed. Is this the same woman who talks elsewhere about how she dashed off to meet with controversial heads of state in South America, Asia and the Middle East without batting an eye, and who refused to let her male colleagues shut her out of the running for career-making scoops and top assignments?
In her defense, Walters never claims to have ironclad confidence or to be particularly clear about who she is or what she wants, except in her working life. She also points out more than once in her book that those who make excellent interviewers aren’t always the best on the other side of the transaction and vice versa, perhaps as a form of disclaimer about how she fares as her own interviewee, in a way, in “Audition.” Her execution isn’t bad, albeit uneven in patches, and regardless of its literary merit the story of Walters’ life is undeniably interesting, simply by virtue of all the places she has been and all the people with whom she’s crossed paths. Additionally, it’s not unreasonable for a woman who has lived her life in the public eye for decades, writing and performing for mainstream TV audiences, to stick to what has worked for her in the past when writing about herself.
However, for the purpose at hand, it’s safe to say that autobiographical nonfiction, unlike broadcast TV, is not Barbara Walters’ ideal medium. For one, although her memoir generally makes for an engaging read, she jumps around chronologically so much that she loses touch with her narrative at times, leaving her audience a bit out at sea as to what year, country, job, husband or hairstyle she might be referring in a given scene. This confusion is compounded by her coy refusal to divulge her age, which could provide additional guideposts along the shifting timeline.
Plus, as she admits, she finds it very difficult to delve into the painful periods of her history, including her three marriages and subsequent divorces; problems with her adopted daughter; her mother’s bitter disappointment with her distant father and his risky passion for producing stage shows around the country; her lifelong guilt about her functionally impaired older sister; and losses of family members and friends. Usually, those passages lean more heavily on description than on feeling; a profound sense of affection breaks through in brief glimmers when she discusses her family, but it vanishes too quickly behind her customary veneer of restrained congeniality.
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