I thought of the letter this week as television’s best-known interviewer, turning eighty-five this year, officially retires from the business of asking famous people questions.
Mind you, her final “gets” have been V. Stiviano, Donald Sterling’s “archivist,” and Sterling’s estranged wife Shelly. Not exactly on the level of Anwar Sadat or Fidel Castro. Those final interviews serve as reminders that talking to the famous ain’t what it used to be. Given the state of television journalism, Walters may be getting out just in time.
I went looking for that long-ago letter, and, to my amazement, found it near the bottom of a cardboard box full of yellowed newspaper clippings and fading copies of the magazines I used to write for.
It is fair to say I barely knew who Barbara Walters was when I went to interview her in Detroit. I knew that she was part of NBC’s very popular Today show, and that she had recently authored a book titled How to talk to practically anybody about practically anything. It was based on the fact that as part of the Today show she had already interviewed a lot of famous people, and had decided to impart some of the lessons learned to readers.
What I didn’t know at the time was that Walters did not actually write the book. It was ghost-written by a Canadian freelance journalist, June Callwood, who years later became a friend, and who always spoke ruefully about her experience with Walters. The relationship had been surprisingly limited. June said she ended up using her own experiences doing magazine interviews to flesh out the manuscript.
Of course, when I spoke to her, Walters gave no hint that anyone other than herself had toiled over a typewriter.
When I walked into the conference room at the local NBC affiliate, I was confronted by a dark-haired woman, attractive, smartly dressed, but hardly glamorous. At the time, there were not a lot of women on television, and those who did get in front of a camera tended be blond and carefully manicured. Walters was neither.
That morning I happened to be outfitted in a cherry-red shirt (hey, it was the 70s). When she saw me, Walters lit up. “I love that shirt,” she announced in the raspy voice with the slight lisp that was to become so familiar over the years.
Being young and highly susceptible to any kind of flattery, I immediately fell under her spell.
We had a cordial conversation. She talked about the book, about the difficulty of being taken seriously in what was still very much a male-dominated television news world. Beneath the surface charm she exuded with seemingly so little effort, there was an unexpected strength. You sensed she was ambitious, confident, and determined to break a few glass ceilings.
I would not claim any prescience about her based on our encounter, but later that day, I did witness the most amazing display of Walters Power, the like of which I had not seen before and have seldom seen since.
Intrigued by her, I decided to attend the speech she was giving to a Detroit women’s club. The hall where she was speaking was filled to capacity. A few minutes later, Walters appeared onstage and began to talk–again touching on her experiences and her difficulties making it in male-dominated profession.
Here is where a well-worn cliché can be put to use: as she spoke, you could literally hear a pin drop in the room. I have never seen anyone control an audience the way Barbara Walters did that afternoon. It amounted to a master class in public speaking. The audience was enraptured, and so was I.
Needless to say, I went back and wrote a glowing piece about her. Not only was it enthralling to watch her, I had learned something about how to speak to practically anybody about practically anything–lessons I’ve been trying to put to use ever since.
A few weeks after the story appeared, the letter arrived. In those days, the only means of communication other than a phone call, was by mail, and no celebrity ever wrote a reporter for a local Canadian newspaper. Who would care?
But Barbara Walters cared. Here is what she wrote:
Dear Mr. Base:
A viewer was kind enough to send me the article you wrote on me last month.
I cannot tell you how much it delighted me, especially since I remember you and your shirt very well. My gratitude for your warmth and generosity.
In the years since that encounter, Walters far exceeded any expectations I might have held for her, although her triumphs did not come easily. For example, as popular as she was on the show, she did not become an official co-host on Today until 1976, years after I interviewed her.
A couple of years later, she became the first female anchor on the ABC Evening News, but that did not work out well, thanks to the animosity of her co-anchor, Harry Reasoner.
Today, TV screens are filled with female journalists and anchors, thanks in no small part to her ground-breaking efforts, efforts that I happened to be an early witness to.
She has been famous for so long that she has become something of a cliché, lampooned on Saturday Night Live (Barbara Wawa), and made fun of for her questions–to Katherine Hepburn: “If you were a tree what kind of tree would you be?”
Like many others, I’ve been of a number of minds about her over the years. You have to wonder if, in changing the face of television news, she didn’t also aid in the creation of the celebrity-obsessed atmosphere in which it now exists.
Still, I think of the afternoon she so easily held a roomful of women in the palm of her hand, and beguiled a youthful reporter in a red shirt.