It was not so much a red shirt as it was a cherry red shirt that I was wearing when Barbara Walters walked in for our interview. Looking back all these years later, I cringe at the thought of that (cherry) red shirt.
However, as soon as she saw me in it, Walters immediately brightened. “I LOVE your shirt,” she said enthusiastically. Naturally, I was flattered. No bad reviews for this attractive, articulate, businesslike woman—who liked my (cherry) red shirt. Well, she said she did.
At that point, I must confess, I had only a vague idea of who Barbara Walters was. I knew she was a co-host on NBC’s hugely popular Today Show, but not much more than that. She had written a book, and that’s why she was in Detroit, not only talking to the press, but also in a couple of hours, to address a luncheon crowd.
At the time I talked to her, she had not yet even been named a co-anchor on the Today Show. This was years before ascending to iconic status as the go-to interviewer of very famous people, a household name, and breaker of glass ceilings—becoming the first female anchor of a U.S. network newscast.
The book she was promoting was titled How to Talk to Practically Anyone About Anything, basically a self-help book that also touched on the hardships and prejudices she had encountered in trying to make it as a woman in broadcasting.
It wasn’t until years later, that I learned the book had actually been ghost-written by my friend, Toronto journalist June Callwood. There is no mention in the book of Callwood’s involvement and Walters gave no indication during our talk that she had help with the writing.
As pleasant as our encounter was, I had no intention of attending the speech she was to give in the afternoon. However, when she asked me if I planned to attend, I could hardly say no. It was at that speech that I got a preview of the charismatic personality she was to become.
Speaking to a room full of what back then would have been called suburban housewives, she almost literally picked up her eager audience and held it in the palm of her hand. I had never seen anything quite like it, and have seldom seen anything like it since.
If I thought she was nothing more than a delightful daytime TV personality beforehand, that speech quickly changed my opinion. There was something very special about her. I came away dazzled, as did everyone else that afternoon.
I wrote about Walters’s amazing performance and, oh, yes, I happened to mention her admiration—feigned or otherwise—for my (cherry) red shirt. I never thought much more about it. Then, a few weeks later, a letter arrived. In those days, it was unusual to get a letter from anyone you had interviewed, let alone a celebrity.
This letter was from Barbara Walters.
“Of course, I remember your red shirt,” she wrote. “I loved that shirt.” She went on to gush about how much she enjoyed meeting me, and liked my piece. I didn’t believe any of it, of course—except, of course, I did. I thought of that letter from Barbara Walters hearing the sad news of her death at the age of 93, remembering how she so deftly lifted an audience and got to a young reporter in his (cherry) red shirt. And took the time to write him about it.
Love these stories so much Ron.
Hello, Ron: This is Peter Howell, a follower in your footsteps for the movies beat at the Toronto Star. I’m writing a column about Clyde Gilmour for the Toronto Film Critics Association. I’m thinking you might have an anecdote or two to share about him. Would you mind getting back to me at this email address: petehowell(at)gmail.com? Many thanks, Peter.
PS: Lovely piece about Barbara Walters.
Thanks so much, Joel…your notes always mean a lot to me…