Walter Winchell: A Novel
I remember once seeing a friend’s father, an elderly musician, sitting on the front porch reading the Trout Quintet, nodding and smiling over certain passages like someone rereading Persuasion, or like mathemeticians who read beautiful theorems for aesthetic pleasure. Most of us sometimes read, with the same active imaginative enjoyment, recipes or the bridge column—two short, short dramatic forms. Sometimes these short works are in a different or compressed language, like the Trout, or like the passage in front of me: “w. m. p.1, up 1 p.3 = k.6, p.6, rpt. from *,” which allows my mind to run along to the finished sleeve. Michael Herr’s recent book Walter Winchell is, as he tells us in a preface, “unashamedly” a screenplay, that is, an abbreviation related to a film as the knitting instruction to the sleeve; while awaiting the realization, the mind can take pleasure in the short form, pregnant as it is with suggestion. The screenplay may even be the work at its best, perfection immanent, to be perfected by the reader’s imagination.
Herr tells us in a preface that Walter Winchell began life as a screenplay that did not get produced, but he does not tell us why he was drawn to the subject. Walter Winchell began as a vaudeville performer and became a famous newspaper columnist and radio personality from the 1930s to the 1950s. Of the 140 million Americans living during Winchell’s heyday, Herr says, 50 million, more than a third, read his daily newspaper column, and an even greater number listened to his weekly radio broadcast. Eventually he would also go on television, a medium to which his abrasive personality was entirely unsuited, and which contributed to his downfall. Like silent-screen actresses who went into the talkies, he didn’t survive the transition.
Much of the reason for his allure on radio and in his column was that he could reveal things that he learned from his string of informants—that you were out with someone not your husband, or were drinking too much—things that in those earlier, shame-ridden days people wanted to conceal; and his power lay in his manipulation of facts. He was a blackmailer. He did not particularly care if what he said was true or not, and he could make you famous, or, because he also had political views and a fanatical streak, he might ruin you by saying you were a Nazi or a Commie, even if you weren’t. It’s a little hard now to get back into the frame of mind of a period when people, however hypocritically, set a high value on conformity, but it must have been the reflex of the days when we thought we were collectively good, and Herr, with dialogue and a few stage directions, wonderfully catches the blend of innocence and thuggishness of the period.
He tells the story of Winchell as if it were an allegorical treatment of the American national character …
‘Grand Hotel’ December 20, 1990