It is yet another golden afternoon at the Delano, the Miami Beach hotel built on the manipulation of celebrity and hype, and Neal Gabler -- author of the masterful biography Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity and a true scholar of fame and pop culture -- is taking in the hotel's Blue Door restaurant, nibbling at his lunch while drawing connections between the old world and the new. Among other accomplishments, Walter Winchell, the legendary columnist and radio personality, made the now-defunct Roney-Plaza hotel the place to be seen on Miami Beach in the Thirties. Madonna and assorted other famous have created a similar celebrity watering-hole at the Delano, though to somewhat less dramatic effect.
However disparate, the two iconographic figures -- one dead and one very much alive -- share an uncanny talent for the game of renown. As Gabler points out: "In this country, celebrity has a short shelf life, but Madonna has managed to evolve and hang on. Fifteen years in the public eye is a long run. Winchell did the same thing. Of course, he was on top for 30 years, although that was a much different era. There wasn't as much competition for the public eye as there is now."
Walter Winchell has become a historical footnote, largely remembered for his staccato narration of The Untouchables television show. But no journalist was ever as big, then or now. In the Twenties, he pioneered the gossip column, a mix of infotainment and news, blending high and low material: jokes, nightclub reportage, entertainment plugs, marital scandals, sordid crimes, and true news scoops. Once unleashed, gossip became a cancer upon the national discourse, infecting everything from high-minded journalism to low-rent television. Now, as Gabler notes, the separate universes of the New York Times and, say, the New York Post have begun to overlap. It's all a tabloid world today, and America has never been the same since Winchell.
From the start he was a worker, a classic rags-to-riches story. After a Dickensian childhood in Harlem, Winchell left school in the sixth grade and joined the vaudeville circuit, a twelve-year-old hoofer who worked his way up the lower rungs of stardom. In the early Twenties, he switched to the newspaper business and wound up at William Randolph Hearst's New York Mirror, chronicling the Jazz Age. In the Thirties, he evolved into a political commentator and cheerleader for the New Deal, while simultaneously documenting moneyed society and movie stars, most notably at Manhattan's Stork Club.
Winchell used gossip as a weapon of empowerment for the masses. By invading the lives of the rich and famous, he brought them down to earth, humanizing them and democratizing their supposedly exalted domain. At the height of his power in the late Thirties, Winchell was rich himself but still the people's hero: He commanded 50 million loyal readers -- some two out of three adult Americans -- for his syndicated daily column, "On Broadway." His weekly radio broadcast, accompanied by the urgent tapping of a telegraph key, attracted larger audiences than did Bob Hope and Jack Benny.
The late-period Winchell -- megalomaniacal, ruthless, petty, a monster of populist demagoguery who told off presidents and ruined careers -- inspired the 1957 movie Sweet Smell of Success, with Burt Lancaster playing the columnist-as-villain character J.J. Hunsecker to icy perfection. After Winchell's World War II wallow in patriotism, he drifted into red baiting, aligning himself with J. Edgar Hoover, Roy Cohn, and senator Joseph McCarthy. Trapped in the persona created by his column, driven humorless and mad by power, he lost readers and made countless enemies. Inevitably, he also succumbed to the changing tide of fashion -- too old and intense for television, an antiquated relic gradually outpaced by his competitors. In 1967 he was reduced to taking out an ad in Variety, begging for a column venue. Within five years he was dead. Only one mourner attended his funeral -- his daughter Walda -- although a friend noted that "historians will be unable to explain the Twentieth Century without understanding Winchell."
The final stages of the Twentieth Century are what concern Neal Gabler today, especially the legacy of celebrity culture left behind by Winchell, and the dangers associated with America's escalating addiction to fame: "Right now I'm working on a short book called Life, the Movie, which began as an article for the New York Times. The central thesis is that celebrity has become the primary aesthetic and moral value of America. The operative force of life itself has become entertainment, and life itself is now the hottest medium. What the worship of celebrity portends -- for everyone in America -- is a post-human society.
"Celebrities have become mere signifiers of themselves, commodified to sell Nike or whatever. When Liz Taylor's movie career ended, she started to play her life, and it's been her greatest and most lucrative role. In tune with an overload of celebrities, the public no longer has any real authenticity or identity, either. In the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, people understood that everyone had a distinct private life and a separate public persona assumed for society. They were like actors in the classical tradition, performing the role of the people they were supposed to be. Now pretense is everything, and people are what they're pretending to be. It's impossible to find any kind of quotidian reality. As we are all bombarded by different varieties of celebrity, we have become denatured, removed from what's important. In our clothes, the label -- the signifier of the designer -- is now the important thing, not what we're actually wearing. With humans it's the same.
"The need to be famous has become the paradigm of life, and we all want to be part of it. You see this at sporting events, fans waving at the cameras, trying to be seen by their families and friends at home. The camera is the glass wall, and on the other side of the glass is the special anointment of fame, where everything happens. On those exploitative talk shows, people are happy to expose themselves for minor celebrity. If all you have to give is perversity, then you bring that to the camera, or simply come up with something invented. It's a sad, pathetic degeneracy, but the heart of America is an ache.
"Everyone participates in the process of entertainment, although 60 percent of Americans don't vote in political elections. The cultural life of the nation has become the people's political apparatus, a pure New Deal that makes the citizens feel as if they have some sort of power left. Actually, the arc of a celebrity career mirrors Joseph Campbell's stages of a hero: They emerge, sometimes go to the top, and then inevitably fall into eclipse. We nominate the candidates of fame, vote for them with our attentions, and then we're reassured when they fail or succeed. We help them rise or push them down, and when they're humiliated enough, extend our forgiveness. We're both jury and executioner, and all celebrities operate according to a license granted by the public. Charles Barkley's life role, for instance, means that he can get away with things that Michael Jordan can't.
"Some celebrities never understand this power. Burt Reynolds didn't understand his changing life role, and hubris almost destroyed his career -- it'll be interesting to see what happens with his part in Striptease. Dudley Moore is over but doesn't get it, still acts like a big shot when we've counted him out. I saw Eddie Murphy on a talk show the other night, promoting one of his movies, and there was a faint suggestion in his eyes that he knew he'd have to change to come back -- seem more polite and accessible to the public. We made John Travolta a star again after Pulp Fiction partly because he'd always seemed so nice when the trajectory of his career arc went down. The public are the gods who can bring stars back to life, if we choose to.
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"The dangerous thing about the power of entertainment is when its values purge everything else, when there is no longer any social or cultural hierarchy. The O.J. Simpson trial becomes the top story every day, and bounced legitimate news off the front page. Interviews with Michael Jackson are bartered, and royal treatment is extended to extremists. Newsweek allowed Timothy McVeigh -- a man charged with killing 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing -- to pick the photographer and writer who covered him, and then they put this hyperrealist portrait on the cover. At that point, the jig is up: The movie of life is truly all that's important, and any kind of celebrity can be transformed into entertainment."
So this, then, is the world Walter Winchell has brought us, this new dawn of gossip, terminal triviality, and debasement before the craven altar of celebrity. It seems to be the fault of one journalist or another, but Gabler believes the power of the press simply needs to be readjusted, to once again become a force of sanity in an insane world.
"The difference between modern journalists and Winchell is that he didn't take any crap: Publicists served him, he didn't serve them. Nobody told him what to do, from presidents on down, and he'd tell anybody to go fuck himself -- which may be a reason why so many people seem to like Howard Stern. Winchell never backed down and he didn't socialize with the people he wrote about, never tried to penetrate to the other side. Now you have columnists like Liz Smith and Suzy, whose entire aim is to support the rich and go to all the right parties.
"Then or now, power always has to reside somewhere, and lately it's with celebrities and publicists, exercising more and more control every day. Even considering Winchell's abuses of his influence, I'd still rather have the power of society in the hands of the journalists.