Barbara Walters’s much-publicized autobiography, Audition, is, in many ways, like a Victorian novel: It is the long-winded, almost classic tale, over 600 pages in length, of an insecure but tenacious girl with an unhappy childhood who, by dint of her own hard work, manages to succeed far beyond her wildest imagining. Oh, yes, she encounters obstacles along the way, primarily chauvinistic male colleagues who want to keep her in her place. But she doesn’t mind telling you, in an extremely ladylike way, how she managed to outdo them all.
In several of the many interviews she has given to promote the book, Walters has said that she worried she had been too revealing. And she does share some details of her early life with an anxious mother, a developmentally disabled older sister, and a suicide-prone producer father who made, then lost, several fortunes in show business. She also describes her daughter’s difficult teenage years, when the girl experimented with drugs; and her own three unsatisfying marriages, which all ended in divorce. But much of what she tells she doled out in bits and pieces over the years to the women’s magazines that agreed to put her on their covers.
What is most dishy is the many love affairs with prominent men that she now acknowledges — including those with Alan Greenspan, Ace Greenberg, Claude Philippe, John Diebold, Judge Matt Byrne, and Sen. John Warner. There is also her affair during the early 1970s with Edward Brooke, the married African-American senator from Massachusetts. She gave that, the book’s juiciest tidbit, to the media in advance of the book’s publication in order to make some news. Walters has always been a masterful self-promoter.
About Brooke, she writes that she was “fascinated, intrigued, and infatuated.” He told her she was the oldest woman he had ever been attracted to. They broke off their relationship when they both realized it would endanger their careers. Almost as interesting is her long, complicated friendship with Roy Cohn, whom she met when she was a college student at Sarah Lawrence. Cohn, a homosexual, once asked her to marry him, and won her affection and gratitude when he managed to get an arrest warrant against her father dropped.
But while Walters tells a bit more about her personal life than ever before, much of the book details her climb onward and upward from a writer on the Today show to her position as TV journalistic prima donna assoluta. Throughout her career Walters was driven, calculating, and competitive. Walters claims she always worked so hard because she had to support her family and take care of her ailing sister. She never acknowledges that the book, which she called Audition because she says she feels she has always been auditioning for something, could just as easily have been titled Ambition.
She does take jabs at those who tried to hold her back along the way, especially Frank McGee, the sulky Today Show host who wanted to confine her, early in her career, to “girlie” interviews and only let her ask a question of a studio guest after he had asked three. To circumvent that rule, Walters began doing out-of-the-studio interviews, honing her skills at getting the big “get.” She also still seems resentful that when she left Today after 13 years for her $5 million ABC co-anchor contract, “it was good-by and good riddance.” Not the kind of gala send-off Katie Couric received before her departure.
Walters also recounts her greatest news-making hits — her interviews with Sadat and Begin when Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty. And there is the inside story of her greatest “get” of all, her exclusive with Monica Lewinsky. There are also the celebrities, the endless stream of stars and semi-stars that she focused on in recent years and about whom she writes with almost cloying affection. She devotes her next-to-last chapter to the cat fights on The View, remaining ever-so-gracious and forgiving even about the difficult Star Jones and the impossible Rosie.
There is no doubt that Walters changed television news with her emotional interviewing style and her skill at human-interest stories, but she has virtually nothing to say about the changes she, perhaps more than anyone else, helped create. In fact, she acts as if she was merely an innocent bystander to the dumbing down. In explaining why she felt it was time to leave the magazine show 20/20, she writes that she wanted her last interview to be with President Bush. But she had also put in a request to speak with Mary Kay Letourneau, the teacher who had a sexual relationship with an underage student. She writes: “The president? The child molester? The powers that be chose Mary Kay Letourneau. I rest my case.” It would have been a lot more honest in this supposedly revealing book for Barbara Walters to acknowledge her share of the blame.
– Myrna Blyth, long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness – and Liberalism – to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.