Neal Gabler

Fate played a vengeful trick on Walter Winchell, trailblazing columnist and radio superstar. No individual in news or entertainment history has wielded such power or been so feared simply because of his masterful manipulation of gossip and the public's thirst for it. Winchell was the confidant of gangsters (Al Capone gave him an exclusive interview) and Presidents (as war loomed, FDR slipped him tips about his views on Hitler). At the height of his popularity in 1940, 50 million Americans either read his daily columns or listened to his weekly broadcasts.

Whether scooping the world (as he did when he predicted Edward VIII's abdication) or detailing the latest lurid crime (as he did at the Lindbergh baby murder trial), Winchell's bulletins were delivered in a speedy, quick-witted argot.

And yet who remembers Winchell today? As Gabler observes in this superb biography, if we think of him at all, it's because of The Sweet Smell of Success (1957), in which Burt Lancaster plays Winchell-inspired J.J. Hunsecker. The movie, states the author, "definitively established the image of Winchell as a megalomaniac." It's a view Gabler enlarges upon, creating a rich portrait, filling in the tragic details of Winchell's barren family life, and the many ways his itch to pull the mighty off their pedestals has affected our history.

In the end, Winchell, a lifelong outsider, fell victim to his self-made might. The advent of television diminished his reach. His hot-blooded overreaction to a personal slight put him (unwillingly) at odds with the civil rights movement. His anticommunist hysteria led him to attack (unwisely) such beloved figures as Lucille Ball. When he died in 1972, writes Gabler, "few really remembered, fewer cared." Here Winchell obtains an epic, if empty grandeur as the unacknowledged father of gossip, America's real national pastime. (Knopf, $30)

Peter Maas

Toot, toot! Here comes China white, heroin from Asia's golden triangle so pure and potent that it can be snorted or smoked instead of injected. The subject seems perfect for a true-crime master like Maas (Serpico, The Valachi Papers). Instead, the author turns it into fiction, not always with mellow results.

In New York City, the Chinese criminal societies called triads, older than the Mafia, are negotiating with the Italians to distribute their product, which they plan to smuggle out of Asia through Red China. It doesn't take former prosecutor Tom MacLean, now with a prestigious law firm, to learn that his rich Hong Kong client, Y.K. Deng, is anything but a legitimate businessman. With sometime-girlfriend Shannon O'Shea, an FBI agent, Tom is swept into a labyrinth of deceit.

Although he is nowhere as sententious as Tom Clancy, Maas pauses often to pronounce on the history of the drug trade, the triads and Chinatown youth gangs. His characters are stock players: Shannon is darn plucky and just happens to speak several arcane dialects of Chinese; Tom is Ivy League sharp, with a father who has retired from running the CIA in Saigon during the Vietnam War. The villains are more interesting, particularly Deng's bodyguard Chao Yu, who performs nastily inventive murders. Yet, in this case, fact seems stranger—and stronger—than fiction. It probably would have been more satisfying too. (Simon & Schuster, $23)

by Ellen Burstein MacFarlane with Patricia Burstein

Ellen Burstein MacFarlane depended on legwork to do her job as a crusading consumer advocate for WCPX-TV in Orlando. Then, at 41, she was told that she had multiple sclerosis and began losing the use of her legs. Today MacFarlane is triplegic—only her right arm is functional—and she needs around-the-clock care. A terrifying downward spiral for anyone, this decline especially devastated MacFarlane, who had battled depression for years before finding fulfillment as a TV reporter.

Yet her story is not a downer. For a year, she falls into the clutches of a doctor who promises a miracle cure—the kind of charlatan she used to unmask for a living. In spite of that costly debacle, she develops a new awareness of her family's love for her and pride at not giving in to the disease.

Legwork is not for everyone. An autobiography (written with her twin, Patricia, a former PEOPLE reporter), it reflects the character of a woman at times self-involved, irascible and extremely blunt. When MacFarlane lost her hair after undergoing experimental chemotherapy for MS, she wanted to go on-camera bald—but was prevailed upon to don a scarf. MacFarlane's willingness to present herself uncensored is one more courageous act in a life that has called for it in triplicate. (Scribner's, $22)

John Denver with Arthur Tobier

Not to be read before operating heavy machinery, John Denver's autobiography is as devoid of real emotion as a Muzak version of "Rocky Mountain High." What might have been the moving story of a rootless boy's rise to music and movie stardom is stultified by Denver's dispassionate narrative voice.

Nor has Denver succeeded in capturing the fervent times that fueled his singing and fostered his social activism. The book also seems occasionally dishonest, especially when something as significant as his arrest for drunk driving (he was stopped a second time this summer) is dismissed with: "I feel that I was perfectly in control of my faculties, but that's another story." If he ever tells that other story, Denver should muster more feeling than is evident here. (Harmony, $22)

Caroline Graham

Since Camilla Parker Bowles is alone among the protagonists of the royal love triangle in having failed to sanction a book about herself, a biography of her would fill one of the only remaining gaps in this grisly tale. But this book doesn't do the job. Full of unattributed quotes, confusing chronology and hyperbolic language (the release of the Camilla-Charles tape is called "a scandal unparalleled in modern times"), Camilla is a disappointment for those of us still gamely hanging in as this exhausting saga writhes its last.

Graham's book is very pro-Charles. The Prince's decision to tell all in Jonathan Dimbleby's TV documentary and biography is hailed as a triumph. In reality, the reaction to Charles's candor has been mixed at best. If Graham, who writes for the London Sun, had acknowledged this, though, she could not have made such a fuss over how on the days before the taping of the show the Prince of Wales spent hours conferring with Mrs. Parker Bowles about what he should say. The shocker would have been if Charles had blurted out his sorry story without consulting Camilla. (Contemporary, $19.95)

Morgan Monceaux

Monceaux, a college graduate and a Vietnam War Navy veteran, was homeless on the streets of Manhattan before he began the project that brought him his initial recognition: painting a portrait of every American President. He has now created a second set of portraits, this time of jazz legends in the same idiosyncratic folk-art style.

In many cases, Monceaux doesn't achieve (or try for) a facial likeness, but each portrait has an individual heft and some (a saturnine, longhaired Miles Davis; an acute, withering Nina Simone) are startlingly evocative. But the strongest paintings in the book are not the portraits but something new for Monceaux: a series of semi-representational paintings that seem to be personal responses to one or another of the jazz greats. These are as colorful, kinetic and imaginative as the music itself. (Knopf, $18)

>Neal Gabler

GETTING THE GOODS ON WINCHELL

"EVERYTHING INTRIGUED ME ABOUT him," says Neal Gabler, 44, after spending six years immersed in the ruthless life and heady times of Walter Winchell. "Month after month, he never bored me. I was fascinated that he lived at a pitch that would have burnt out any other human being. There could never be a another Winchell," adds Gabler, a former Sneak Previews film reviewer whose first book, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, was published to great acclaim in 1988. "Today, Rush Limbaugh delivers political commentary in roughly the same style; Larry King uses his media connections to gain political access in the way Winchell did. Liz Smith writes about personalities and cafe society; Howard Stern talks about the peccadilloes of others, but no one has Winchell's range, and in today's competitive media environment no one could ever monopolize information the way that he did."

Martin Scorsese has scooped up Winchell screen rights, and though he hasn't been asked, Gabler lists Dustin Hoffman, Tom Hanks, Richard Dreyfuss and Kevin Costner on his roster to star in the coveted role.

As absorbing as Winchell's company was, Gabler, who lives in Amagansett, N.Y., with his wife, Christina, and their two daughters, Laurel, 10, and Tanne, 7, has had no trouble parting with his subject. In March he plans to tackle his next big project: Walt Disney. "He will be my obsession for the next six years," says Gabler, "and I can't wait to make his acquaintanceship."

  • Contributors:
  • F.X. Feeney,
  • J.D. Reed,
  • Clare McHugh,
  • Alex Tresniowski,
  • Eric Levin,
  • Kristin McMurran.