Picks and Pans Review: Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity

updated 12/05/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/05/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

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)

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