From Richard Nixon to Katharine Hepburn to Truman Capote to Tom Cruise, TV host and journalist Barbara Walters has interviewed pretty much every important person from all kinds of industries and walks of life. Her career has been not just long but groundbreaking. Walters announced that she would retire in 2014 and 2016 was the last time she was seen publicly.
After being the face of the Today Show, 20/20, and The View for decades, the now 90-year-old decided to call it a day (about six years ago). And oh, what a day she had. Her six-decades-long career made Walters a household name and go-to interviewer when people wanted to hear the real deal. This is the story of the infamous interviewer who rounded her Rs as much as she gave her honest opinions. From her hatred of being interviewed to her most memorable interviews, this is Barbara Walters.
Barbara Walters Hates to Be Interviewed
Here’s something that may come off as ironic or completely unsurprising: Barbara Walters doesn’t like to be interviewed. In fact, she announced it often during an interview she had with Vanity Fair in 2014, the year she announced her retirement. For a woman who spent most of her life interviewing others, it makes a heck of a lot of sense that she doesn’t like being on the receiving end.
“I hate it,” were her words. She continued, “You will find that I’m very hard to interview.” But how could Barbara Walters possibly think that she could go without ever being interviewed? After all, she’s been one of, if not THE most famous television interviewers we’ve ever known.
A Real Tough Cookie
And let’s face it, her rounded “R”s only make her more unique. But if you ask Walters, she’ll tell you she doesn’t see herself as anything special. “Do I see myself as a feminist idol? No. I don’t see myself as anything. I do not see myself as a trailblazer. I don’t think about that,” she told Vanity Fair. “I get up, and I do my day, and I do my work.”
But she doesn’t, by any means, sit around and think about herself and her legacy. That’s just what we do, and by “we,” I mean those who admire her body of work. Just ask her colleague Katie Couric, who said Walters was a real tough cookie.
Making Waves in TV Land
Couric admired the fact that she “rattled a lot of cages before women were even allowed into the zoo.” According to Sherri Shepherd, Walters’s co-host on The View, you can thank Walters for every talk show with more than one person of color. When it comes to network TV, you would typically see one Black person on the panel.
But it took the foresight and creative vision of Barbara Walters to say, “You know what? Maybe all Black people don’t think alike. ” Walters was making a real difference, but that’s not to say she wasn’t mocked here and there. Although she was parodied in the mid-‘70s as “Baba Wawa” on Saturday Night Live, Walters was doing some really groundbreaking work.
Known for Her “Personality Journalism”
Walters was known for “personality journalism” and “scoop” interviews. But, there was one particular interview that subjected Walters to mass ridicule, and that was the one with Katharine Hepburn. Her infamous question: “If you were a tree, what kind would you be?” On her last episode of 20/20, she showed a video of the Hepburn interview, showing the actress saying that she would like to be a tree.
Hepburn responded: “An oak,” because they’re “strong and pretty.” Hepburn had actually refused Walter’s requests for an interview. When she finally agreed to be interviewed, she said she wanted to meet Walters first. But before she could ask her the special tree question, Walters was met with a rather unwelcoming woman who clearly wasn’t in the mood.
Hepburn, Walters, and a Box of Chocolates
Walters walked in happy and ready to please, but Hepburn barked at her from the top of the stairs: “You’re late. Have you brought me chocolates?” Walters didn’t have chocolates with her but said that, after that day, she never showed up without them. The two powerful women met several times after that, mostly in Hepburn’s living room.
It was an opportunity for her to share her opinions with Walters, on the fact that careers and marriage are not a good mix, or that children and careers were out of the question. Walters admitted that Hepburn’s opinions stuck with her so much that she is able to repeat them verbatim to this day.
Her Most Inspiring Interview
Walters conducted historically significant interviews, like the unprecedented 1977 discussion with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. She interviewed world leaders from all walks of life in the latter part of the 20th century.
She’s sat down with the Shah of Iran, Vladimir Putin, Margaret Thatcher, Fidel Castro, and Indira Gandhi, to name only a few. That’s not to mention the pop stars, like Michael Jackson and Beyoncé, and everyone in between. But what was her most inspirational interview? She said it was her discussion with Robert J. Smithdas, a deaf-blind man who spent his whole life improving the lives of other individuals who are deaf and blind.
Talking Sense with Fidel Castro
1977 was a special year in her career, as she interviewed Cuban leader Fidel Castro. She spent two days with him, and the footage showed his personality as carefree, charming, and even humorous, but Walters still made a point of saying to him, “You allow no dissent. Your newspapers, radio, television, motion pictures are under state control.”
He replied: “Barbara, our concept of freedom of the press is not yours.” She concluded the broadcast by declaring that what they disagreed on “most profoundly” was the “meaning of freedom — and that is what truly separates us.” It was clear to audiences watching at home, and to Castro himself that Walters wasn’t afraid to say what she thought.
Making History in 1999
Her March 3, 1999 interview of Monica Lewinsky – seen by a record 74 million viewers – was the highest-ever rating for a news program. If you saw that interview, you might remember when Walters asked Lewinsky, “What will you tell your children when you have them?” It was a pertinent and intimate question, for sure, that Lewinsky answered honestly: “Mommy made a big mistake.”
Walters took that moment to bring the program to a dramatic end. She turned to the viewers and said, “And that is the understatement of the year.” The woman was fearless and devoted to making every discussion a memorable one. So what made her into the woman she became? Let’s look, for a moment, at her past…
A Look into Her Past
Barbara Jill Walters was born in 1929 (but she claimed that it was 1931 in an on-camera interview). The Boston native was born to Jewish parents who were descendants of refugees from the former Russian Empire. Her father, Lou Walters, managed the famous Latin Quarter nightclub and worked as a Broadway producer and booking agent.
Walters’s brother Burton died of pneumonia in 1944. And her older sister Jacqueline, who was born mentally disabled, passed away from ovarian cancer in 1985.
Walters said her father made and lost numerous fortunes throughout his career in show business. She remembers him taking her to the night club show rehearsals that he directed and produced. The dancers would twirl her around until she was dizzy.
A Rather Atypical Childhood
Walters explained how her comfort with and understanding of famous people is due to her rather unconventional childhood. Having been around celebrities from such a young age, she wasn’t “in awe” of them. Her father moved the family around a lot, from Massachusetts to Miami Beach to New York City.
She grew up around singers, showgirls, actors, and comedians. From her little spot in the lighting booth, she became aware that “behind these fantasy, figures were real people,” with real problems like everyone else. According to Joy Behar, her co-host on The View, Walters’s ability to focus on someone or something was honed in nightclubs. “When she’s at the show, she’s ‘on,’ ” Behar said.
Her Father’s Daughter
Behar also described that when Walters is on a plane, she puts her glasses on and just reads. It was something she also did as a young woman at her father’s Latin Quarter club. Comedians would come in and out, and “see the young Barbara in the corner, with her glasses, reading,” Behar said.
After graduating with a B.A. in English from Sarah Lawrence College, she immediately started looking for work in NYC. Around this time, her father found himself in deep debt as the popularity of nightclubs decreased. When she was 28 and working in the radio-and-television department of a PR firm, her father attempted suicide by intentionally overdosing on sleeping pills.
Helping the Family Out Financially
Walters then had to ride with him in the ambulance to the hospital. She soon learned that her father owed taxes that he couldn’t pay, and so she helped him during his ensuing legal and financial complications. The overachiever started providing financial assistance to both her parents and older sister.
“In my 20s, when I should have been having this wonderful time, I was working and supporting my family,” Walters said. She explained why it was so important for her: “Most men, if they hated the job, or if it was boring to them or beneath them, they had to work. The women didn’t. So the women got married, or they took time off or they took a trip if they had the wherewithal. I had to work. That’s the difference. That’s why I am where I am today.”
An Amazing Accident
Walters said that her whole “being in front of the camera is such an amazing accident.” She worked for about a year at a small advertising agency, then at the NBC network affiliate WNBC, doing publicity. She produced a 15-minute kids program called Ask the Camera in 1953. She produced a show for TV host Igor Cassini but decided to leave once her boss pressured her to marry him. Apparently, they fought it out.
Walters came aboard NBC’s The Today Show as both a writer and researcher in 1961. Eventually, she became the show’s regular “Today Girl,” handling the lighter assignments, including the weather. She wrote in her autobiography that this era – before the Women’s Movement – was a time when people didn’t take a woman who was reporting “hard news” Seriously.
The Today Show – Paving the Way
The “Today Girls” before her (whom she called “tea pourers”) included the likes of Florence Henderson, Helen O’Connell, Estelle Parsons, and Lee Meriwether. Despite the lack of respect for women in her field, it took less than a year for Walters to become a reporter-at-large, developing, writing, and editing reports and interviews of her own. She was paving the way for future female reporters.
Walters had a great relationship with host Hugh Downs for a long time, but when Frank McGee was named the new host, he refused to do joint interviews with her unless he could ask the first three questions. Walters was only named co-host of the show once McGee died in 1974. Then, NBC officially designated her as the program’s first female co-host.
You might also like to know that before that, starting in 1971, Walters hosted her own local NBC affiliate show called Not for Women Only. It aired in the mornings after The Today Show. It wouldn’t be long before Walters would move on to join a new show – one that would make her a household name.
ABC Evening News – Making History on TV
In 1976, Walters accepted a deal she couldn’t refuse. One million dollars a year for five years to move to ABC? Yes, sir. At ABC, Walters became television’s first network anchorwoman – something many would (and did) call the most prestigious job in TV journalism. There were also the four prime-time specials and documentary programs that she produced and hosted.
Of course, her contract with ABC stirred criticism and jealousy. Her income from NBC was doubled, and her show Not for Women Only made her the highest-paid newscaster of all time – at the time. To give you some perspective, Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, and Harry Reasoner were each getting about $400,000.
The Secrets of Her Success
Despite Walters’s idiosyncratic interviewing techniques, she seldom alienated the person she was interviewing. She revealed the “secrets of her success” in her book How to Talk With Practically Anybody About Practically Anything (released in 1970). Many said her interviewing success was a result of her ability to ask the questions the public wanted answered.
Still, Walters had her critics. Some interviewees said her nervousness was distracting. Others said Walters was so eager that mistakes happened, like the time she grabbed a different network’s microphone as she jumped to get a unique interview. But, at the end of the day, her admirers outnumbered her critics. Walter Cronkite, for one, noted her special interviewing talents.
Facing the Hate
Other network executives complained about having their own established anchors demanding salary increases. The way these execs saw it, Walters was adding a “show biz tint” to the dry task of reporting the news. They also questioned whether the public was willing to accept a female news anchor. According to ABC’s private polls, before their offer to Walters, only 13 percent preferred a male anchor.
Walters didn’t hide anything. She described the palpable hate she received from her co-anchor Harry Reasoner when the two had to team up on the ABC Evening News from 1976 to 1978. Reasoner said he didn’t like having a co-anchor, despite the fact that he worked with former CBS colleague Howard K. Smith every night on ABC for several years.
“I’m Barbara Walters, and This Is 20/20”
In 1981, five years after their short-lived ABC partnership and long after Reasoner went back to CBS News, Walters and Reasoner had a memorable (and pleasant) interview on 20/20. If there’s a show that is synonymous with Barbara Walters, it’s definitely 20/20. But, by 2004, after 25 years as co-host and chief correspondent of 20/20, she left the show to start a new phase in her career.
In her final season, her exclusive interviews included the first one with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, the first with Martha Stewart before her infamous trial and again after her sentencing, a candid conversation with the Osbournes, and even with actor Robert Blake, who spoke to her for the first time after his arrest for the murder of his wife.
In 1997, Walters became the co-host of the talk show The View – a program she co-created and co-produced with her business partner, Bill Geddie. It premiered on August 11, 1997. The way Walters described it, it was a forum for women of “different generations, backgrounds, and views.” The show earned Walters a Daytime Emmy for Best Talk Show in 2003.
And in 2009, she won Best Talk Show Host (along with Joy Behar, Whoopi Goldberg, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, and Sherri Shepherd). In 2014, Walters retired from the co-host gig. Still, despite the announced retirement, Walters returned sometimes as a guest co-host throughout 2014 and 2015. Some old habits just die hard, I guess.
One of Her Biggest Regrets
The pioneer of broadcast journalism said one of her biggest regrets is not having spent more time with her daughter, Jackie. When she was 84, she spoke about it on an ABC News special called Barbara Walters: Her Story. “I was so busy with a career. It’s the age-old problem.”
“On your deathbed, are you going to say, ‘I wish I spent more time in the office?’ No. You’ll say, ‘I wish I spent more time with my family,’ and I do feel that way. I wish I had spent more time with my Jackie.” In her interview with longtime business partner Bill Geddie, she spoke openly about how her career affected her relationships.
Married Four Times to Three Men
Walter also didn’t hide her multiple miscarriages. Despite them, she explained, she still desperately wanted a child. Walters was married more than once and tended to put her career first. In fact, she was married four times to three different men. Robert Henry Katz, a business executive and former Navy lieutenant was her first husband.
They married in 1955, but they had the marriage annulled after 11 months. Her second marriage was to Lee Guber, a theatrical producer and theater owner. They married in 1963 and divorced in 1976. Their daughter, Jacqueline Dena Guber, was born in 1968 and adopted by them in the same year. They named her after Walters’ sister with disabilities.
A Matter of Trial and Error
Then, there was Merv Adelson, the CEO of Lorimar Television, who became her third husband. They married in 1981 and divorced in 1984. But this is the man she married twice – the second time being in 1986. They also divorced a second time in 1992. After that trial and error of a marriage, Walters started dating a lawyer named Roy Cohn.
If you asked Cohn, he would have told you that he proposed to Walters the night before her wedding to Guber. But Walters denied this. She did, however, explain that her lifelong devotion to Cohn was a form of gratitude for helping her adopt Jacqueline. She was also grateful to him for his legal assistance to her father.
“I Wasn’t Very Good at Marriage.”
Walters was romantically linked to a number of important men, including Alan Greenspan in the ‘70s and John Warner in the ‘90s. She even claimed in her autobiography to have had an affair in the ‘70s with Edward Brooke, a married US Senator from Massachusetts. She said they ended it to protect both of their careers from scandal.
What isn’t clear, though, is whether or not she was married at the time. All in all, regarding her biggest regret, she said in 2014 that she wished she would have had more children. She also admitted that she wasn’t “very good at marriage. It may be that my career was just too important. It may have been that I was a difficult person to be married to, and I just seem to be better alone. I’m not lonely, I’m alone.”
Leaving Behind a Legacy
Walters said that she purposely shielded her daughter, now 52, from the limelight. Apparently, Jackie has struggled with having such a famous mother. “Jackie has found it difficult, all her life because she wants to be anonymous, she just doesn’t like to be a celebrity,” Walters explained. “She may be the only one in the world who doesn’t like to be a celebrity.”
Walters was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1989, and, in 2007, she received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She’s won Daytime and Prime Time Emmy Awards as well as a Women in Film Lucy Award. There was also a GLAAD Excellence in Media award.
She is still around, although we don’t see her much in public. We wish her well.
If you hung around, then you might like to check out the world of TV reporters, specifically how much they really make. No, Barbara Walters is not on the list…