Barbara Walters, broadcast news pioneer, has died
Barbara Walters broke barriers and inspired a generation, as the first female co-host of a morning and evening newscast.
Scott L. Hall and Patrick Colson-Price, USA TODAY
Barbara Walters, a broadcast legend and pioneer who became the first woman to co-host a morning and evening newscast, died at age 93, ABC News announced during a live special report Friday.
“Barbara Walters passed away peacefully in her home surrounded by loved ones. She lived her life with no regrets,” her representative Cindi Berger said in a statement to USA TODAY. “She was a trailblazer not only for female journalists, but for all women.”
ABC News’ David Muir paid tribute to Walters on-air, remembering her as an “extraordinary human being, journalist, pioneer, legend.”
“We were all influenced by Barbara Walters,” he said. “She broke barriers behind the scenes and she broke news on-camera. She got people to say things they never would’ve said to another journalist.”
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The daughter of a nightclub owner, Walters got into television to support the family after he went broke. She went on to a career asking questions about the public and private lives of the powerful, rich, famous and infamous. And no other woman in television journalism had a longer career, with more hits and flops, scoops and controversies, praise and ridicule.
She made her on-air debut in 1956, when as a writer for CBS’ “The Morning Show,” she and four other young women modeled modest one-piece bathing suits. In 1961, she became NBC’s “Today Girl,” and in 1974, the first female co-host of “Today.” In 1976, she was disastrously teamed with Harry Reasoner, as co-anchors of ABC’s “Evening News.” Reasoner didn’t think much of her, and he didn’t hide it.
But she “survived,” as she put it, and enjoyed a long career at ABC interviewing celebrities and politicians, including Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin (together, for the first time, in 1977). She had a successful run on newsmagazine “20/20” and in 1997, launched “The View,” ABC’s daily chatfest aimed at women.
More: USA TODAY’s Susan Page to release Barbara Walters biography
Over the years, she interviewed Richard Nixon and his wife, Pat, John Wayne, the Shah of Iran, Fidel Castro (an hourlong prime-time exclusive that was broadcast worldwide), Barbra Streisand and, perhaps most famously, presidential intern Monica Lewinsky (who drew a record news-broadcast audience of 48.5 million viewers).
Her “Barbara Walters Specials” for years were among the top-rated broadcasts, and included a Who’s Who of entertainers such as Sir Laurence Olivier, Bing Crosby, Bette Davis, Tom Cruise, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Her “Most Fascinating People” special broadcasts, launched in 1993, offered a year-end review of prominent newsmakers of the year.
Her high profile drew a measure of mockery. Comic Gilda Radner entered American folklore by exaggerating Walters’ trademark speech impediment, a slight lisp, as Baba Wawa in the early days of “Saturday Night Live.” Later, Cheri Oteri impersonated the journalist in sketches about “The View” and “20/20.” Oteri tickled CNN New Year’s Eve hosts Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen when she revived the impression to ring in 2020.
Walters was mercilessly haunted by her question to actress Katherine Hepburn in 1981, what kind of tree she wanted to be. Actually, as Walters corrected the story in a 2008 interview with USA TODAY, it was Hepburn who said, “I’m like a tree.” “So,” said Walters, “I asked, ‘What kind of tree?’” but “no one remembers that.” (Hepburn’s answer: “Everybody would like to be an oak tree; that’s very strong, very pretty.”)
One question she herself perennially ducked: Her exact age. “Every woman is entitled to one fetish,” she said in that interview. “It’s so silly. Let’s just say I’m closer to 80 than 70.” After a theatrical pause, she added, “Now you’re supposed to tell me how good I look.”
Walters’ 2008 bestselling memoir, “Audition,” was filled with the kind of personal disclosures she loved getting in celebrity interviews.
Married four times to three men (TV executive Merv Adelson twice), Walters was known for dating famous men, including former Virginia Sen. John Warner, before and after his marriage to Elizabeth Taylor. “I could not imagine a less well-suited pair,” Walters said of Warner and Taylor.
Walters’ memoir revealed that in the 1970s she had a “rocky” affair with Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke, the first Black person elected to the Senate since Reconstruction, who was married. She described Brooke as “the most attractive, sexiest, funniest, charming and impossible man.”
Their affair lasted a few years until both decided, she wrote, that they couldn’t afford to risk their careers and “wisely but very sadly” stopped seeing each other.
In her 2008 interview, Walters was asked a question she often asked others: How did she want to be remembered? “On a personal level, as a loving mother. On a professional level, I don’t want to be remembered for asking Katharine Hepburn what kind of tree she’d like to be, which I didn’t do. Or as an interviewer who made people cry – which I don’t do anymore – but as a good journalist.”
She was famous for attempting, and more often than not succeeding, in drawing tears from interview subjects. She said she’d asked about her subject’s childhood, “because that’s revealing, and they’d remember a parent or someone who’d died. That’s before every celebrity getting out of rehab would cry.”
When ABC did a special on Walters in 2008, anchor Charles Gibson asked her what he could ask about that would make her cry.
Her answer: her older sister, Jacqueline, who died in 1985. In her memoir, Walters acknowledged feeling both “embarrassed” and “ashamed” of her sister, who was mildly mentally disabled. “I loved her and at times I hated her –for being different.”
Walters’ memoir dealt as well with the turbulent adolescence of her daughter, also named Jacqueline, who was involved with drugs, gangs and ran away from home. “That was such a terrible time,” Walters said, “but we made it.” Her daughter, born in 1968, went on to run an outdoor therapy program for girls.
Walters took on a new mindset after having open-heart surgery to replace her aortic valve in 2010.
“The surgery had to have had some meaning for me,” she wrote in an essay for Vanity Fair. “I decided that with my new heart it was time for a new attitude, time to do things I had wanted to do for years and not continue doing things I had no serious interest in. No more big dinners just to prove I was invited. No more opera. Ditto for Shakespeare. No more splashy charity events. Send a check instead. The new and happier me.”
Word surfaced in 2013 that Walters planned to retire the following year from her hosting duties at ABC’s “The View” and her prime time specials. She announced in April 2014 that she would depart the talk show the next month, explaining on the program: “It feels right for me. I love this show. I love what we’ve done. It will continue without me. But I also know that it’s time. I don’t want people to say, ‘Is she still here?'”
Shortly before her departure, she told USA TODAY the decision was not forced upon her. “Nobody was pushing me, (and) there was not somebody newer, younger, funnier,” she said. “At some point, I just thought it was time. If I stayed yet another year, I’m not sure what that would have given me. It’s been 18 years.”
Although she appeared on “The View” after her retirement, Walters mostly kept out of the public eye.
On New Year’s 2020, Walters once again became top of mind, thanks to her legendary introductory line: “This is 20/20.” “Good Morning America” celebrated Walters and her iconic catchphrase by having a few celebrities try their hand at the famous line. A video kicked off with old footage of Walters on the news show saying “This is 20/20,” acknowledging that “no one says it like Barbara” before cutting to ABC stars’ take on the catchphrase.
In 2008, Walters said, “I’m in a good place in my life. I’ve stopped auditioning. I don’t need to climb any more mountains. The ghosts are gone.”
A native of Boston, Walters was the daughter of entertainment impresario Lou Walters, who owned nightclubs in New York, Miami and Boston. She is survived by her daughter.
Longtime USA TODAY reporter Bob Minzesheimer died in 2016.
Contributing: Peter Johnson, Ann Oldenburg, Rasha Ali and Erin Jensen