Famed television journalist Barbara Walters is best known as the 11-year star of the Today show, and for being the first female co-anchor of a network evening news program.
Her parents were both Jewish, and descendants of refugees from the former Russian Empire, now Eastern Europe.Walters' paternal grandfather, Isaac Abrahams, was born in Łódź, Poland, and emigrated to England, changing his name to Abraham Walters (the original family surname was Warmwasser).Walters' father, Lou, was born in London c. 1896 and moved to New York with his father and two brothers, arriving August 28, 1909.
Journalist and writer Barbara Jill Walters was born on September 25, 1929, in Boston, Massachusetts, the daughter of Dena Seletsky Walters and nightclub impresario Lou Walters. She had two siblings: older sister Jacqueline, who was born developmentally disabled and died in 1985, and brother Burton, who died of pneumonia in 1932. Walters was born Jewish, though her parents weren't practicing Jews.
In 1937, Lou Walters opened a chain of nightclubs that expanded his business from Boston, Massachusetts, to Miami Beach, Florida. As a result, Barbara attended Fieldston and Birch Wathen private schools in New York City, and graduated from Miami Beach High School in 1947. Barbara was surrounded by celebrities from an early age, which has been said to account for her relaxed manner when interviewing famous people.
Walters attended Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, graduating in 1953 with a bachelor's degree in English. After a brief stint as a secretary, she landed her first job in journalism as the assistant to publicity director and Republican activist Tex McCary of WRCA-TV. After sharpening her writing and producing skills at the NBC affiliate, Walters moved to CBS, where she wrote material for the network's Morning Show. In 1955, she married business executive Robert Henry Katz. They divorced in 1958.
“Until I was about twenty-three or twenty-four,” she told interviewer Tabitha Soren in 1996, “we were very rich. I can go around New York and show you all the penthouses we lived in. And then in my later twenties it was all gone.” From that point on, Walters focused on supporting herself and helping to take care of her family.
Walters worked briefly for a New York advertising agency before taking her first position in television. She began not as a broadcaster but as assistant to the publicity director for the NBC-affiliated television station in New York City. She was soon the youngest person ever to become a producer at the station. After going from there to another local station, she joined the CBS network staff as a news and public affairs producer and as a writer.
Walters took a break from television to work for a theatrical public relations firm, but she was back in broadcasting by 1961. Working as a writer for NBC’s successful morning show Today, she began for the first time to make occasional appearances on the air. These feature-story appearances led to an opportunity to try out as the “Today Girl.” Walters took the role of the pretty, smiling small-talker and turned it into an essential part of the program. Before long she was reading news and acting as a commentator. She also worked in the field, going in 1972 to China as part of the NBC News team covering President Richard Nixon’s historic visit.
It was at Today that Walters began doing interviews, an area of broadcasting that would become her specialty. Her interviews with such eminent figures as Golda Meir, Robert Kennedy, and Coretta Scott King led to a reputation as a serious interviewer of serious people.
Walters’s professionalism—along with her remarkable intelligence and presence—elicited a powerful response from audiences. In 1974, she became the show’s cohost, working beside veteran Hugh Downs. In 1975, she won an Emmy for her work on the show. She also acquired her own syndicated talk show, Not for Women Only. This spectacular rise peaked in 1976 when she became the first woman to cohost a new network show—the ABC Evening News. So convinced were they that Walters was the woman for the job, the network offered her a record-breaking million-dollar annual salary and a five-year contract. It made her the highest-paid journalist, male or female, up to that time. That fact was trumpeted in the press, and Walters was suddenly a bigger celebrity than many of the people she interviewed.
This particular triumph, however, did not last. Her cohost, Harry Reasoner, did not cooperate. “Harry did not want a partner,” Walters says. “It was very painful. Definitely the worst year of my life.” Only a year and a half after she took the job, she was out of the anchor desk—but not off the air. The highest-paid journalist in history fulfilled her contract with ABC by producing her own television specials.
Under attack in the press as a five-million-dollar bomb, Walters suffered considerable anguish, but the disaster led to even greater success. Her interviewing skills made The Barbara Walters Specials legendary. According to broadcaster Mike Wallace, a friend and rival, “She’s the best damn interviewer in the business. It’s taken all this time to perfect her craft, and she never stopped working at it. Everything she has invested—the phone calls, the contacts, the letters, the knowledge—has paid off. For a long time, people didn’t understand what a good journalist she is.”
Walters herself had doubts after the conflict with Reasoner, and her work in the 1970s reflected it. “There was a long time when I was working my way back from the tough times in the ’70s and I felt I had to prove myself journalistically.” During that time Walters developed a reputation for stealing interviews and fawning over celebrities. Certainly she has been intensely competitive. Once, Diane Sawyer was set to interview Katharine Hepburn when Walters reportedly called to say, “Strike the lights, turn off the cameras. I’ll be right there to do it myself.” It is impossible to say, however, how much of the resentment was due to Walters’s personality and how much to her success.
In any case, Walters earned the respect of those celebrities and political figures everyone in journalism wanted to interview. She was able to obtain one exclusive interview after another. Princess Grace of Monaco agreed to talk to Walters, as did Henry Kissinger. She conversed on the air with Prince Philip, Fred Astaire, and Mamie Eisenhower. She has interviewed every president since Richard Nixon and every first lady since Lady Bird Johnson. In 1977, she arranged the first joint interviews with President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel. She also interviewed President Fidel Castro of Cuba.
In 1982 and 1983, Walters won Emmy awards for her interviewing. In 1984, she was back on a regularly scheduled show. With old friend and cohost Hugh Downs, she helped to develop one of the first, and still one of the best, investigative news shows, 20/20.
Walters has collected virtually all of the broadcasting industry’s highest awards. She received the National Association of Television Program Executives Award and was named the International Radio and Television Society’s Broadcaster of the Year in 1975, the year she received the first of her four Emmy awards (1970, 1980, 1982, 1983). In 1988, she was honored with the President’s Award by the Overseas Press Club and was given a retrospective at the Museum of Broadcasting. In 1990, she was inducted into the Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame and received the Lowell Thomas Award for journalistic excellence. She received the lifetime achievement award of the International Women’s Media Foundation in 1991, and that of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2000.
In 1994, Walters made the news when another ABC broadcaster, Diane Sawyer, was offered a contract worth an extraordinary seven million dollars a year. As always, Walters was the standard against which any woman journalist was measured. The press immediately reported that Walters made ten million dollars, but that the production costs of her specials cut into that figure. Her agent was soon renegotiating her contract.
As host of the program, Walters helped to keep 20/20 at the top of the newsmagazine shows, in spite of the proliferation of rivals. She won acclaim for her interviews of General Colin Powell and actor/director Christopher Reeve. She also conducted the first interview on American television of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and the first interview with President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.
The View, a talk show forum for women’s issues which Walter co-owns, co-produces and co-hosts, premiered in 1997. But she remained as host of 20/20--becoming its sole anchor in 1999—until September 2004. Since then, she has continued to do several ABC News interview specials a year and to host The View. When Walters announced her intention to leave the show, 20/20 was averaging just under ten million viewers a week.
How to Talk With Practically Anybody About Practically Anything, June, 1970
Barbara Walters admits she had no religious training and doesn't practice any religion. But after a year spent working on the ABC News special on heaven, Walters found herself fascinated by the afterlife. "I've done years and years of specials," she told Beliefnet, "but I care more about this one than anything I've ever done." For the two-hour program, "Heaven: Where is it? How do we get there?," which airs December 20 at 9 p.m. EST, Walters traveled the world, interviewing dozens of religious leaders, as well as scientists and atheists. The result is an intriguing look at what heaven means in many different religious traditions, what people who claim to have had near-death experiences believe about the afterlife, and why heaven has such a powerful hold on the popular imagination.
"Journalists and reporters try very hard not to divulge their political views/affiliations to the public, for the fear that they will then appear biased. However, I believe her political standings tend to lean to the left." - Barbara about her political views.
Walters’s professionalism—along with her remarkable intelligence and presence—elicited a powerful response from audiences.She is sometimes criticized for displaying personal emotion to pump ratings and relying on "softball questions."
Walters certainly knows a bit about being knocked down and getting back up.
"It has been an absolutely joyful, rewarding, challenging, fascinating and occasionally bumpy ride and I wouldn't change a thing."
"The idea that I had a plan in my mind, that I was going to have this great, glorious career, is absurd. Nobody has that kind of plan -- I got on the 'Today' show by accident. I was hired for 13 weeks as a writer on the show, I stayed for 13 years. I went to ABC and was a failure."
"I was a total flop ... But the best thing that happened to me was that I had to work my way back."
"Work harder than everybody. You're not going to get it by whining, and you're not going to get it by shouting, and you're not going to get it by quitting. You're going to get it by being there."
"I can't tell you how much pleasure it gives me when some smaller, young woman comes up to me and tells me of her achievements. That's my legacy."
"One advantage of getting older is you have older critics. Some of them have hurt me a lot, but I don't dwell on them."
"Motherhood is tough. If you just want a wonderful little creature to love, you can get a puppy."
"One may walk over the highest mountain one step at a time."
"Success can make you go one of two ways. It can make you a prima donna - or it can smooth the edges, take away the insecurities, let the nice things come out."
"Parents of young children should realize that few people, and maybe no one, will find their children as enchanting as they do."
"I had a sister who was mildly retarded. Just enough to ruin her life. She stuttered and other kids made fun of her. People didn't understand what it was. My sister broke my heart. She taught me how cruel people could be. She also taught me compassion. I always think of how difficult it was for my sister, and she was never, ever jealous of me. Talk about my sister and I automatically cry." - Barbara Walters
Her favorite thing about New York is New Yorkers.
Her biggest regret -- and she regret it every day, yet she don't do anything about it -- is that she's never kept a diary.
"My daughter has given my life a meaning that none of my work could ever make up for.
When my daughter was much younger, I walked into her room while she was watching Saturday Night Live. Gilda Radner was doing the Baba Wawa skit. I said, "Isn't that awful!" And she said, "Oh, Mother! Lighten up!" And I did. I thought, What am I so serious about? In a funny way, it's a compliment. I still don't like it, but, I mean, you can kind of see it. The Ba-Ba." - Barbara Walters.
Barbara Walters doesn't read about herself.
She was first married to a business executive Robert Henry Katz in 1955. The marriage was very short lived.
She married Lee Guber, a theatrical producer and theater owner in 1963. They adopted one daughter and divorced in 1976.
Her third marriage was to Merv Adelson, the CEO of Lorimar television in 1981. They divorced in 1984 only to remarry in 1986. They again divorced in 1992.
1998 Lucy Award in recognition of her excellenc...1998 Lucy Award in recognition of her excellence and innovation in her creative works that have enhanced the perception of women through the medium of television.