The recent obits for actress Jane Kean all noted that she played Trixie Norton in the Jackie Gleason Show’s Honeymooners episodes from 1966 to 1970. Few of them mentioned that in the early 1950s she was the protégée and mistress of America’s most powerful newspaperman, Walter Winchell.
Winchell spotted the petite blonde at New York’s Copacabana, where she was appearing in a sister-act that featured comedy and music. From the first he was smitten with both Kean sisters, inviting them to come along as he cruised Manhattan’s byways in the wee small hours, checking out police calls. Through his syndicated columns and his hugely popular radio broadcast he spread the word about their charms. One result: in 1955 Jane and Betty Kean enjoyed a five-month run as headliners in a Broadway extravaganza called Ankles Away. But all the attention quickly stopped when Jane insisted that Walter (thirty years her senior) divorce his wife. Winchell may not have had much use for domesticity, but he regarded as sacred his public reputation as a family man.
All this and much more I learned through Neal Gabler’s definitive Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity. Gabler made me see that Winchell’s personal saga is also the story of twentieth-century America. In the 1920s, when the young ex-hoofer’s Broadway column first began, he showed the rising middle-classes just how celebrity gossip could cut the rich and famous down to size. His slangy use of colloquial English, laden with lively innuendo, changed journalism forever. In the 1930s he rode the crest of the radio wave, attracting listeners from sea to shining sea. (Gabler says that at the height of his fame, 50 million Americans – out of a population of 75 million – either listened to his broadcasts or read his daily columns.)
Given his craving for power at a time when world events were shaking up everyone’s lives, it’s no surprise that Winchell soon turned political. Before and during World War II, he was an unabashed booster of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, using his own bully pulpit to push the Roosevelt agenda, often with the covert help of FDR’s inner circle. But his close personal ties with J. Edgar Hoover led him, after the war, into a fierce anti-communism that made him an early ally of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Winchell’s political about-face – combined with the rise of television and a number of other factors – made him seem far less attractive to his fan base as the Fifties gave way to the Sixties. Gabler vividly details a 1951 run-in with black entertainer Josephine Baker, whose apparent mistreatment at Winchell’s beloved Stork Club led him to make grotesque accusations about her political leanings. Though this ugly episode, in Gabler’s eyes, was the beginning of the end for Winchell, he tenaciously hung on, even while a Hollywood drama, Sweet Smell of Success, splashed onscreen the dark side of his image. Starting in 1959, he even became a TV star of sorts, adding an idiosyncratic rat-a-tat narration to a popular series based on FBI heroics, The Untouchables.
Several twentieth-century songs, including Mel Brooks’ “I Want to be a Producer,” allude to the great coup of getting one’s name in Winchell’s column. But as that column sank in importance to his fellow Americans, the man himself increasingly seemed to be living in a world of his own. His long-suffering wife passed away; his son and namesake committed suicide. When he himself died in 1972 -- aged 74 but looking much older – he went out not with a bang but with a whimper. Mr. and Mrs. America didn’t much care.