Miss Lombard and Mr. Winchell, part 2Posted by vp19 on 2011.01.31 at 02:34
Current mood: cynical
I only know of one photograph of Carole Lombard with Walter Winchell, but as the man himself might have said, it's a beaut.
It gives a glimpse of a bizarro universe where Lombard and Winchell are entwined in romance, while Clark Gable -- no stranger to roles as a newspaperman -- readies to take notes. (This was taken at a costume party thrown by William Randolph Hearst; we know because there's another photo showing Carole in her cowgirl outfit, at a table with Hearst himself. And Winchell was a Hearst employee, working for his New York Daily Mirror.)
We previously noted that Lombard served as a guest columnist for Winchell on two occasions. We ran the first one yesterday; here's the second. Unlike the initial outing, written in the form of a letter to the columnist, this time Lombard actually deigned to write a column -- about its usual author. Logrolling of a sort? Sure, but it makes for fun reading just the same.
(Editor’s Note: Walter Winchell is on vacation during the month of August. He will have a guest columnist replace him each day. The Winchell column will be back as usual Sept. 1.)
Things I Never Knew ’Til Now About Walter Winchell
By CAROLE LOMBARD
A Hollywood star often wearies of facing the camera and imagines it might be fun to turn the camera on the cameraman. So, after years of reading what newspapermen have to say, I’ve nursed the ambition to write about them. Walter Winchell is on vacation, so here’s my long-awaited opportunity to turn the pencil on the writer.
* * *
But before I tell you any Things I Never Knew ’Til Now About Walter, I’d like first to say something I knew all along –- that in a country where we tend to worship prizefight champions, golf champions, tennis, swimming, racing and baseball champions, the most worthwhile title of them all belongs to W.W., the champion of Americanism. I think that when future historians come to estimate his importance in the scheme of American life, they will point not to his title as the Father of the Gossip Column, not to his contributions to the American “slanguage,” but to his persistent activities as Public Patriot No. 1. For that, Mr. W., orchids to you from me. And now that I’ve dispensed with the posies, I’ll get down to the prose.
* * *
As a member of the glamor racket, I think the definition of glamor Walter published tops them all. “Glamor,” he wrote, “is when the wrapping on the package is more attractive than its contents.” I wonder whether Walter realized when he wrote those words that he himself has glamor.
* * *
At 35, Walter announced that he would retire when he reached 40, instead of retiring he made his first motion picture, titled -– significantly or not –- “Wake Up and Live.” He was 43 on April 7 and still going strong, very much awake and very much alive … He is lithe, blithe and slender.
His hair has been whitening for years and now adds distinction to his appearance. His eyes, which to me are his most memorable features, are electric blue. He is a good listener, as evidenced by the reams of news he gleans. He is a good talker as will be vouched for by any who ever heard him -– including myself. When he feels that his own conversation is more interesting than that of his companions he unleashes a rapid-fire patter of ideas and anecdotes. His greeting, invariably, is “What’s new?” And you’ll notice that the first and last letters of the query makes W.W.!
I don’t know who first said “It’s smart to be thrifty,” but I do know Walter is both. Not only did he coin the expression “Annuities Keep Headliners From Being Breadliners,” but he practices what he preaches, too…During the first World War he served in the Navy, where his job was, of all things, carrying confidential messages! (More than one wag remarked: “From gob to gab in one generation.”) … Hurt pride was responsible for his starting the gossip column –- acknowledged to be the most drastic innovation in modern journalism. He gave the city editor of the Graphic the first-hand tip-off on the Frank Tinney-Imogene Wilson reconciliation. Lack of proof induced the editor to reject it. One week later the news made the front page -– of another newspaper. That was the last straw -– the one that almost broke Walter’s back. Then and there he decided to capitalize on the gossip he heard around town, and thus he started his famous pillar of prattle –- which was eventually to be the outlet for my reportorial ambitions. (How am I doing? Without a director, too!)
* * *
Unlike the majority of movie stars, who adopt fictitious names, Walter actually is a Winchell -– although it used to be spelled with one “l” until it was accidentally set up with the second “l” on a theater marquee … His reputation for scoring scoops covers everything from fifth columns to films. He wrote that “Made For Each Other” would be a box-office success before I had even seen the picture!
* * *
Walter can afford the best, but prefers wearing old shoes because he finds them more comfortable … And speaking of shoes, I think the cutest description of my legs was Walter’s, who gave a typewriter picture of them by describing them this way, !! (If I had legs like this (), I wouldn’t earn much pin-money.) … While one of my pet pleasures is to prepare an elegant dinner, from hors d’oeuvres to dessert, I don’t think I’d serve it to Walter. He eats sparingly and rapidly, and he’s food finicky. Not a chef in New York but gets special instructions from the boss when Walter orders. Yet with such opportunities to become a gourmet, his tastes are simple to the point of naivete. When he was in Hollywood last, he had the town’s swankiest restaurant in despair with his order for “basted eggs.” “But there is no such dish,” the maitre d’hotel protested. “Don’t tell me,” said Walter, “my mother basted them for years!” He meant shirred eggs!
* * *
Like Charlie Chaplin, William Powell and Babe Ruth, Walter is left-handed … He generally awakens at 5 p.m. (he retires at 10 a.m.) and a little later has “breakfast” while Mrs. Winchell and their two children, Walda and Walter Jr., have dinner … On his desk he uses a pair of baby shoes as paperweights. They are the first shoes ever worn by his unmarried son, age 5 … I shall never forget the first time I met Walter. I was seated at a premiere on the coast with Clark Gable, just before the lights went down, and I almost swallowed my gum when Clark said, “Meet Walter Winchell.” Just to be cute, with all the feminine sweetness I could command I turned to Walter and said, “You don’t like many people -– do you like me?” … “I’m crazy about you,” he replied, “but don’t be too sure of me!”
* Lombard notes Winchell's "Americanism." Walter had been a longtime supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt, someone Carole also admired, and was among the first U.S. journalists to warn of the Nazis and the threat they represented. (Following World War II, he drifted to the right, engaging in feuds with black star Josephine Baker, liberal New York broadcaster Barry Gray and the New York Post, a liberal tabloid in its pre-Rupert Murdoch days.)
* Winchell appeared in several films, including two with bandleader Ben Bernie, with whom he had a noted feud, albeit an apolitical one along the lines of Jack Benny and Fred Allen. (Winchell had a more intense feud with New York Daily News columnist Ed Sullivan -- yes, the man who later had a long-running variety show on CBS. They eventually made up.)
* I had no idea what Lombard was referring to when she mentioned "the Frank Tinney-Imogene Wilson reconciliation." An Internet check revealed it was a scandal in 1924 where Tinney, a leading stage comedian of the time who often performed in blackface, was shown to be physically abusive to Wilson, a renowned Ziegfeld Follies dancer who was not his wife. Their reconcilation was short-lived; Wilson was fired from the Follies, moved to Germany and became a film actress, then returned to the U.S., where she had a brief movie career under the name Mary Nolan. Later, she became addicted to heroin and at age 42 died in Hollywood in late 1948.
* I have yet to come across Winchell's "!!" reference to Lombard's legs (might it have come as his response to the loving cup engraved with “To Carole Lombard, who gave publicity legs upon which to stand -– Russell Birdwell"?).
* Carole notes that night owl Winchell "has 'breakfast' while Mrs. Winchell and their two children, Walda and Walter Jr., have dinner." As it turned out, you could have put quotation marks around "Mrs. Winchell," too. Lombard likely didn't know it, but Winchell never officially married his second wife, something he never made public because he didn't want the public to know his daughter Walda was illegitimate. Winchell had numerous affairs over the years, including several with film actresses.
Winchell generally gave Carole good ink, but what may have been the last thing his column said about her during her lifetime might have given her reason to pause. It was on Oct. 12, 1941, and under the alter ego "Memos of a Girl Friday," Winchell wrote:
"When coasters last week reported that Gable was going hunting without Carole Lombard because she was ill -- his studio phoned me to tell you it was untrue. That's why I told you they were together hunting in Watertown, S.D., happier than ever, etc. ... Well, today, from what I call an excellent source, comes word that Carole will soon file. Carole is supposed to have so written pals."
"Soon file" was Winchell argot for "soon seeking a divorce." If any Lombard "pals" had written word of it from her, they certainly didn't let on, either at the time or after her death.
Like others in the press, Winchell continued lionizing Lombard posthumously; in fact, in his column of Nov. 8, 1942, he wrote: "Warning to that Broadway night club: No free ads here until it removes from the lobby display -- that likeness of Carole Lombard -- posing in a dated 'cheesecake.'" He believed it wasn't tasteful to be shown less than 10 months after her death, while World War II was going on.
Winchell continued his power after the war, but his influence began to wane in the 1950s, especially since he never quite managed to conquer television. He was somewhat satirized in the 1957 Burt Lancaster drama "Sweet Smell Of Success," but by then he was largely in the past tense -- probably the reason he was hired to narrate episodes of "The Untouchables," the TV series starring former Lombard cohort Robert Stack as Eliot Ness.
Winchell's home base, the New York Daily Mirror, folded in October 1963; Hearst moved him to its Journal-American, which expired some 2 1/2 years later. With fewer and fewer papers carrying his column, Winchell shut it down in February 1969, dying three years later. I'm not sure if Manhattan has a memorial to him, but he does have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Incidentally, hope you enjoy my new header photo; it's from Lombard's 1933 potboiler, "White Woman." We will attempt to change the photo each week.