Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Working Girl

From this month's Economist:

Working Girl

Barbara Walters

IN 1964 NBC's “Today” show suddenly needed a new girl. The programme always had a glamorous “girl” to handle the weather and lighter stories, but the previous one was addicted to prescription drugs and the one before her had a drink problem. “Why not Barbara?” asked Hugh Downs, the show's host, referring to Barbara Walters, the programme's lone female writer. She wasn't beautiful or well known, but she knew the ropes and would “work cheap”.

“Well, like the ingénue in a corny movie, there I was: the patient and long overlooked understudy,” writes Ms Walters in her candid new memoir, “Audition”. Having toiled in the shadows for years, writing scripts and making coffee, she finally got her big on-air break. Don Hewitt, a TV producer, had assured her she would never make it because she had the wrong looks and couldn't pronounce her “r”s properly. Ms Walters duly avoided sentences with a lot of “r”s in them.

NBC's 13-week contract turned into 13 years at “Today” and nearly half a century in front of the camera, breaking gender barriers and securing interviews when other journalists were turned down. Her genial, empathetic style won fans and friends. “Barbara, are you hungry?” Fidel Castro asked after a marathon interview in Cuba before whipping up a sandwich. Anwar Sadat's grieving widow admitted, “you were the only one I was ever jealous of because Anwar liked you so much.” Ms Walters earned a reputation for finding something soft in her subjects. “Asking the right questions has always been less important than listening to the answers,” she explains.

She helped support her family (her father was an unlucky nightclub impresario), and she remains haunted by her impatience with her disabled sister. Her insecurities—some of them financial—pushed her to work harder. “Make no mistake: television is a demanding is hell on your social and romantic life,” she writes.

Indeed, Ms Walters's entertaining tome, which picks up considerably after the first 75 pages, describes three failed marriages, many complicated love affairs (including with Alan Greenspan and Edward W. Brooke, a senator) and a tough stretch with her adopted daughter. But the author seems reconciled with her many memories, and proud of her stories. It is for good reason that she now owns a ring inscribed with the words, “I did that already”.


At 11:37 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

Barbara Walter's life was influenced greatly by her older sister and she's written a beautiful memoir about her life. I read another memoir of a life influence by a sibling that I recommend highly - I actually liked it even more. The memoir is ""My Stroke of Insight"" by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. Dr Taylor became a Harvard brain scientist to find the cause and cure for schizophrenia because her older brother was a sufferer. Then, crazy as life can be, Dr. Taylor had a stroke at age 37. What was amazing was that her left brain was shut down by the stroke - where language and thinking occur - but her right brain was fully functioning. She experienced bliss and nirvana and the way she writes about it (or talks about it in her now famous TED talk) is incredible.

What I took away from Dr. Taylor's book above all, and why I recommend it so highly, is that you don't have to have a stroke or take drugs to find the deep inner peace that she talks about. Her book explains how. ""I want what she's having"", and thanks to this wonderful book, I can!


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