Audition: Barbara Walters' Journey

Walters' rocky path to success, and the risks she's taken along the way.


May 6, 2008 — -- Success doesn't come without a cost. And nobody knows that better than Barbara Walters. She says her life has been a series of attempts "to be accepted."

"I've been auditioning all my life," Walters said. "Almost every aspect of my professional life was an audition."

Today, she released her revealing autobiography, "Audition," an intimate look at her personal life and her career, which has forever altered the workplace for women.

Walters, who admits to being "in my 70s," wasn't born with makeup in place and cameras jockeying for position. She had a relatively quiet childhood near Boston and her family later moved to Manhattan.

Show business was part of her life practically from the cradle: Walters' father, nightclub pioneer Lou Walters, founded the famed Latin Quarter, a cabaret on 48th Street and Broadway in New York City that later expanded to several other cities.

"It was for me the most glamorous place. This is where I spent Thanksgiving and Christmas and birthdays and prom nights," Walters said. "Some people had a, I don't know, a doctor for a father. I had a producer."

The Latin Quarter was a precursor to Las Vegas, presenting the kind of nightclub glitter that's been perfected in the the blinding metropolis that Las Vegas is today.

"You could dance. Big, live orchestra and for about $8.50 you got a full-course dinner. And then came this huge show, all these girls with the costumes," Walters said.

Lou Walters was an impresario, but he was also a gambler and a risk taker who made several fortunes and lost several fortunes, taking the family from penthouse to penny-pinching. It had a profound effect on his younger daughter.

"I don't gamble," she said. "I've taken a lot of risks, I've realized when I look back, but they were very hard-made decisions" connected with her career, Walters added.

Walters has had her professional pratfalls. Her most publicized failure was as a co-anchor, with Harry Reasoner, of the "ABC Evening News" in the late 1970s. When ABC pulled the plug on the duo, Reasoner went back to CBS and Walters hit the road as a roving correspondent for ABC.

"The most important thing, almost, I think, is to fail at some point, so when you work your way back," she said, "you can say, "Hey, it wasn't all luck.'"

Some of it was looks. Walters maintains that her first job came about because of her legs.

"When I graduated from college, I went to an employment agency, and there was a man following me up the stairs and he hired me. I thought because I could do speed writing. He said he'd liked my legs," Walters said. "I think he ogled."

If someone made a pass, Walters said that was "par for the course." It was a time when women served as decorative objects within the media and little else.

She eventually landed a gig as a writer on "The Today Show," where she did occasional on-air appearances. She also met Hugh Downs, who would eventually become her co-anchor on "20/20."

Walters became an on-air regular, and later, a co-host of "The Today Show." But she wasn't always co-equal.

"Those were the days I can't believe it when I think about it now … when I could only come in for the fourth question when there was a serious interview," she said. "So I would sit there until the fourth question, but if I went outside of the studio, and got the interview, I could do it myself. So, pushy cookie did all of those interviews outside of the studio."

She was smart enough, and successful enough, to attract an industry-rattling offer from ABC in 1976: $1 million a year to do network specials and co-anchor with Reasoner.

"Since ABC News was doing so poorly with Harry Reasoner, it had no place to go, but up," she said.

As it turned out, the evening news did have another place to go -- further down.

Veteran ABC News correspondent Sam Donaldson said the chemistry just wasn't right.

"The first night, of course, we had a big audience. Everyone came to see the million dollar baby," said Donaldson, who was at that time ABC's White House correspondent. "Barbara was a little stiff, but who wouldn't be? Harry was standoffish, and treated her as if 'Who is this dame' who he has to sit with."

Walters felt she was drowning without a life preserver.

"There was no reason to go to a therapist," she said. "I knew what was wrong."

She says she failed. But she kept showing up for work each day. Walters anchored the evening news at ABC for about a year and a half before she says the audience became "uncomfortable." ABC said it was over.

"The first thing I noticed was that when they took her off the program, here's this big star we paid a million dollars," Donaldson said.

"And it's six o'clock in the morning, she'd be out on the rope line with the rest of us. She was going to work hard, never mind that she had been demoted and it was all in the press. And she was going to demonstrate that she had the right stuff, as Tom Wolfe would say. And, for me, ever since that day, she's had the right stuff."

As a roving reporter Walters interviewed Fidel Castro in 1977, one of her most memorable.

"I would like to make it clear that we never had a romance," she said, referring to the frequent teasing she's endured after an interview some perceived as flirtatious. "One of the most charismatic people you can meet, but you also have to realize that he is a dictator, that he allows no freedom and he and I talked straight about that."

"That's when I did the best work I've done in the Middle East, with [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat and [Israeli Prime Minister Menachim] Begin, and all the peace treaties," she said. "That's when I did the most important stories."

Donaldson said she was more like one of the boys than a diva.

"She demonstrated that she wanted to be serious," Donaldson said. "And she was gonna prove that she could do it."

Walters seemed on her way to another anchor chair at "20/20" when Downs became an unexpected obstacle.

"The company came to me and said they'd like to make Barbara a co-anchor. And my reaction to that was, if it isn't broke, don't fix it. And I resisted it," he said. "I was able to tell Barbara very early on that I was glad I was wrong because it worked out well."

She stayed on "20/20" for nearly one quarter of a century, and during that time interviewed seven different presidents in addition to prime ministers, princes, movie stars and murderers.

Although Walters is often associated with sensitive, sometimes weepy, interviews, she wasn't afraid to ask the tough questions either. When she spoke to Vladimir Putin in 2001 she asked straight out, "Did you ever kill anybody?"

When interviewing Boris Yeltsin in 1991 she didn't shy away from the questions everyone wanted to know, regardless of how they might have been received.

"When you were visiting America there were reports that you drank too much. Did you drink too much?"

"Nyet," he responded.

"I'm very brave on camera. I'm a pussycat off camera," she said. "Surprising that I'm not still in Russia to this minute."

It took more than a year, but she finally earned enough trust for Monica Lewinsky to agree to an interview.

"When I finally met Monica, and thought that I had her trust, she had no money, and she was going to sell her story," Walters said. "And the biggest challenge was how to get her to do it with me free because I said, 'Your credibility is the most important thing.'"

During the March 3 interview in 1999 Walters didn't beat around the bush.

"You showed the president of the United States your thong underwear," Walters said to Lewinsky. "Where did you get the nerve? I mean, who does that?"

On the "The View," the daytime roundtable that Walters invented 11 years ago, they talk about hot topics that can erupt into firestorms. But this forum would have been unthinkable when Walters was growing up.

"View" co-host Whoopi Goldberg marvels at what Walters has accomplished.

"Every now and then I mess with her. I said, 'Have you got any idea how many women are in the media because you made it OK? Because you have all the scars on your back that they didn't have to get?' Then she'll say, 'Oh, Whoopi.'"

Correspondents Joan Lunden, Diane Sawyer and Connie Chung have all suggested that their careers wouldn't have existed had Walters not paved the way.

"Many of the things that happened, I guess over time would've happened anyway," Walters said. "I never set out to be a trailblazer. I never said, I'm gonna do this, you know, for women. I had no mentors."

Among Walters' fans is Oprah Winfrey, who said, "I don't think Barbara knows how enormous of an impact she's had on this industry, on women in particular. I don't think she'll ever really fully get it."

"I don't think we'd be here, if it weren't for Barbara., when I first auditioned for my first television job, I got through my entire audition pretending to be Barbara Walters," Winfrey said. "I mean, the spirit of Barbara, the image of Barbara, for the first year of my television career, I thought I was Barbara -- Black!"

After establishing her own legacy as one of the most influential black women on television, Winfrey agreed to an interview with Walters in 1988 where she described the horrific events of her childhood for the first time. In describing her conversation with Walters, Winfrey said it felt "safe."

"There was a veil of protection and sincerity that made me feel like it's OK to open up, that if you're gonna do it, if you're gonna do it, if you're ever gonna do it, this is the time to do it," Winfrey said.

What's the secret to her interview technique?

"I listen," Walters said. "That's the most important thing."

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