June, 2008. It was a good thing I had my college journalism intern LeeAnn with me, for when the esteemed Barbara Walters answered the door of her Four Seasons suite dressed in a fluffy white bathrobe — and who knows what else or not underneath besides her camisole — I blushed like a schoolboy. A clueless, flummoxed schoolboy.
“Come in,” she said, and took a seat on a paisley pink camelback couch. She patted the cushion beside her and smiled. “Sit down!” I glanced saucer-eyed at LeeAnn, worried that I might do something dumb, like trip on the couch leg and upset the delicate balance between my being a pro interviewer and klutz interloper; Ms. Walters being sorta clothed and stripped by a pratfall.
LeeAnn didn’t miss a beat. She struck up some effervescent small talk with Walters, the kind bright young reporters do so well. That allowed me to collect myself, get out my tape recorder and shove the ten lumps in my throat back to whence they came.
It was more, of course, than the unexpected greeting. Walters, who passed away Dec. 30 at 93, perfected the high media art of drawing out interviewees as famous as the laws of celebrity, politics, royalty and scandal would allow. She feared no one — that was her strength — but also lead her subjects to divulge their deep hurts and doubts without any hint of intrusiveness — that was her sensitivity, and it bordered on the mystical.
And I was supposed to interview her? On paper, it felt like a mismatch along the lines of the Chicago Cubs vs. the Bad News Bears.
“Can I get you something to drink?” she asked.
And we were just getting started.
From ‘tea pourer’ to top anchor
The occasion of my Chicago Tribune interview was the release of her autobiography “Audition,” a book that told the fairly incredible life story of how she grew up in a showbiz family. Her father produced the Ziegfiled Follies, and also staged a domestic high-wire act that saw Walters and her kin bounce between high times and just scraping by.
He was gone for long stretches. It was, she recalled, an unhappy childhood.
As Walters broke into TV via NBC’s “Today” show in the early 1960s, she bucked up against chauvinism we’d find unthinkable today. No one took the idea of a woman reporting hard news seriously. As one of the “Today Girls,” she was relegated to light stories and weather updates. Looking back, Walters dismissed the role as being a “tea pourer.”
But by 1976, she was pulling down $1 million a year as an ABC Evening News anchor — the equivalent of $5.24 million today. Considering the continued resistance of the men around her, including co-anchor Harry Reasoner, I’d say she earned every penny. The unreasonable Reasoner considered her hiring a stunt. But Walters took the high road, later opining that Reasoner was unhappy in general with his lot as a co-anchor.
Though I enjoyed the rich life details Walters divulged in “Audition,” I also read it as primer on how to better do my job. By the time I’d met her, I had already come to understand that you simply can’t walk into a celebrity interview starstruck. But this one was hard. I mean: My editor had to assign the fanboy.
Interviewing, the Walters way
The way some reporters geek out over rock stars or actors, I considered Walters an early influence. Among the many male TV journalists I admired growing up — from the puckish, bow-tied Charles Osgood to the unflappable Ed Bradley, who started in my hometown of Philly — Walters was an outlier by account of her gender.
I couldn’t help but notice what she brought to the table: empathy and intelligence, filtered through her entertainment background and sealed with just a dash of “don’t fuck with me.” Persistent, a 1971 New York Times piece noted, but not aggressive, “and it is this unrelenting effort to keep the confabulatory ball bouncing that puts some viewers on edge.”
“I have developed a particular type of interview,” Walters said then. “I’m good at drawing people out — there’s a thin line between asking critical questions well and making someone mad. Also, I’m here to provide some femininity.”
How could I not admire an approach like that? I was, after all, a momma’s boy.
Take a sad sack and make him better…
Whether by deft trick or dumb luck, it occurred to me (once I collected myself and got used to the bathrobe thing) that readers would be dying to know how Walters did it. What made her this interviewer nonpareil? How did she coax tales and confessions from seemingly impossible, impenetrable subjects such as Cuban dictator Fidel Castro?
In probing this, I knew I’d pick up crucial pointers myself. Imagine that you have just enrolled in one of those video Master Classes with Walters, only it’s in person and you have her undivided attention. That was the opportunity I sensed and I went for it.
To the journalism hopefuls who do not know, and my fellow veterans who may have forgotten: One of the supreme privileges of this job is to learn from the greats we encounter on assignment, who enrich us long after the deadline has passed.
Regardless, this was very much a funhouse mirror, mise en abîme: I am interviewing an interviewer about how she interviews, hoping it will make me a better interviewer.
I am also trying mightily not to screw up.
Perhaps in that moment Walters sensed from where I sat, the precarious balance of it all. Not by dint of my interrogatory skill but her generosity, she let me in on some secrets. She felt one of her early books, from 1971, would shed some light on her media modus operandi.
The title said it all: “How to talk with practically anybody about practically anything.”
So Barbara, did I pass the ‘Audition’?
From Walters, I learned that the best interviewers have mastered the art of conversation. When the mediocre minds of the newsroom insist that every question must be hammered out in advance, ignore them. Instead leverage the best of your listening, your empathy, your curiosity.
Which is exactly what Walters was doing with me.
I asked Barbara to grade my performance while she was on the record, and she did. I think she might’ve preferred I took copious notes and not rely solely on my tape recorder. “But you’re obviously making an effort to read the book,” she told me. “And that’s something you should remember: Do your homework.”
I threw the persnickety-snickety of ethics and church-state walls aside and asked her to sign my copy of “Audition.” I still have it. She also shared her ABC email address and encouraged me to stay in touch. That I lost out of some low self-esteem quirk that took my therapist years to crack (same story with Robert Downey Jr.’s contact info after a similar invitation.)
It’s also one of those life mistakes — with a forgiving, small “m” — where you just assume you’ll see someone later on down the line, renew the connection, pick up the conversation. In this case, I regret my passivity deeply. What I would give to go back, to call Walters a mentor, a coach, a friend. But as any scribe knows, the magnetic pull of the next deadline is a force, a distraction, an addiction that many of us simply cannot resist.
I’m sure Walters would have said as much: Never move so fast as to forsake your relationships.
As it stands, I still hold on to deep gratitude. Thank you, Barbara Walters, for the impact you made on my career; the amazing interviews you shared with us all; and the barriers you broke for female journalists …
… including LeeAnn, who in the dozen-plus years since you met her has gone on to great things. I’m proud of her, and I’d like to think you’d be, too.
You can read my original interview with Barbara Walters by clicking here.
February 14, 2023