The obituaries for Jack Paar, former host of NBC’s Tonight show, make glancing reference to what may have been Paar’s supreme accomplishment: He finished off the career of Walter Winchell, the most powerful gossip columnist who ever lived. (Click here to sample Winchell’s file at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which includes many New York Mirror columns, transcripts of his radio broadcasts, and Winchell’s extensive Red-hunting correspondence with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.) Neal Gabler tells the story in his 1994 biography, Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity.
When Paar became host of Tonight in 1957, Winchell’s career was already in steep decline. The Army-McCarthy hearings, which destroyed Sen. Joe McCarthy, R-Wis., had tarnished Winchell’s credibility because the two were closely allied. Radio was rapidly losing ground to television, yet TV stardom eluded Winchell (a particularly bitter failure because his longtime newspaper rival Ed Sullivan made a great success). United Artists had released Sweet Smell of Success, about a thinly disguised Winchell character (played by Burt Lancaster) that portrayed Winchell and his Broadway milieu as irredeemably squalid. Winchell wasn’t even welcome anymore at the Stork Club, his famous roost of three decades, because he’d fallen out with owner Sherman Billingsley. Winchell had become, in Gabler’s words, “rabid, vicious, unreliable.”
Paar was furious at Winchell for refusing to retract an item several years earlier that had alleged, falsely, that Paar was having marital difficulties. The enormous success of the Tonight show gave Paar a platform from which to get even:
Hostess Elsa Maxwell appeared on the program and began gibing at Walter, accusing him of hypocrisy for waving the flag while never having voted [which, incidentally, wasn’t true; the show later issued a retraction]. Paar joined in. He said Walter’s column was “written by a fly” and that his voice was so high because he wears “too-tight underwear.” … [H]e also told the story of the mistaken item about his marriage and cracked that Walter had a “hole in his soul.”
On a subsequent program, Paar called Winchell a “silly old man” and used passages from a scurrilous book about Winchell to attack him. When the book, The Secret Life of Walter Winchell, had been published in 1953, its author, Lyle Stuart, was ostracized. “People I went to didn’t want to see me,” Stuart told Gabler. “Or they’d see me two blocks away and [say] ‘Please, God, don’t tell anybody. After all, I have a wife and two kids.’ People were really petrified of him.”
By 1959, when Paar cited the nastiest parts of Stuart’s book on television, it still wasn’t deemed wise to attack Winchell so viciously; a New York Times account said the audience “gasped.” But Paar was unpredictable—his success derived at least partly from that glint of madness in his eye—and savvy enough to understand that Winchell no longer possessed the clout to hit back effectively. “[T]he balance of media power had tilted toward television and away from the newspaper,” Gabler writes. Indeed, within three years a newspaper strike would finish off Winchell’s flagship, the Mirror.
Some might say that it’s no great feat to kick a bully on his way down. But Paar’s attack was beneficially clarifying. And besides: Better late than never.