Walters has denied making those comments, but many at ABC News believe Trump’s version of events. “Barbara just got caught, it’s as simple as that,” says one veteran producer who otherwise speaks about her with affection and respect. “She does play to different audiences. She thinks she’s saying something in private, and she doesn’t expect it to be repeated. That’s Barbara. That’s her way of being dishy with people. But, look, this is a two-faced business.”
The day after the blowup, Walters went on the air and—with evident reluctance, and at O’Donnell’s prodding—looked down at some notes and declared Trump “that poor, pathetic man.” In his press-release retort, Trump went for the jugular: “She lied with Star Jones and now she has chosen to lie again.” To complete the circus, Jones Reynolds phoned Trump to congratulate him.
Walters has been in her element on television since her very first appearance 51 years ago, when she was the new young wife of a baby-bonnet manufacturer named Bob Katz, booking the fashion segments for CBS’s Morning Show. When one of the models didn’t show up, Walters talked the director, future ABC News executive Av Westin (no relation to David), into letting her go on instead.
In his exhaustively researched Barbara Walters: An Unauthorized Biography, Jerry Oppenheimer wrote, of her nascent TV persona, “Whatever shyness and insecurity Barbara felt off-camera disappeared when the red light went on.” Walters was a natural ham, having grown up around showgirls, crooners, and comedians in her celebrated father Lou Walters’s nightclubs. She had a theatrical flair and an insatiable appetite for work. And since 1976, when she accepted the then eye-popping salary of $1 million to leave NBC’s Today show and co-anchor ABC’s World News Tonight with the indignant Harry Reasoner, who was making a lot less, Walters has always earned top dollar.
A good thing, too, because her London-born father, though a great showman, was a reckless businessman and compulsive gambler who lost all the family money, leaving Walters to support him, her mother, Dena, and her older sister, Jacqueline, till the end of their days.
“It’s easy to speculate that her father’s reverses had been traumatic and formative, but something is driving Barbara, and whatever it is, I don’t think it will ever let go,” says Jane Pauley, who succeeded Walters as co-host of the Today show. “But I don’t think she’s tormented by it. It would be tragic if she’d been driven to a life she loathed, but isn’t it obvious that she thrives on her work?”
Jackie Guber Danforth, the daughter Walters adopted with her second husband, the late Broadway impresario Lee Guber, had a turbulent relationship with her mother. Walters once mused to Ladies’ Home Journal that the little girl, who went to Dalton, possibly was “not competitive enough,” and even dished to Parents magazine about the time she revealed to Jackie she was not her biological child: “We were in the bathtub and she asked me about parts of my body. I said that breasts were used by mommies to feed their babies. And she asked about her vagina. I said, ‘This is where a baby comes from. There are two ways that mommies who want babies have them—through this way and through adoption.’” Today, Jackie runs a therapeutic program in Maine for troubled teenage girls.
In 1979, after her disastrous pairing with Reasoner, who returned to CBS, Walters expanded her franchise at ABC with highly rated news and entertainment specials, including her annual Oscar and “10 Most Fascinating People” specials, and, from 1984 to 2004, she co-anchored the weekly magazine show 20/20.
She was a big-game hunter who captured the rich and powerful, held them in front of the camera, and coaxed them to turn over and expose their soft underbellies so she could gently poke around and, better yet, make them cry.
Walters presented herself off-camera as a sophisticated, well-read Sarah Lawrence graduate in Oscar de la Renta. Yet the trademark Barbara Walters Interview has a lowbrow, cheese-ball appeal: When did you lose your virginity? With whom? What about those rumors that you’re gay? Can you ever forgive your father for abandoning the family? How did you feel when you learned your sister was a prostitute? What kind of tree are you?
But she also kept her hand in breaking stories, to the occasional annoyance of Peter Jennings, who didn’t take Walters seriously and didn’t care who knew it. “When they’d be sitting at the anchor desk for something like Princess Diana’s funeral, he would ask Barbara to comment on what people were wearing, because he knew it would drive her crazy,” remembered one ABC staffer. Walters would passive-aggressively pretend to slip up and address Peter as “Ted,” as in Nightline anchor Ted Koppel, the staffer said.