Barbara Falters

Illustration by John Cuneo

Barbara Walters doesn’t want to talk about it. She’s hardly in hiding: Most every day, she’s there gabbing away on her women’s daytime gabfest, The View, and this past Thursday, defending her friend David Geffen (“I adore him”) in the Hillary Clinton–Barack Obama fund-raising flap and predicting a member of her Upper East Side social set, Mike Bloomberg, might end up being president. Meanwhile, on her 26th annual Oscars special Sunday, she subjected Eddie Murphy and Helen Mirren to her persistent, ingratiating examinations. Another flawlessly negotiated hour of comfortable celebrity revelation where everybody ends up looking great, including—perhaps especially—her.

After all, her trademark r-flattening lateral lisp and voice that can clang like an alarm clock are at least as recognizable as Murphy’s honk. And she’s easily more famous than Mirren, who made the cut thanks to her deft portrayal of a steely and discreet Queen Elizabeth II befuddled by how she was expected to act after the death of Princess Diana. The rules had changed, and she hadn’t noticed.

Which is something Walters—an accomplished operator who interrogated seven presidents and countless blustery autocrats from Fidel Castro to Vladimir Putin, went to India with Jackie Kennedy and China with Richard Nixon, and scooped the world with her extraordinary joint interview with Menachem Begin and Anwar el-Sadat—can identify with. Somehow, she got caught in a name-calling feud between her nominal friend Donald Trump and her nominal employee on The View, Rosie O’Donnell, who’d mocked Miss USA pageant owner Trump for posing as a moral authority by giving wayward beauty queen Tara Conner “a second chance.” O’Donnell accused Trump of hypocrisy, bad hair, and, worse, bankruptcy. Trump wasn’t happy, and Walters, bafflingly, couldn’t smooth it over. Before long, Trump was calling Walters a “sad figurehead dominated by a third-rate comedian,” while said comedian was in the gossip pages berating Walters as a “fucking liar” in The View’s hair and makeup room for not immediately taking her side when Trump called her a “fat slob” and a “degenerate.” Even low-rated ABC colleague Jimmy Kimmel piled on, putting a picture of Walters with a Pinocchio nose on his late-night show.

Like Mirren’s queen, “Barbara takes her job very seriously and she’s concerned with her image,” says Meredith Vieira, who left The View last year to replace Katie Couric on the Today show. “Any time that it’s tarnished, or even perceived to be tarnished, sure, that’s hard. The whole thing took on a snowball effect. Everybody, I guess, loves a train wreck—unless it’s their own train wreck.”

So how did things end up going off the rails?

“Barbara has the exterior of a debutante,” her friend Dan Rather notes, “but the heart of an assassin.” The dilemma confronting Walters: How does an old-school debutante-assassin operate in the crude new world of celebrity thuggery? Trump and O’Donnell are perfectly happy to trade blows and spatter blood, on the theory that WWF warfare is more reliable than subtle maneuvering at the court and the low road is preferable to losing.

Or as Trump, the Sun Tzu of shamelessness, tells me in his office-shrine on the 26th floor of Trump Tower: “There are some sound bites you can’t beat by taking the high road.”

I’ve been doing business with Walters since the mid-eighties, when I was a “Style” writer for the Washington Post. A former publicist—in the late fifties, she worked for future New York Times columnist William Safire in the office of legendary PR man Tex McCrary—Walters is scrupulous in the drudgery of fame maintenance. Like many reporters and columnists, I’ve received my share of handwritten thank-you notes on her embossed personal stationery and polite typed missives on the official ABC News letterhead. Once, at my request, Walters spent five minutes on the phone giving career advice to an aspiring pundit I was dating. Another time, over lunch at the Central Park Boathouse, I repeated to Walters something 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt had told me—that he’d never seriously tried to steal her away from ABC, despite press accounts to the contrary. The next day, a courier from Walters’s office arrived with a photocopy of Hewitt’s letter of apology to her. I could only imagine the fearful transaction that had produced this abject document.

Like any big star, Walters has a high-end Hollywood publicist, PMK-HBH’s Cindi Berger, to ward off train wrecks. She shares Berger with Sharon Stone, Jessica Simpson, the Dixie Chicks—and Rosie O’Donnell. Berger has the tricky job of keeping them from damaging each other.

I approached Walters at Michael’s, where she’s a regular at table 1. She gazed up from her plate of untouched gravlax and smiled a vague smile. “I’m not supposed to be speaking to you,” she said, looking pale and a tad weary in hardly any makeup but still marvelous for a woman of 77. She’d been telling her rapt companions—Suzanne Goodson, the ex-wife of late game-show mogul Mark Goodson, and Joe Armstrong, a socially connected former publisher of this magazine—about her little Havanese dog, Cha-Cha. She was wearing a black fur hat that had been shoved tightly over her head, as though to prevent stray thoughts from spilling out with her blonde highlights.

Walters and Rosie O'Donnell at a fund-raiser for the Hetrick-Martin Institute in 2004.Photo: Walter Weissman/Starmax/Newcom

This is normally not a problem. When she appeared not long ago on the peculiar CNBC talk show of her former ultimate boss, ex–Disney chairman Michael Eisner, he confided that he was so nervous to be interviewing the Mother of All Interviewers his shirt was soaked. Only half-joking, Walters replied, “The reason that I am so successful is that I do not sweat. And I don’t have to go to the bathroom very often. That is the key to my success.”

That, and her mastery of the ins and outs of power, fame, and high society—the subtle, ceaseless game of collecting friends, trading favors, and dispensing the rare but well-aimed swift kick to keep her place at the top of the pile. (At the end of the interview, Eisner thanked her “for a dinner you gave for me last night.” “That was fun!” she chirped.)

On The View, Walters talks endlessly about her friends in high places, of dining with Henry Kissinger, chatting up Princess Margaret (“Which one of you remembers her except me?” Walters asked), and spending quality time at an Alpine ski resort with kings Constantine of Greece and Juan Carlos of Spain. Recently, Walters even showed off a holiday card from Rick and Kathy Hilton, pictured with their children, including the infamous daughter, Paris. “I like them!” she burbled. “I’m not going to say they’re my most intimate friends.”

She’s had a lifetime of making the right friends. Walters has even taken pains to cultivate Trump over the years; he says she invited him to her Aspen vacation home in the late eighties. She attended Trump’s third wedding, to Slovenian model Melania Knauss. She’s possibly the only celebrity extant who has enlisted not just one but two major gossip columnists—Cindy Adams and Liz Smith—as a kind of Praetorian guard. The three of them huddled together in a corner of The Four Seasons last month for Terry McAuliffe’s book party, avoiding the middling guests before Bill Clinton arrived.

“Be careful, Barbara has a lot of friends,” Adams cautioned me in her gun-moll’s rat-a-tat-tat after greeting me at her East Side penthouse wearing a white housecoat and getting ready to order Chinese. “If you chop her,” Adams warned over the yapping of her Yorkies, “a lot of people will come out of the woodwork.”

Walters assembled for my benefit a long list of mostly famous pals as character witnesses—from Beverly Sills to Vernon Jordan to Mayor Bloomberg to a schoolmate from Birch Wathen on the Upper West Side. They dutifully took my calls, and said what was expected of them.

“Barbara is not duplicitous,” Bloomberg assures me. “She says what she believes. But she’s politic. If she didn’t like your outfit, she probably wouldn’t tell you. She doesn’t have a mean bone in her body.”

Vernon Jordan, a civil-rights activist turned Lazard Frères director, dates his friendship with Walters back to a 1970 interview she did with him on Today. “What I like about her is she will bring you chicken soup,” Jordan tells me. “When I was shot”—by a white supremacist in 1980, as he was returning to a motel in Indiana with a white female friend at 2 a.m.—“I was in New York Hospital for 88 days, and Barbara would come to visit me every Friday, and go to the Hamptons the next morning … She will be with you in the good times, and she will be with you in the bad times.”

Rather, a self-described “longtime admirer,” concurs. “She can brush off slights,” he says, “but if you do damage, real damage, to Barbara, it can be twenty years later, and you may have forgotten what it is, but she will find a way to get back at you. Conversely, if you do something nice for Barbara, she’ll never forget that either, and twenty years later, she’ll come out of nowhere and will do something incredibly good and kind and helpful. Barbara has demonstrated that she believes revenge is a dish best served cold. If I were Donald Trump, I would take out extra life insurance.”

To which Trump says, essentially, bring it on. “Barbara’s had a long career, but she’s never had anything like this. She was always supposed to be above the fray,” he says. “This affair has been traumatic for Barbara because it just looks like it has passed her by. I’ve seen great boxers become old in one night. It happens to every one of them, and they never expect it to happen. The guy gets knocked out or knocked down. You see it, and you say, ‘Wow. It’s over for that fighter!’ ”

Longtime ABC News president Roone Arledge didn’t want Walters to do The View. He believed it would stretch her too thin and get her into trouble.

Walters as co-host of Today in 1975.Photo: Bettmann/Corbis

“We’d had some failures in daytime, and Barbara Walters came to us with this idea of a program with a really interesting group of women talking,” recalls the late Arledge’s successor, David Westin, who in 1996 was president of the ABC Television Network.

Walters and Bill Geddie, the longtime producer of her Barwall Productions, had dreamed up this variation on Not for Women Only, the seventies-era female-oriented morning show that Walters had hosted on NBC while also co-hosting the Today show.

“It was coming from a different demographic, and I thought it was an interesting idea, different from a single-host show, and I thought they cast it beautifully from the beginning,” Westin recalls. “But Roone was very set on Barbara’s not participating. He felt she would be distracted from her 20/20 duties.”

But with her dogged persistence, Walters won, and The View debuted on August 11, 1997. It was an instant hit, and it helped Walters, who Berger says has a 50 percent ownership stake, accumulate a personal fortune estimated by friends at more than $100 million (a portfolio said to be managed by Bear Stearns eminence Ace Greenberg, one of her suitors between her three marriages and divorces). Yet it’s doubtful that even Arledge foresaw the extent to which Walters’s credibility would suffer as a result. There were, among other embarrassments, the secret deal to tout Campbell’s Soup during the “Hot Topics” segment (Walters killed the deal after it was revealed), and Walters’s impersonation of Marilyn Monroe on a Halloween episode, belting out a disturbing rendition of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” and refusing to break breathy character despite the desperate pleas of the other women.

The first real dent in Walters’s image was last summer’s messy ouster of one of her co-hosts, Star Jones Reynolds. Afterward, Walters was forced to admit that, yes, she and her publicity machine had been fibbing all along when they repeatedly insisted that Jones Reynolds—whose standing with viewers was undermined by her abrupt weight loss, followed by reports of her many wedding freebies, and her evident self-absorption—was welcome to stay on for the tenth season. Jones Reynolds surprised Walters & Co. by announcing her departure two days before their agreed-upon good-bye—and then told People the truth, that her contract wasn’t renewed.

“Star trashed everybody on the show,” Geddie says. “I was furious when this happened. I wanted to change the locks, alert security, say she can’t come back. Barbara, who’s a nice lady, said, ‘That’s so horrible.’ … Barbara doesn’t like to fire people—she’s not comfortable being a boss.”

In any case, it was a harbinger of the “dump-truck saga,” as O’Donnell calls it. That began just before Christmas, when Walters was sailing the Caribbean on a chartered yacht with Judge Judy Sheindlin, WNBC’s Sue Simmons, and Cindy Adams.

The afternoon of O’Donnell’s broadside, an angry Trump phoned Bill Geddie. He was especially incensed about the false personal-bankruptcy insinuation. Geddie reached Walters aboard the yacht and conferenced in Trump, who repeated his complaints. Walters told him the show was in reruns till after the New Year, but she’d be happy to clear everything up on the air when everybody returned. “He said, ‘Great, thank you, bye-bye,’ and we thought that was the end of it,” says Geddie, who insists that Walters never criticized O’Donnell in the conversation, as Trump later claimed. “That afternoon, as we were hammering out with Barbara and the ABC lawyer what we’ll say on the air, up comes a horrible press release from Donald—‘fat this,’ ‘loser that,’ just nasty. And I’m on the phone with Barbara, and I realize this is going to be a war, and now Barbara’s dragged into the middle of something she had nothing to do with.”

Trump was booking himself on as many television shows as he could to call O’Donnell a “fat slob” and a “degenerate.” He claimed Walters had told him privately that she’s “not a fan of Rosie.” On the yacht, Walters said with a sigh to Adams, “When mama’s away, the children will play.

When Walters returned, O’Donnell was upset that she hadn’t immediately taken her side against Trump’s ugly attacks, hadn’t bothered to phone her at the height of the uproar, and then didn’t respond to O’Donnell’s e-mails (because, Walters had claimed, her BlackBerry wasn’t working). Reading about O’Donnell’s cursing at Walters, Trump tried to drive a wedge between them. He sent out an “open letter” to O’Donnell—“you have good reason to be angry”—and quoted Walters in a phone call to him as saying “working with [O’Donnell] is like living in hell,” “Donald, never get into the mud with pigs,” and “Don’t worry, she won’t be here for long.”

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.

ABC News staffers still talk about an incident in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when Walters—frustrated that she didn’t have a major role in the coverage while Diane Sawyer was doing live reports from ground zero—dressed down David Westin in front of colleagues. Offended, he immediately pulled her behind closed doors to hash things out. The result was an assignment to interview Mayor Giuliani.

Sawyer and Walters have always claimed to be great friends, though not credibly. Over the years, they’ve competed relentlessly for big gets, often scheming behind the scenes to undermine each other. The last time their head-butting became an issue, ironically, was in 2002, when Walters used The View to scoop Sawyer’s exclusive sit-down with O’Donnell, in which she was to come out publicly as a lesbian. On the day that Sawyer taped the interview, Walters got permission from O’Donnell to discuss her sexual orientation on the air. Sawyer wasn’t happy, and Walters was forced to acknowledge to reporters that she’d gone too far: “I am sensitive enough now as I look back to see how … it could look as if I was trying to harm Diane. This is not the evil axis. This is a little misunderstanding.” Sawyer, for her part, let Walters off the hook. “Barbara and I talked about that, and I am now completely relaxed about it.”

O’Donnell’s arrival in September—to replace the deferential Vieira as moderator—has been unquestionably a success. She has been credited with an over 20 percent hike in the ratings in the key 18-to-49 female demographic, which has fueled speculation about her bright future on daytime TV. Will ABC cash out Walters’s stake and retire her in favor of O’Donnell, who, after all, had her own very successful show from 1996 to 2002? The betting in Las Vegas at last month’s programming-executives convention was that O’Donnell will leave soon to launch her own show for either ABC or a major syndicator. At minimum, O’Donnell—who’s said to be pulling down nearly $3 million from The View, about twice what Vieira was paid—will likely be demanding a big raise.

Both Geddie and Brian Frons, the head of ABC Daytime, are uncomfortably in the dark about O’Donnell’s intentions. “I have absolutely no idea, I really don’t know,” Geddie says. “I hope she stays. I think we all hope she stays. I know there are many opportunities for her now.”

O’Donnell has done nothing to discourage speculation that she’s out to take over the show from the woman who invited her back to daytime TV. She’s been known to “slip up” and call The View “my show,” and she introduced a discount-clothing segment early this month with “It’s Budget Week on … um … The View. I almost said The Rosie O’Donnell Show. [Studio audience laughter.] That would have been a mistake!”

In recent weeks, with Walters and O’Donnell at opposite ends of the glass table, it has sometimes seemed like a power struggle. The day after the State of the Union address, O’Donnell called for the impeachment of President Bush, and a skittish Walters jumped in to short-circuit the discussion and steer it to a safer subject. “It’s called The View,” O’Donnell objected vehemently. “What are we supposed to do? Where do you want to move on to? The State of the Union just happened. What are we supposed to talk about?”

“Keep talking,” Walters muttered, giving up. And when O’Donnell, in another installment, went on an extended comic riff about one of Walters’s fancy dinner parties, Walters shot her what can only be described as a debutante’s death glare. For the record—in an e-mail to me—O’Donnell professes undying “love and respect” for Walters: “she is brave/full of knowledge and courage,” O’Donnell writes in her unpunctuated free verse, continuing:

i took the job because she asked me
she is a living legend
a woman who exceeded all expectations
back when women were not
suppossed [sic] to have any
i am a motherless daughter
i look for parents
in movie stars and math class
like always
i told her she hurt my feelings
by not reaching out to me personally
during the dump truck saga
she felt she had—by her press statement
and there it is …
like most moms and daughters
we made up
and love each other in the end
in spite of each of r faults

But she ignored my invitation to address “the insistent buzz that Disney could give you your own show and that Barbara will be bought out.”

And at Michael’s the day I ran into her, Walters was still playing her well-practiced game. With a seductive purr, she mentioned that she’d heard something “interesting” around the time I stopped writing a gossip column at the Daily News, which is owned by another of her pals, real-estate billionaire Mort Zuckerman.

“Really?” I asked. “Tell me.”

Batting her eyelashes, Walters made like she was going to answer, then pulled up short. “I better not say any more. I’ll wait till you finish your article.” And, for a second, she had me.

“With all the things she has accomplished, Barbara could have left the stage twenty years ago, and her place would be secure,” David Westin says, noting also that, at ABC, “she’s not close to her contract being up.”

In January 2008, Walters is planning a two-hour special on the subject of human longevity. She, of course, is Exhibit A.

Barbara Falters