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Barbara Walters: Audition

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jan 01, 2008
Category: Memoir

I’m not sure what Barbara Walters makes now, but from 2000 to 2005, she reportedly earned $12 million a year. She surely got a nice advance from Knopf for Audition: A Memoir. And the excerpt of her book in Vanity Fair will cover any lunches she can’t expense.

Still, you write a book, you want it to succeed. So Walters taped a show with Oprah, she who sells books to women. Oprah and Barbara — the dish over that clothesline would starch a collar. And, broadcast on publication day, move a book or three.

Look who Walters had to talk about: Yasir Arafat, Menachem Begin, both Bushes, Jimmy Carter, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez, Bill Clinton, King Hussein, Henry Kissinger, Monica Lewinsky, Richard Nixon and Anwar Sadat — and that’s just a sampling of the bold-face political leaders she covers in her 624-page memoir.

And yet all the publicity that Walters engineered in the week before her book went on sale focused on one piece of news she shared with Oprah. In the 1970s, she confided, she had an affair with a politician barely important enough for a footnote in her professional life — former Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke.

A week before her book’s release, Walters told a reporter that she had sent a head’s-up letter to Brooke, who responded with “a very nice note.” But she was coy whether she was alerting him to his minor appearance in the book or his co-starring role on Oprah’s show. On publication day, she clarified her letter to Brooke in an interview with Cindy Adams: 

"I realized I’d have to inform him before the book came out," said Barbara, who handles difficulties frontally. She needs out of something, she calls fast. Caught in a snit? She grabs the phone and gives her side of it. Nothing festers.

"The question was when. Five-six weeks ago I figured, ‘When do I do this? I can’t wait much longer. This seems to be the time.’ He lives in Florida with his new wife. He has children. And he’s very private. So I sat down and sent him a note. Handwritten. Said I’d done my autobiography and that ‘I talked about us.’ I didn’t hear back right away and I was getting nervous. And then he wrote back. Also handwritten. He said, ‘I wish you well and whatever you do I know it will be authentically you.’ "

A newsbreak on Oprah vs. a brief appearance in a doorstop of a book — yeah, I’d say Brooke was blindsided. Which makes it legitimate to ask: Why?  Walters is persistently rumored to have had dalliances with X and Y, leaders on the global scale. When it comes to celebrities, she has more stories than Perez Hilton. Why did she choose to serve up Edward Brooke, naked, for the vicarious delight of Oprah’s audience?

It’s tempting to speculate. Hot action between the sheets is bracing publicity for a 77-year-old woman. And there’s no danger of blowback: Brooke’s retired and private, not likely to retaliate. If those aren’t the ingredients of a fast launch on the bestseller list, I’m clueless.

But set aside the speculation. Consider the behavior.

During his time with Walters, Brooke was married. And as an African-American, Walters says, he knew that revelation of a relationship with Walters would damage his career. So he had every reason to assume this coupling was, literally, a private affair. A secret.

Given Brooke’s decades of obscurity and the relative unimportance of this romance to her life story, Walters isn’t writing “personal history” here. And she’s not “setting the record straight”. This is a betrayal.

What if Brooke liked her, even loved her? What if Walters cared for him, even loved him? If the least emotion were involved, if the breakup wasn’t bitter, you’d think she’d feel some tenderness for a man who once mattered to her. Forty years is a long time; feelings can dissipate. But as I recall the women in my romantic life four decades ago — some of them now well known, some of them known even to Barbara Walters — I’m flooded with gratitude for the affection they gave me. I’d never dream of selling them out.

A 66-year-old former actress and model named Carole Mallory recently sold seven boxes of papers documenting her affair with the very married Norman Mailer to Harvard. "Out of respect for the family," she said, she waited six months after Mailer’s death to announce her deal. And because that transaction probably represents an old-age pension for Mallory — who’s now married to an electrician and living quietly in Pennsylvania — it’s hard to get worked up about it. Anyway, a party girl’s gotta do what a party girl’s gotta do. No one looks to Carole Mallory to set an example.

Barbara Walters, in contrast, has been the queen of American broadcasting for as long as most viewers have been alive. I read that her outing of Edward Brooke got more media play last week than Mariah Carey’s wedding. She sets an example, if only for the women who want her job.

If Walters’ indiscretion caused nothing more than a few unhappy days in Edward Brooke’s life, I wouldn’t care so much. But I see something bigger here. “There is no ‘off the record,’” Hunter Thompson said, and maybe the alcoholic stoner wiseass was right. Not about the Carole Mallorys — their exhibitionism has always been currency, bad publicity crudely morphing into good money — but about the upper echelons. The notion, at the very top of the food chain, that respecting the privacy of others is for fools? That’s recent. Walters dropping a dime on Edward Brooke legitimizes the worst sort of personal revelation: gotcha journalism of the bedroom kind.

At her age, men may not be flinging themselves off balconies for Walters. It’s just as well; she’s pretty directly announced that her lovers have no expectation of privacy. Every moment is on the record. For Barbara Walters, what happens in Vegas is grist for Knopf.

I find this sad.

To buy “Audition” from Amazon.com, click here.

To read the New York Times review of “Audition”, click here.

[Disclosure: I interviewed Barbara Walters in 1983 for an article. In 2007, when there was a vacant seat on “The View”, I wrote her to suggest that she lift the ban on men and consider me as a male panelist. She didn't respond. I was neither surprised nor disappointed.]