Walter Winchell: “Good evening Mr. and Mrs. America—Let’s go to press.”

From a Wall Street Journal review by Dorothy Rabinowitz headlined “Walter Winchell: Tuned In to Power”:

Walter Winchell, who grew up in poverty in East Harlem, began his working life as a boy hoofer in Vaudeville. Then, having learned to merchandise gossip, he got a regular spot in a newspaper—the New York Evening Graphic, where he began working in 1924. This “American Masters” film provides impressive period detail—some of the most fascinating of which concerns the newspapers of the times.

Winchell soon had a spot as a syndicated columnist, and then came radio—the place where most Americans first encountered the magnetism of those opening lines, soon to become world famous, despite the fact that they were addressed to listeners in the United States. “Good evening Mr. and Mrs. America, from border to border and coast to coast and all the ships at sea. Let’s go to press.”

So successful was Winchell, and so influential, that he won the attention of major political figures, not least the newly elected president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who invited him to the White House in 1933—the beginnings of Winchell’s deep affinity for FDR and the New Deal. As the threat of war and of Nazi domination of Europe grew—and as FDR recognized the implacable resistance of American isolationists to any form of American interventionism or aid to the Allied cause—he invited Winchell to the White House again, to encourage him as a voice against isolationism. Winchell hardly needed convincing. In the world of journalism, his would be the earliest and most tireless voice raised against Hitler and Nazism.

The film’s focus on the prewar period of Winchell’s career is both extensive and bloodchilling—the latter because of the forever-startling sight of the American Nazi movement’s considerable presence. As the film points out, they were regularly on parade, training, drilling, and they were not few. . . .

The postwar Winchell of this impressive documentary becomes, as was the case, a different political creature—one who became an ally of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. He would now feel as well the unmistakable loss of his power and influence. There were numerous reasons—above all, it was the age of television, and Winchell wasn’t at home on the screen.

The show will air Tuesday at 9 pm on PBS.

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