"You saw in the book," Barbara Walters points out, "inside the front and back covers, the small list of names."
The small list, yes. Audition's endpapers call out only six or seven hundred people. Alphabetically, from King Abdullah of Jordan to Catherine Zeta-Jones, it's a sample of those whom Walters has interviewed: world leaders, entertainers, athletes, criminals... People who once, if not on multiple occasions, told Barbara Walters what she wanted to know.
The daughter of a nightclub owner who made and lost several fortunes, Walters mingled from an early age with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Milton Berle. "I never was in awe of celebrities," she explains. "I always knew that they were human beings and had their own problems."
And in fact it's the author's family story — the human story, pocked with inevitable failures and regrets — that forms the backbone of Audition. Barbara Walters: daughter, sister, wife and mother, trying to balance her career with responsibilities at home. "I'm at a point in my life where I can tell this story and feel comfortable about it," she reflects on the phone, early Saturday morning. "I'm not sure I could have done it many years ago, or even a few years ago."
The first woman to co-anchor a network news program. Arguably the most influential interviewer of the 20th century. An America icon. Who has struggled mightily to succeed in her life outside of work.
We talked about Baba Wawa, the art of not interrupting, life choices as evidenced by two Hepburns, W's muddy barn, NBC in the 1800s, and a remarkable life, both on- and off-camera.
Dave: Most people will come to this book somewhat familiar with your professional life. I had no idea how interesting your family life was. Had you always imagined that you'd be this candid about your personal story?
Barbara Walters: I never had thought of writing a book, and I've never discussed my private life. The only time I did interviews was to promote or discuss a program that I was doing.
When I decided to do this, I thought, If I'm going to tell the story, I have to tell the whole story. I did not want it to be another, "I interviewed, and then I interviewed, and then I interviewed..." That's uninteresting.
Very few people knew about my family, and I think that was the most interesting part. In the beginning, I was going to call the book Sister.
I thought that it would deal with my childhood and my coming to NBC, the fact that I was a failure when I first came to ABC to be the first female co-anchor of a network news program — such a glorious title, and I was a failure. I was going to write up until the time when I did what I consider my biggest interviews, and then when I went on 20/20 and stopped auditioning.
The publisher said, "No, you have to deal with Presidents and heads of state and murderers and celebrities and so forth."
So it became this big book. But I wanted to tell the story of my unusual childhood. I thought that some of the things that happened to me, people could relate to.
Dave: When you were a girl, how did news get into your house?
Walters: When I was a very little girl, probably radio.
Dave: Do you recall particular broadcasters?
Walters: No, but I remember entertainment shows. I remember being a very young girl and my parents sitting on the porch of the little beach house we rented in Nantasket, a suburb of Boston. Hearing Jack Benny. At night, I could hear the voices wafting up.
I don't remember hearing news. Later on, I got it in newspapers. I lived in different cities growing up, so it would have been the Boston Globe or the Miami Herald or whatever they were reading in New York.
Television didn't play a part in my life until I was in college.
Dave: And yet you wound up on TV.
I hadn't made the connection until just now, but many people in my generation wound up with careers online in much the same way.
Walters: I was reading in the paper today about a woman working in artificial intelligence, artificial intelligence that can even explain how breast cancer spreads.
It was years ago, it seems to me, when the man who was then the head of CBS was going to spend his time working on artificial intelligence — this is not in my book — and I remember thinking, What on earth is artificial intelligence?
Now, for young people, it's your main source of news and music and movies. Everything you can want in your intellectual and cultural life.
Dave: It's part of the fabric now.
Walters: And your children, I don't know that they'll ever read a newspaper.
Dave: In researching your family's story for Audition, you say, you learned about your genealogy. What did you learn about yourself?
Walters: What I write about in the book, perhaps too much: the guilt I felt because my sister was mentally retarded, which is what it was called then. Today, she would have been called intellectually impaired.
I had such guilt about her because her condition affected the way people treated me. I loved her but resented her. I think a lot of people can identify with that if they have a disabled member of their family.
I learned to give up that guilt and to realize that it probably wasn't as profound as I thought. I have accepted the fact that, for whatever reasons, whether it was because of my sister, or because of my father, who was so successful in show business and then lost everything, I had to support the family from the time before I was thirty. I got that drive or that ambition because I couldn't stop working.
I'm at a place now in my life where I could write the book. I'm happy, much more at peace. Do I wish I had felt this way twenty years ago? Yes, but twenty years ago I was still driven, still going that way. I guess I've learned to appreciate the unbelievable life I've had — I never thought I was going to be in front of the camera — and to enjoy it a little more.
Dave: In an interview with Oprah, you wondered whether you had worked too hard to enjoy your success.
Walters: And when I looked at her, she had the same look on her face. Tears in her eyes. It's true.
Dave: Does anyone come to mind who managed to do both, to maintain that drive and appreciate the successes while they were fresh?
Walters: One of the threads of this book is the idea of balancing your life, especially for women but today for men, too. How do you have a marriage and a career and children and make it all work? It happens much more today than it did in my generation.
I have two examples. One: Audrey Hepburn, who gave up her career for her two sons. She said she couldn't work and take care of her sons; she wouldn't do both.
And two: Katherine Hepburn, who said, "I won't have children because children will interfere with my career."
A lot of my book has to do with trying to balance that. My marriages certainly were not very good. I couldn't sustain them. How much of that was because of the career and the traveling? How did it affect my daughter?
One of the hardest chapters to write, as you know, was about my daughter's very difficult adolescence.
She came out of it an absolutely wonderful person, and she now runs a therapeutic wilderness program for adolescent girls in crisis. Everything she put me through. But at the time there was that question of, What do you give up? What is the balance?
It's something we're still struggling with as more women are working. And as more men say, "I want to be involved with my children. How much am I going to work? My wife works. When are we ever going to see each other?"
That's something people can relate to, and it's something I struggled with to some degree my whole life.
Dave: I told someone yesterday, "If you don't read the book, at least flip through the photographs. They tell an amazing story on their own."
Walters: Though some of the people will be unrecognizable unless you've read the book, like Robert Smithdas and his wife.
This couple are both blind and deaf. I interviewed them when I was on the Today show and again many years later. The most remarkable people, who are able to live their lives independently: they live at home, cook, clean, read with Braille. That's one you'd have to have read the book to recognize.
Dave: Do you happen to remember, in the photo with Bill Clinton on Air Force One, what you were laughing about?
Walters: Oh, God, no. No, but it's a happy picture, isn't it?
I do remember in the pictures with George Bush on his ranch what we were talking about. It was the early days of this ranch, which I thought was sort of a ranchette; it wasn't much of a ranch to me. And it was so muddy. I ruined my boots.
He was making fun of me. We were in his barn, inches deep with sloppy mud. It was the day before he went to Washington for his first inauguration. I remember that very clearly.
Dave: If you only had room in the biography for three interview experiences to represent you, which would they be?
Christopher Reeve, a series of interviews.
And maybe the couple I told you about, the Smithdas. Because of their survival, their intelligence, what they managed to do. I think maybe those three.
But you know, when you look at the book, inside the front and back, there is a small list of names. Those are just some of the interviews I've done. There are thousands.
People come up to me and say, "You interviewed me on the Today show when my book came out." I haven't a clue.
Dave: Tell me something you learned the hard way not to do as an interviewer.
Dave: That must be difficult on television, when you can't go back and cut out the dull parts or digressions.
Barbara Walters: Especially when it's live. On the Today show, it's live. Guests think, when they're told they'll be on between 7:30 and 8:00, that they've got a half-hour. It turns out they've got four minutes.
I just did Good Morning America two days this week. It's like riding a bicycle. I can remember everything from the Today show, and I can take the time cues exactly and so forth. But it's hard to say to somebody, "Wrap it up. And don't make your sentences too long."
On The View, we have the same experience. It's live, five of us jabbering over each other. You want to interrupt because you want to make your point or you want to make the guest make their point. It's very hard to sit back. Taped interviews are much easier because you have the time and then you edit.
Dave: When you took over For Women Only in 1971, you decided to broaden the show to include the hot topics of the day. Years later that would be a tenet of The View, you say in Audition: not being too narrow. What else did you have in mind when The View came along?
Walters: I had no idea about doing The View. I didn't want to do daytime television. I didn't know anything about it.
Not for Women Only came about because finally there had been a recognition at NBC that there was a women's movement. So they put on a local show called For Women Only, which was done by a woman named Aline Saarinen. When they asked me if I wanted to take over the show, I said, "Okay, but I don't want it to be so narrow. Let's call it Not for Women Only. Which was a very awkward title.
We went to other subjects, and the show became very popular. Then the Washington affiliate picked it up. But I never owned it. It was done originally by the local station. This was before syndication. I sometimes think, had I'd stayed, had I said, "I want a piece of this show," I would be Oprah. But we didn't have syndication then. We didn't know about that.
In the case of The View, the network came to us and said, "Do you have an idea for a television show?" The eleven o'clock time period had been a failure. Nobody had been able to make it a success. They didn't have much hope.
What I'd talked about with Bill Getty, who produced my Specials and who used to hear me talking to my daughter, was how interesting it was to hear the points of view of different generations: my daughter and I discussing the same thing, coming from totally different areas. I said, "Wouldn't it be interesting to do a show with women from different background and generations?"
To some degree, it is the same show today. Less so, perhaps, but still. It starts with Elisabeth Hasselbeck, who is thirty, and it goes up from there.
But I thought the show would last a year or two. My main job was on 20/20. That's why I didn't moderate The View: I only wanted to do it two days a week.
The fact that we're going into our twelfth year and we were just nominated for seven Emmys, nobody could be more surprised than I am.
Dave: In the book you thank Elisabeth Hasselbeck for the ratings boon her pregnancies brought to the show. It's hard to read that without reflecting on events described in previous pages: On the Today show, you had to stand up for your right, as a woman, to ask a question after the male host got to ask the guest three.
Walters: You would think that we're talking about the 1800s. We've come so far.
I was at NBC and Frank McGee was the host of the Today show. It went all the way up to the president of NBC: Frank McGee didn't want me to participate until he'd asked three questions. And the president of NBC agreed.
That was one of the few times that I stood up for myself. Usually, my advice to myself and everyone else is, Work very hard and make yourself invaluable. And I did. But here, I thought, I just can't take this. I've been working too long. I've been here longer than Frank McGee. You just can't do that to me. But they did.
That's when I began to do interviews outside of the studio, because if I could take them live outside of the studio they were mine. In a way, what had been discrimination or punishment worked to my betterment. Sometimes you have to do that in life; sometimes you have to take what looks like a problem and look for a solution.
I don't want this to be a moralistic book, but it's hard to believe that that happened in our lifetime. It's so different for women today. Thank goodness. If I helped to make that happen, I didn't do it deliberately, I wasn't waving a flag, but if I made it a little easier that's my reward.
Dave: When were you last daunted by a task delivered by your career? When you thought, even briefly, I don't know how to do this.
Walters: I think when I left 20/20 it wasn't "I don't know how to do this" but "I'm not sure I want to do this." And "I'm not sure that I want to keep going after the big get. I'm not sure that I want to have producers lined up outside my door, having to call this lawyer and that lawyer to get an interview and compete with everybody else. I'm not sure I want to keep doing interviews with celebrities who are out of rehab."
That's when I made the decision, two years before my contract was up, to leave 20/20.
It was a very big decision because I loved it and I'd been doing it for twenty-five years. But news had changed. Times had changed. And I guess I had changed.
Dave: For the last couple weeks, I've been asking people what they would like to ask you.
Walters: That's what I do so often. You get very good questions that way.
Dave: A friend brought up something you address in the book. Gilda Radner did a famous impression of you on Saturday Night Live. You wound up meeting her. She must have been nervous.
Walters: I'm sure she was very nervous to meet me. I had not loved it when she started to do Baba Wawa. It was a very difficult time for me at ABC. I had just come over there. I was failing. And then in addition to that I was being made fun of on Saturday Night Live.
It was my daughter who told me to have a sense of humor and lighten up. She wasn't old enough to say exactly that, but she said, "Oh, Mummy..." When I met Gilda, we talked about how she was able to do the imitation, and I think it was a relief to both of us.
Her husband, Gene Wilder — he's now remarried — was just on the program. We talked a little bit about Gilda and her imitation of me. I didn't appreciate it at the time, but it was brilliant.
Dave: Were there precedents for that kind of impersonation thirty years ago? It was a different time. Now, if you're not made fun of on Saturday Night Live, who are you?
Walters: That's right. You want to be made fun of. Gee, why aren't they doing me?
Dave: Given your experience covering Presidential elections, what strikes you about the one going on right now?
Walters: It used to be a very big deal if you got an interview with a President or a head of state or a political candidate. Today, they're on every single program. They're doing everything but ringing doorbells, especially this last year with all the debates. Every candidate is on every program they can get on.
On the other hand, young people, especially, have a taste of the democratic process. If they want to, they can try to understand what the candidates are really about. It's not just sound bites. Certainly the Internet has made a tremendous difference.
The other thing that's happened is we have very little interest in heads of state. Most programs have no desire to get to know any of the other world leaders. That was very different. Maybe there are no giants like Anwar Sadat, but it was a very big deal to get an interview with him. We never see interviews with leaders in the Middle East, unless it's Iraq.
It's a different time. We're much more celebrity-oriented. This is a political year so we're seeing a lot of the candidates, but in general it's the celebrities that people want to see, much more than in the past.
Dave: If I name some people, will you tell me what comes to mind?
Dave: Robert Kennedy.
Walters: I remember him on the Today show being angry because we had a parrot backstage that kept saying, "What's your name?" And as being intense — not the parrot but Robert Kennedy.
Intense. Nervous. Charismatic.
Dave: Elizabeth Taylor.
Walters: Bawdy. Funny. Touching.
Dave: Muhammad Ali.
Walters: Enormous character. Great fun to interview. And a little sad.
Dave: Paris Hilton.
I don't know where she's going to be ten years from now, five years from now.
Dave: Whoopi Goldberg.
Walters: I love Whoopi. She has mellowed. She's wise. She's gone through a lot. She's wonderful on The View.
Dave: Do you have a favorite Whoopi story that you tell people?
Walters: No, but I interviewed Whoopi many years ago. I know her fairly well, personally. I've seen her grow and change, and I think she's very happy on The View. It's resurrected her career. She says so, and she's very happy. She's a superb moderator, and we weren't always sure she would be.
Dave: What surprises you about the way we live in 2008?
Walters: The Internet. MySpace, YouTube. Nothing is private anymore. Nothing. Who ten years ago would ever have imagined? How long have we even known what blogs are?
The bad thing is that nothing is private. The good thing is that we will, more and more, have a global world. Maybe that will help us understand each other and live with each other.
Dave: Did any particular memoirs inspire you in telling your own story?
Walters: No. I know that other journalists have written books, and a lot of them have to do with their interviews. That's a part of my book, but I try to put them into context: The ones that influenced me the most. The ones that affected my life. The ones I could do again and again. The ones I never want to do again. But I knew I didn't want to do a book simply on interviews.
Dave: That said, given your vocation, what's the first question you'd ask you?
Walters: Tell me about your childhood.
I do that a lot. When I interview celebrities, mostly, childhood is the key to who they are today. That's why I made people cry so often.
You talk to people about their childhood, a lot of them have family who died or problems in the family. It does bring tears. And if you ask me about it — not now since I've written the book, but even so — it would probably bring tears to my eyes.
If you're doing that kind of an interview, it's a very good way to begin. Therefore, that's the way I begin my book. It's chronological.
Dave: Is a question about childhood also just plain disarming? Adults are rarely asked to reflect publicly and in detail about their pre-public life.
Walters: Perhaps. Also, when you look at the political process, you look at the interviews today...
When I interviewed Richard Nixon, which was the first interview that he did after he left office — well, the first one was with David Frost, but he was paid for that. I did the first one with Nixon when he was not paid, and it was live. After we did the foreign policy questions, I asked him a personal question, and he said, "Let's get serious." He wouldn't answer it. Who cares about the personal question?
We see in this election how the candidate's background, whether it's McCain having been in prison or Barack Obama with the black father and white mother and what his childhood was like, or Hillary growing up in a Republican family — so many of the questions are personal and so many of them deal with childhood. That doesn't raise any eyebrows, but it sure did some time back.
Dave: That might be an effective approach to get your interview subject to open up, but is it useful to the political process, do you think?
Walters: If you think a person's character is as important as a person's opinions and ability to lead, yes. I don't think it should be as important as we've seen it, but that's in part because this primary season has gone on endlessly.
Certainly we want to know their views and we want to know how they can lead the country. How important it is to know what their idiosyncrasies are, I don't know. We didn't with Richard Nixon, did we? We didn't know much about him. We didn't know about his psychological problems. It's really only since Watergate that we've begun to delve into what makes somebody tick.
Dave: Never mind my questions. What do you want people to know about the book?
Walters: I think the most important story is the personal one, my relationship with my sister, and my father, who seemed to have the most glamorous life. The whole arc of my father's life and the tragedy of his life — all these things that people don't know. Lou Walters Latin Quarter: one of the most famous nightclubs in America. The celebrities I met at the time, working for him, Frank Sinatra, Milton Berle, so that I never was in awe of celebrities. I always knew that they were human beings and had their own problems.
Yes, there are also sections on heads of state and murderers, the back-story of Monica Lewinsky, the story of the man behind Iran-Contra. And the celebrities. And 20/20 and The View. It's a very thick, big book. It took a long time to write and a lot of thought. Some of it is great fun. I write about some of the men in my life.
I hope that it will be a great read, but I also hope that perhaps some people can relate to it and feel that it has some importance to them.
Dave: You say that your access to celebrities humanized them, and maybe your book can have a similar effect on some readers. They're not jetting around the world interviewing world leaders, but more people will recognize themselves in the family sections than they might imagine.
Walters: I hope so. Because of 20/20 and because I've always asked questions, people think of me as being very authoritative. Young women especially, entering this business, don't realize what went into it. No, everybody doesn't go flying around the world interviewing the Dalai Lama, but we all struggle in our private lives.
I'm at a point in my life where I can tell this story and feel comfortable about it. I'm not sure I could have done it many years ago, or even a few years ago.
Barbara Walters spoke by phone on May 3, 2008, three days prior to the publication of Audition.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State