In 1988 I began working on a biography of Leonard Goldenson, then 85, the founder and at that time the Chairman of ABC Broadcasting Companies.
Among the most modest of all show biz executives, Goldenson was adamant that he hadn’t single-handedly built ABC from less than nothing into (then) the world’s largest advertising medium. Over the decades since 1952, he had hired dozens of men and women whose contributions to ABC’s success Goldenson wanted to be recognized.
This is why in September 1988, escorted by a woman from ABC’s corporate PR department, I paid a call on Barbara Walters at her Fifth Avenue apartment, just up the street from the Plaza hotel.
Her apartment occupied the entire fourth floor and half the third. The latter was required to accommodate Walters’ Olympic-sized swimming pool.
A liveried maid admitted us to the apartment and we were encouraged to take a chair in a little antechamber by the front door. Lest anyone forget whose home this was, the walls of this little room were covered with framed photos of Barbara Walters with everyone who was anyone: Several US Presidents. Fidel Castro, Anwar Sadat, Mao Tse Dung, Queen Elizabeth II, Moshe Dayan, David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi —every world leader I’d ever heard of, and many I hadn’t. And movie stars, the living, and the long dead—Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe, Leslie Caron, Bridget Bardot, Audrey AND Katherine Hepburn, Clark Gable, James Stewart, and anyone who was anyone in television. I was properly impressed.
Shit, I was awed.
The lady of the house appeared about ten minutes later, clad in a bathrobe, her hair wet. “I swim every morning,” she added, then did something that caused the maid’s return. We were offered coffee, and she joined us.
This was the first of what would be 127 interviews for Goldenson’s book, eventually titled “Beating The Odds” and unfortunately published on the very day that US forces in Saudi Arabia attacked Saddam Hussein’s army of occupation in Kuwait.
I was never going to ask Walters what kind of a tree she would be. Obviously, she was a giant redwood, a sequoia sempervirens, towering over the broadcasting industry.
In fact, I was able to ask her but one question: “How did you first meet Leonard Goldenson?”
It is not widely known today that Walters had an older sister, Jacqueline, afflicted with cerebral palsy, and that Goldenson’s first daughter, Genese, usually called “Cookie” was similarly afflicted. Or that Goldenson, his wife, and another couple started United Cerebral Palsy to raise money for research and to establish facilities, first in New York and then around the nation, where cerebral palsy children (and, later, adults) could learn useful life skills, receive vocational therapy, and thus allow their respective caregivers much-needed breaks from caring for their brain-damaged family members. United Cerebral Palsy raised millions for research, leading to the identification of the root cause of this condition—brain damage during pregnancy or delivery. And in large measure they brought these afflicted children out of the shadows, out of basements and closets, hidden away because their presence shamed their family. No longer.
Jackie, who was three years older, was “only mildly” disabled but “just enough to prevent her from attending regular school, from having friends, from getting a job, from marrying. Just enough to stop her from having a real life,” she explained, adding that the early realization that she, Barbara, would have to provide for her sister, is what drove her to work harder and longer than any of her peers.
Walters then described how she had met the Goldensons at that first center for children like her sister and the Goldensons’ daughter.
I never got to ask her another question. She spoke for more than two hours, describing some of their subsequent meetings with Leonard, how he seemed to turn up every time she was even contemplating leaving NBC, how he knew before she did that she would want to spend more time with her own children and that sleeping by day and rising in the middle of the night to do the Today Show didn’t allow that. She described her secret meeting with Goldenson in a Manhattan hotel room to discuss the terms of a million-dollar contract he offered her to join ABC and co-anchor the evening news with Harry Reasoner. And she told me that she was sure from the start of that ill-fated pairing that it would fail, if for no other reason that Harry Reasoner, then at the top of his profession as ABC’s evening news anchor, had everything to lose and nothing to gain by sharing that pulpit with her.
It was the most entertaining, informative, and unscripted interview of the entire year that I spent interviewing for that book. She was relaxed, open, holding nothing back. I came away thinking—knowing—that this was what true greatness was like—unaffected, totally lacking in pretense, honest even when it hurt. It was the best and by far the easiest interview I’ve had in fifty-plus years as a journalist and author.
As everyone now knows. Barbara died yesterday.
I will miss her. There are vanishing few people like her in the world, and even fewer in the entertainment industry.
May her memory serve as a balm in times of trouble.
Text © 2023 Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved. Photo credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fa/Barbara_Walters_%C2%A9Lynn_Gilbert.gif. More about Leonard Goldenson in Beating The Odds
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.