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The diva of broadcasting revisits past, tantalizingly

- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 25, 2008

AUDITION: A MEMOIR

By Barbara Walters

Knopf, $29.95, 624 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY SANDRA MCELWAINE

In her memoir "Audition," Barbara Walters has kissed and told and told and told.

And given more information than many of us need or want to know.

Assisted by Linda Bird Francke, a talented writer and editor, the self-styled, "pushy cookie," has written a comprehensive reflection on her extraordinary past in which she describes her peripatetic childhood, three failed marriages, several miscarriages, the suicide attempt of her father, her daughter's drug problems, her triumph, her heartbreak, guilt and fears — poverty was her bete noir — and her complex and varied love life.

Much of the book deals with the early years of television and the male chauvinism of the period — Harry Reasoner loathed her, Frank McGee disdained her — and how she lands her famous "gets," the exclusive interviews. (She writes a personal note to each celebrity explaining why a sit-down with her works to their advantage.)

So why at 78 has the venerable diva of broadcasting felt compelled to divulge the details her of private life? She begins with the loss of her virginity some 50 years ago with her first boss at NBC and continues to dish about her romances with, and proposals from an eclectic mix of high-powered, high-profile males.

The answer probably lies in her advance of a reputed $4 million, which requires dropping more than a few glitzy names along with Miss Walter's own show biz savvy. As she says in the book, while working in a PR firm, one of her first jobs out of college, she discovered that the word sex in the lead of a press release "caught the eye of the recipient.'' Later it proved invaluable on her TV show "Not for Women Only." "Whenever the ratings slipped we did a program that dealt with sex," she writes.

The daughter of a nightclub impresario, Lou Walters, of the Latin Quarter in New York and Miami, who made and lost several fortunes, Miss Walters grew up shuttling between the two cities and portrays herself as an anxious, lonely child with a keen sense of responsibility for her parents and her mentally disabled sister, Jackie

Her first television job was to write and produce women's segments for CBS "The Morning Show." When one of the models failed to show up for a beach story Miss Walters filled in and debuted on TV in a bathing suit. Her second appearance and first hard news story was interviewing survivors of the collision of the luxury liner Andrea Doria. When "The Morning Show" was cancelled she went on unemployment until she landed a job writing girlie features for the "Today Show" at NBC. In 1961 she was sent to Paris to cover haute couture and made her first appearance on "Today" in August of that year. At that point it never dawned on her that her she would become a regular on air.

"All I wanted to do was what I was asked to do so I wouldn't be replaced by some other female writer. I just wanted to keep my job. I have always felt I was auditioning." (Hence the title of the book.)

With Women's lib underway she gradually metamorphosed from a glorified tea pourer into a more substantial figure and appeared as sidekick to Hugh Downs on the early morning show. Her first week she pitched Alpo dog food, but her pit-bull tenacity and workaholic attitude led to classier assignments like covering Jackie Kennedy's trip to India and Pakistan, and interviewing Richard Nixon. From then on she started gobbling up all the big stories and glamorous interviews and was catapulted to super-stardom when Gilda Radner spoofed and dubbed her "Baba WaWa" on a famous "Saturday Night Live" episode.

(Miss Walters hated the spoof until her daughter Jackie told her to realize the potential and "Lighten up." Another interesting aside: When, after 13 years, she left "Today" for a million-dollar contract with ABC there was little fanfare, but Alpo never forgot. They gave her a farewell lunch and presented her with a magnum of champagne in a red bucket shaped like a fire hydrant.)

The most compelling chapter for Washingtonians is one entitled, "The Special Men in My Life." It involves an a unlikely crew of local lovers: Former Chair of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan; former Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke and Virginia Sen. John Warner. The revelation of these mid-life affairs is quintessential Walters .

The relationship with Sen. Brooke, who is black and was married at the time she hypes as super secret, "forbidden fruit" although it was known in the media and was chronicled as a blind item in both the Washington Star and the Washington Post during the 1970s. Their bonding was a coup de foudre for Miss Walters; she was dazzled by his appeal and calls him "the most attractive, sexiest, funniest, charming and impossible man."

Alan Greenspan, was a totally different kind of squeeze. Austere and aloof, she depicts him as a brilliant and endearing momma's boy, a marriage phobic and cheapskate, rarely remembering to pick up a check or buy a Christmas or birthday gift. "He wore the same navy blue raincoat till it practically fell apart," she writes, yet he consoled her through tough times and listened to her woes and served as her arm piece and lover for many years. She calls him "one of the finest people I know."

Handsome and courtly John Warner was on and off in her life before and after his ill-fated marriage to Elizabeth Taylor,

Wealthy and glamorous, he moved easily in Miss Walter's sophisticated, well-heeled set and provided her with companionship plus the allure of being a major Washington power broker. She found him "a gentleman, honest caring, and kind" and "watched with pride as he became more and more effective in the Senate."

With each of the attachments she says there was talk of marriage, but no conclusion. With Sen. Brooke she feared a scandal, with Mr. Greenspan, the romance dwindled and Sen. Warner was too involved in his political career. Each eventually married other women.

So much for those late-blooming liaisons.

Her most acclaimed interview? The chat with Monica Lewinsky whom she wooed over dinner at her Manhattan apartment.

Worst interview? Warren Beatty

Celebrities that affected her life? Katherine Hepburn, Christopher Reeve, Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn, Richard Pryor and the Dalai Lama.

People she would interview over and over again? Cher, Bette Midler, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Clint Eastwood, Tom Hanks.

Her favorite question? What is the biggest misconception about you?

The biggest misconception about Barbara Walters? It comes from Don Hewitt, the creator of "60 Minutes":

"You'll never make it on air. You don't have the right looks. You don't pronounce your r's right. Forget about ever being in front of the cameras."

Sandra McElwaine is a Washington-based journalist.