Barbara Walters, the intrepid interviewer, anchor and program host who blazed the trail as the first woman to become a TV news superstar during a career remarkable for its duration and diversity, has died. She was 93 years old.
ABC went on air Friday night to announce Walters’ death.
“He lived his life with no regrets. She was a trailblazer not just for women journalists, but for all women,” her publicist Cindy Berger also said in a statement. Walters died peacefully at her New York home.
An ABC spokeswoman had no immediate comment Friday night except to share a statement from Bob Iger, CEO of ABC parent The Walt Disney Company.
“Barbara was a true legend, a pioneer not only for women in journalism but for journalism itself,” Iger said.
During nearly four decades at ABC, and before that at NBC, Walters’ exclusive interviews with rulers, royalty and entertainers brought her celebrity status that ranked alongside them, while she was at the forefront of a trend of making stars of TV reporters.
Late in her career, she gave infotainment a new twist with “The View,” a live ABC weekday comedy featuring an all-female panel for whom any topic was on the table and guests ranging from world leaders to teen idols. was welcomed. Along with that side adventure and unexpected hit, Walters called “The View” the “dessert” of his career.
Walters made headlines in 1976 as the first female network news anchor, with an unprecedented $1 million salary that drew gasps. Her drive was legendary as she competed—not only with rival networks, but with colleagues on her own network—for every big “get” in a world filled with more and more interviewers, including female journalists following in her footsteps.
“I never expected this!” Walters said in 2004, taking stock of her success. “I always thought I would be a writer for television. I never thought I would be in front of the camera.”
But she was a natural on camera, especially when fielding significant questions.
“I’m not afraid of being interviewed, I have no fear!” Walters told The Associated Press in 2008.
In a voice that never lost its native Boston accent or the signs of Ws-for-Rs in its place, Walters fielded perplexing and sometimes perplexing questions, often sugarcoated with calm, respectful delivery.
“Offscreen, you like it?” She once asked actor John Wayne, while Lady Bird Johnson was asked if she envied her late husband’s reputation as a ladies’ man.
In May 2014, she taped her final episode of “The View” amid much ceremony and scores of accolades to end a five-decade career in television (though she continued to make occasional TV appearances). During a commercial break, she made way for a crowd of TV newsmen – including Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Robin Roberts and Connie Chung – to pose with her for a group portrait.
“I have to remember this on the bad days,” Walters said quietly, “because this is the best.”
Her career began with signs of such grandeur.
Walters graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1943 and eventually landed a “temporary,” behind-the-scenes assignment at “Today” in 1961.
Shortly after, a token woman slot opened up among the eight staff writers. Walters got the job and began making occasional on-air appearances with offbeat stories like “A Day in the Life of a Nun” or the troubles of the Playboy Bunny. Later, she wore bunny ears and high heels to work at the Playboy Club.
As she appeared more frequently, she was spared the title of “‘today’s’ girl” that was attached to her token female predecessor. But she had to pay her dues, sometimes running to the “Today” set between interviews to do dog food commercials.
She first met Rose Kennedy after the assassination of her son Robert, as well as Princess Grace of Monaco, President Richard Nixon and many others. She traveled to India with Jacqueline Kennedy, China with Nixon and Iran to cover the Shah’s gala party. But in 1971 she got a shock with the arrival of new host Frank McGee. Although they may share a desk, he insists that he wait until she asks three questions before opening her mouth during joint meetings with “powerful figures.”
Although she achieved celebrity status in her own right, the celebrity world was also familiar with her as a little girl. His father was an English-born booking agent who turned an old Boston church into a nightclub. Lou Walters opened other clubs in Miami and New York, and young Barbara spent her later hours with regulars like Joseph Kennedy and Howard Hughes.
Those were good times. But her father made and lost fortunes in a dizzying cycle that always threatened to rob her of success, and she could neither be trusted nor enjoyed.
Realizing more freedom and opportunities awaited her outside the studio, she hit the road and prepared more exclusive interviews for the program, including Nixon Chief of Staff HR Haldeman.
By 1976, she was named “Today” co-host and was earning $700,000 a year. But when ABC signed her to a $5 million, five-year contract, she was dubbed a “million-dollar baby.”
The reports failed to note that her job duties will be split between the network’s entertainment division and ABC News, which is then in third place. Meanwhile, Harry Reasoner, her veteran “ABC Evening News” co-anchor, is said to be upset with her salary and celebrity orientation.
It wasn’t just her volatile relationship with her co-anchor that brought Walters problems.
Comedian Gilda Radner satirized him on the new “Saturday Night Live” as a rotastastic commentator named “Baba Wawa.” And after her interview with newly elected President Jimmy Carter in which Walters told Carter to “be reasonable with us,” CBS correspondent Morley Safer publicly mocked her as “the first woman pope to bless a new cardinal.”
It was a period that marked the end of what she had worked for, she later recalled.
“I thought it was all over: ‘How stupid of me to leave NBC!'”
But salvation came in the form of a new boss, ABC News President Rune Arledge, who moved her out of the co-anchor slot and into special projects for ABC News. Meanwhile, she found success in her quarterly primetime interview specials. She was a frequent contributor to ABC’s newsmagazine “20/20” and became co-host in 1984. Her review of the year’s “10 Most Interesting People” was a perennial favorite.
By 2004, when she stepped down from “20/20,” she had logged more than 700 interviews with everyone from Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Moammar Gaddafi to Michael Jackson, Eric and Lyle Menendez and Elton John. Her two-hour conversation with Monica Lewinsky in 1999, timed on the former White House intern’s memoir about her affair with President Bill Clinton, drew more than 70 million viewers and is among the highest-rated television interviews in history.
A particular favorite for Walters was Katharine Hepburn, although a 1981 exchange led to one of her most ridiculous questions: “What kind of tree are you?”
Walters would later object that the question was perfectly reasonable in the context of their conversation. Hepburn compared herself to a tree, leading Walters to ask what kind of tree it was (“oak” was the response). Walters was guilty of being “horribly emotional” at times and was famous for making her subjects cry, with Oprah Winfrey and Ringo Starr among the more famous shaders.
But his work also received much appreciation. She won a Peabody Award for an interview with Christopher Reeve shortly after a 1995 horse-riding accident that left him paralyzed.
Walters wrote the 2008 bestselling memoir “Audition,” which stunned readers with revelations of a “long and rocky affair” with married U.S. Senator Edward Brooke in the 1970s.
Walters’ self-disclosure reached another benchmark in May 2010 when she announced on “The View” that, days later, she would undergo heart surgery. Her successful surgery — and that of other celebrities, including Clinton and David Letterman — will be featured in a primetime special.
Walters’ first marriage to businessman Bob Katz was annulled after a year. Her 1963 marriage to theater owner Lee Guber, with whom she adopted a daughter, ended in divorce after 13 years. Her five-year marriage to producer Merv Adelson ended in divorce in 1990.
Walters is survived by his daughter, Jacqueline Danforth.
“I hope to be remembered as a good and courageous journalist. I hope that some of my interviews, not making history, but witnessing history, although I know that title has been used,” she told the AP upon her retirement from “The View.” “I think when I When I look at what I’ve accomplished, I have a great sense of accomplishment. I don’t want to sound proud and conceited, but I think I’ve just had an amazing career and I’m thrilled.