The Gossip Columnist…
THE MAN WHO INVENTED THE GOSSIP COLUMN
His radio show reached audiences from coast to coast in the late 40’s. Morse code signals broke silence over the airwaves as Winchell’s rapid fire speech crackled “Good evening Mr. and Mrs. North America and all the ships at sea…Let’s go to press…FLASH…” Current celebrity gossip, sensational or trivial, followed in abundance. An ex-vaudevillian, his background gave him a sense of entertainment, timing. And entertain he did. He skyrocketed to being the most powerful newsman in the country.
I first met Walter on a Presidential assignment. Eisenhower’s first visit to Palm Springs where we all stayed along with White House press corps, a common practice referred to as the “death watch.” Walter had friends and acquaintances everywhere, which included bell boys, waiters, bartenders, etc. His never-ending generosity was Walter’s method of gaining information for his column. Those who had been lavishly tipped or partied felt obliged to do something nice for Walter and the nicest thing anyone could do was to give him an exclusive story.
Media headquarters were in the press room of the Los Angeles Federal Building during the trial of three men accused of kidnapping Frank Sinatra, Jr. in 1964. Walter generally addressed the room as he entered, cracking a few jokes, and feeding us tidbits he couldn’t use which he’d picked up from a myriad of contacts. The envelope tucked under his arm was always stuffed with notes on bar napkins, bits of newspaper, paper towels, whatever he could find.
A compassionate man of great depth and untold internal emotional conflict, he was estranged from his family, his wife stayed in Scottsdale, Arizona while he lived out of suitcases skipping around the world. He had no communications with his son, who was on a collision course with reality and finally killed himself. Walter was a tortured man in many ways, be he never complained. He was usually animated, cracking jokes.
He’d pound rapidly on the typewriter with two fingers transcribing notes and extract more scraps of paper from his hat which he kept close by on the desk. Walter sat at a desk with his back to the wall so no one could look over his shoulder and steal his copy. Photos of partially nude strippers who had passed through L.A. when strip shows were popular in the 40’s decorated the wall.
Rumors were that Walter had a ghost writer. I enlarged the portrait of him typing at the Royal manual and captioned it “WW’s GHOST WRITER AT WORK” had it framed and presented to him at his 67th birthday party which he gave himself filling the Ambassador’s Cocoanut Grove. He said it meant more than if he had been given the Pulitzer Prize, and hung it in the hotel rooms wherever he stayed. He wouldn’t accept gifts, but made an exception to this and a gold ghost lapel pin which accompanied the picture.
Walter always wore or carried some kind of a top coat with a .45 caliber automatic in the pocket. We were crammed in with a mob of world press surrounded by armed Rent-a-Cops at Marilyn Monroe’s funeral. Walter became irritated when they began to herd us away from an area which provided good coverage. He nudged me, “Look at those guys with their guns. They ain’t so smart. I got a gun too, ” he said proudly, patting the pocket of his coat.
When the press staked out at the Biltmore Hotel where President Eisenhower was staying, Walter dragged me off an elevator to escort him to the presidential suite. Secret Service ushered Walter straight in to Ike for a private conversation unaware he had a loaded .45 in his coat. I was amused and waited to Walter in the foyer with the Secret Service. The man was so highly regarded they never bothered to search him.
Walter received added notoriety for helping an organized crime chief turn himself in to the FBI after months of being hunted as the most dangerous criminal in the nation. In August 1939, rather than taking a chance on being gunned down in cold blood by one of J. Edgar Hoover’s men in his attempt, prominent gangster Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, co-founder of Murder, Incorporated, decided to surrender through the aid of Walter Winchell.
After getting an exclusive interview in the back seat of a limousine, Walter delivered Lepke safely to Hoover who had Lepke indicted for twenty killings. To everyone’s surprise, Lepke was put to death in the electric chair. He was the only major gangland figure to be executed in the united States in fifty years.
One sunny day in ’64 Walter asked me to ride back to the Federal Building with him from a press conference we’d covered. The convertible top was down on his rented car so he could enjoy Southern California weather. It was late afternoon. Walter and I didn’t usually have time for lengthy conversation, just a few jokes and casual banter. He asked about my ambition, my future. I explained I had basically been trained as a dramatist and photographer, that I was a newsman by accident and after covering President Kennedy’s assassination I became disillusioned with the news business.
I told Walter how the media squelched information several of us had dug up. It concerned me that television news was practicing censorship by omission. The frustration experienced in Texas was capped by a statement that came down to our temporary desk in Dallas from NBC News’ chief in New York, Bill McAndrew, “Tell those guys if they keep up the investigative reporting, they’ll wind up holding their head in their hands.” Bill McAndrew died from an accident in his home not too long after. To my knowledge, details were never released.
I told Walter I believed the assassination was far more complicated than they allowed, and though there was no proof at the time Drank Sinatra, Jr’s kidnapping might have been engineered as a distraction. One of the defendants, John Irwin said on the witness stand they were supposed to kidnap young Sinatra outside the Los Angeles Ambassador hotel the same day Kennedy was killed, November 22, 1963. Irwin said he couldn’t go through with the plan because he was too upset over the President’s death. Just imagine how national and international press coverage would have been affected and what a mess it would have been if both events had happened on the same day.
Walter had keen interest in what I was telling him so I told him about a situation I witnessed which also seemed to be linked to the President’s assassination. It was the story about Billy Hunter, a Long Beach, California newspaper reporter who was shot and killed by a police officer in the press room of the Long Beach Police Building. Billy had been quietly collaborating with a guy in Dallas on a book about the truth behind JFK’s assassination. His journal was kept in a black attaché case that was never out of sight. When the coroner’s office removed the body, the attaché case was missing.
It was April 1964, two Long Beach cops said they were playing quick draw as they ran through the police building to see who was the fastest. They advanced towards the press room where Billy was reading, tilted back in a swivel chair at his desk, his feet propped up on top of the typewriter. Wiggens pursued the other cop who ran into the room behind Billy. As Wiggins stopped at the door, about six feet away from Billy, he claimed he drew his gun, lost control of it and it flew out of his hand up into the air. He said he tried to catch the gun before it hit the floor but couldn’t and it accidentally discharged, killing Billy Hunter. The press room is sacrosanct and the story was phony as hell.
I was angry and went to Long Beach to investigate. Shockingly I was the only member of the press to question this seemingly senseless killing. Frank Hronek, a Los Angeles D.A. investigator and friend, told me that Wiggins failed three times on lie detector tests while he was present. The operator gave him every chance he could but Wiggins registered poorly, especially regarding details on the handling of his gun. The coroner’s report indicated the bullet entered Billy’s upper chest, coursed downward through his heart, exiting by the kidney. Interesting! He said the gun discharged at floor level.
An air of hostility haunted Long Beach and any investigation on my part. The editor of the paper Billy worked for was uncooperative, wouldn’t volunteer any information. I found out later that all the awards displayed in his office were won by Billy Hunter, for his coverage of the Kennedy assassination. A reporter nearby overheard our non-productive conversation and secretly offered to meet me when I left.
We met in a nearby saloon. He told me about Billy’s awards, that Billy was originally from Dallas, and that Wiggins was a bad cop– a nasty bastard when drunk. He said that Wiggins reigned over a night of terror a few months before Billy was killed. Wiggins and his partner went off duty, started drinking in the same bar where we were. Wiggins kept slapping the palm of his hand menacingly with a blackjack, threatening the bartender. Told him to set up free drinks or he’d sap him.
They proceeded to another pub around the corner. The owner was seated at the bar. As they entered, Wiggins put his revolver to the back of the owner’s head demanding drinks on the house, threatening that he’d play Russian Roulette until he did.
After having a couple of drinks there, they went on to a small saloon frequented by the Navy. Wiggins pointed his gun at three sailors, demanding they buy drinks, then walked down the narrow, dim lit bar, pulling an old black man backwards off a bar stool as he went. The bartender, a short, scrappy, young man leapt over the bar, grabbed Wiggins in a headlock and ran him the full length of the room into a wall. He spun him around and smashed his head on the small pool table just to make sure Wiggin’s was out. Wiggins’ partner called the station, told them Wiggins had been injured in a police related accident. He was hauled off to a hospital at tax payer’s expense.
The reporter put me in contact with a 26 year old car salesman, former Long Beach police officer who was on duty the night Hunter was killed. I interviewed him on camera on a quiet residential street, out of sight and away from where he worked. He was quite proud that he had become #2 in sales. In the course of the interview, he told me about hookers being flown in from Vegas for conventioneers; that he had been offered $1,600.00 a week to be a bag man for a local bookie for a few hours a week to collect and distribute money; about being reprimanded for arresting a prostitute in one of the city’s best hotels. Not only was she not held, he was told never to go into that hotel again in a police uniform, it was off-limits to Harness Bulls. Ironically the former cop naively failed to see any evidence of organized crime in Long Beach.
He went on to tell me that Wiggins’ case was submitted to an internal investigation which concluded that Wiggins had been injured in the course of police business. He smiled as he said it was Wiggins’ father, a police investigator, who conducted the investigation and personally interviewed the citizens who had complained.
Wiggins was becoming a familiar name. While in Dallas covering the assassination, I had to clear the use of off-duty cops as drivers with Lieutenant Wiggins of the Dallas Police Department. He was also in charge of clearing the people in the garage where Jack Ruby shot Oswald to death.
A week after our interview I received a call from the 26 year old ex-cop. He told me he was fired the same day of the interview, when he returned to work. Presumably his employer had no knowledge of the interview. Six months later I received another, more desperate call. He had gone to work in Huntington Beach and three guys beat him up, told him to leave town. He went to Seal Beach and was once again threatened, by cops. After several months on Catalina Island, he returned to the mainland and was told to get the hell away if he wanted to stay alive. He asked what he should do. Could I help him? The only advice I could possibly give him was to tell him that he should leave the area, no and to keep in touch.
The Los Angeles District Attorney’s office had an acting D.A. at that time. He viewed the footage I had gotten of all the Long Beach interviews. He asked management not to run the story. In reality he was afraid it might affect the upcoming election and his chances of becoming the next D.A. Management caved in without listening to my protestations. The D.A. hopeful lost his bid for the election, and the country was once again a victim of censorship.
The book Billy Hunter had been collaborating on with the Dallas reporter, James Koeth, dealt with little known facts behind the assassination. Six months later, in September, hunter’s collaborator was found dead in his Dallas apartment, reportedly killed by a karate chop from an unknown assailant. Actually he was strangled to death when he stepped out of the shower. Both Hunter and Koethe had met with Ruby’s roommate, George Senator in Ruby’s apartment two short weeks after the assassination. It was said, anyone who gained access to Ruby’s apartment was found dead. Robin McNeil and I made it to the entrance of the second floor apartment. A large woman inside said she was Jack Ruby’s sister and “What the hell do you guys want?” We told her we just wanted to take a few pictures. She came menacingly towards us and snarled “Get the fuck away from here.” We did.
Walter was anxious to run the story. The next morning he sheepishly approached me in the hallway, said “Aggie,” as everyone knew Agnes Underwood, the Herald’s city editor, “said no. I fought hard, Gene, but she absolutely refused.” Sadly the story might have shed some light on the events surrounding the assassination.
Remarkable! Walter Winchell, a legend in his own time, one of the most powerful newsmen in the country was being censored. This marked for me the beginning of major press censorship in all media. Censorship that continues to this day.