By: Fern Sidman
As the rarest of TV personalities and considered a cultural fixture, for more than a half-century, Barbara Walters was a familiar face on our television screens. She placed in front of her audience world figures, prominent personalities as well as celebrities whose names and faces might have changed from year to year, according to an AP report. Her face and name never did change.
Walters, whose death at age 93 was announced on Friday evening became a TV news superstar during a career marked for its duration and variety, the AP reported.
Considered a true trailblazer in terms of carving a path for women in the field of journalism when it was considered a male-dominated industry, Walters began her television presence in 1961 on the NBC Today Show as a writer and segment producer of women’s interest stories. She covered fashion trends, cooking and other topics of interest to women at that time.
Her first big news assignments came when she reported on the late First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s trip to India and then she reported on the funeral of the late President John. F. Kennedy in November of 1963.
Her popularity with viewers led to her receiving more airtime, and in 1974 she became co-host of the Today program and was the first woman to hold such a position on an American news program, as was reported by Wikipedia.
Walters confronted challenges by her male counterparts in that era before women’s rights were acknowledged by society. Her first run-in came with Today Show co-host Frank McGee who registered demands with NBC News executives regarding how much air time he would have with Walters in the co-host spot. He asked that during interviews that he get four questions to pose to interviewees as opposed to every one question that Walters would ask.
In 1976, Walters was lured away from NBC with an unprecedented $1 million a year by ABC for her work on the evening news show and special programs. She became the first woman to co-anchor a network evening news broadcast on U.S. television. She was teamed with on “ABC Evening News” with Harry Reasoner until 1978.
Reasoner expressed his displeasure with having Walters as a co-anchor as he wanted to go it alone without a partner but many believed his resentment was based in the fact that Walters was a woman. Reports indicate that Reasoner had worked with former CBS colleague Howard K. Smith nightly on ABC for several years. In 1981, five years after the start of their short-lived ABC partnership and well after Reasoner returned to CBS News, Walters and her former co-anchor had a memorable (and cordial) 20/20 interview on the occasion of Reasoner’s new book release, as was reported by Wikipedia.
In 1979, Walters reunited with former The Today Show host Hugh Downs on the ABC newsmagazine 20/20. Throughout her career at ABC, Walters appeared on ABC news specials as a commentator, including presidential inaugurations and the coverage of the September 11 attacks, Wikipedia reported. She was also chosen to be the moderator for the third and final debate between candidates Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, held on the campus of the College of William and Mary at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall in Williamsburg, Virginia, during the 1976 presidential election. In 1984, she moderated a presidential debate which was held at the Dana Center for the Humanities at Saint Anselm College in Goffstown, New Hampshire.
She discovered that in order to make an impact with interviews, she would take them out of the news studio. As a result, she is best often remembered for the periodic Barbara Walters specials in which she interviewed a panoply of celebrities, politicians and world leaders on their turf. She had no fear about asking pointed questions and her research preparation was beyond impeccable. She often said that she knew more about those she interviewed than they did about themselves.
Among the world leaders she interviewed was Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Libyan strongman Moammar Qudafi. She also interviewed both Anwat El-Sadat, the late Egyptian president and the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin prior to the peace negotiations they held at Camp David in Washington.
Among the celebrities that she interviewed were pop music icon, Michael Jackson, British rocker, Elton John, actress Lucille Ball, actor Patrick Swayze and legendary film star Katherine Hepburn. The highest television rating that Walters received was for her 1997 interview with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Walters asked Lewinsky about the thong she was wearing that she showed then President Bill Clinton.
These interviews brought her celebrity status that ranked with theirs, while placing her at the forefront of the trend in broadcast journalism that made stars of TV reporters and brought news programs into the race for higher ratings, as was reported by the AP.
Her drive was legendary as she competed — not just with rival networks, but with colleagues at her own network — for each big “get” in a world jammed with more and more interviewers, including female journalists who followed the trail she blazed, the AP reported.
Late in her career, she gave infotainment a new twist with “The View,” a live ABC weekday kaffee klatsch with an all-female panel for whom any topic was on the table and who welcomed guests ranging from world leaders to teen idols, as was reported by the AP. A side venture and unexpected hit, Walters considered “The View” the “dessert” of her career.
Bob Iger, the CEO of The Walt Disney Company which is the parent company of ABC News, praised Walters as someone who broke down barriers, according to a report on the Good Morning America web site.
“Barbara was a true legend, a pioneer not just for women in journalism but for journalism itself. She was a one-of-a-kind reporter who landed many of the most important interviews of our time, from heads of state to the biggest celebrities and sports icons. I had the pleasure of calling Barbara a colleague for more than three decades, but more importantly, I was able to call her a dear friend. She will be missed by all of us at The Walt Disney Company, and we send our deepest condolences to her daughter, Jacqueline,” Iger said in a statement Friday.
During her five decade long career, Walters won 12 Emmy awards, 11 of those while at ABC News.
She made her final appearance as a co-host of “The View” in 2014, but remained an executive producer of the show and continued to do some interviews and specials for ABC News, as was reported on the goodmorningamerica.com web site.
“I do not want to appear on another program or climb another mountain,” she said at the time. “I want instead to sit on a sunny field and admire the very gifted women — and OK, some men too — who will be taking my place.”
Members of “The View” paid tribute to Walters shortly after her passing in exclusive statements given to PEOPLE.com.
Ana Navarro, who joined The View in a full-time role back in August, told PEOPLE the late journalist was a titan of the industry.
“I never met the Queen of England, but I got to meet the Queen of Television, and it was all I could do not to curtsy,” she shared. “What made Barbara Walters a legend was not just that she was the first woman to co-anchor network evening news, but that she made it possible for so many other women to soar through the glass ceiling she shattered.”
“We all owe her a debt of gratitude. I’m honored to be part of The View, her living legacy,” Navarro, 51, added.
Sunny Hostin, who became a co-host of the talk show in 2016, told PEOPLE that the television legend was more than a mentor to her.
“I had the honor to work alongside Barbara. She was a remarkable journalist who noticed I wrote my own questions for guests,” she noted. “She generously offered her guidance as this was something I learned we had in common.”
“Not only did she help me refine my skills, she also taught me that when someone sits at the table it’s as if they are a guest in your home. You treat them with that respect,” Hostin, 54, added. “Barbara quickly went from mentor to friend, and I will miss her deeply.”
Born to children of Russian Jewish emigrants, Barbara Jill Waters came into this world on September 25, 1929 in Boston.
Walters’ father, Lou, managed the Latin Quarter nightclub in Boston, during Barbara’s childhood, which was owned in partnership with E. M. Loew, according to the Wikipedia report. In 1942, her father opened the club’s now-famous New York location. He also worked as a Broadway producer and produced the Ziegfeld Follies of 1943 as well as serving as the entertainment director for the Tropicana Resort and Casino in Las Vegas.
During her childhood, Walters recalled her father taking her to the rehearsals of the nightclub shows he directed and produced. She said that being surrounded by celebrities when she was young kept her from being “in awe” of them and found herself quite comfortable in their presence when conducting interviews.
After leaving Boston when her father moved the family to Miami Beach in 1939, Walters and her family found themselves in New York City. She attended the Birch Wathen School, graduating in 1947. In 1951, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, New York, according to the Wikipedia report.
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, the AP reported. Her five-year marriage to producer Merv Adelson ended in divorce in 1990.
Walters is survived by her daughter, Jacqueline Danforth, according to the AP report.
“I hope that I will be remembered as a good and courageous journalist. I hope that some of my interviews, not created history, but were witness to history, although I know that title has been used,” she told the AP upon her retirement from “The View.” “I think that when I look at what I have done, I have a great sense of accomplishment. I don’t want to sound proud and haughty, but I think I’ve had just a wonderful career and I’m so thrilled that I have.”