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"It was my show; it wasn't his," Klurfeld says of the weekly Walter Winchell radio broadcast. "He was the producer, but I wrote the show. And I often tell people that I provided the words for Winchell for those 30 years, but the music was provided by Winchell."
Neal Gabler, author of the 1994 tome Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity, says he does not want to rob Klurfeld of the glory he has won so late in the game -- way into overtime, actually. But the biographer is wary of spreading the credit too thin. "You've got to be careful when you attribute [Winchell's] success to anyone but Walter Winchell." Of the Daily Mirror column that was picked up by more than 2000 newspapers at its peak in the late '30s and '40s, Gabler says, "It was his voice, it was his style, it was his editing that made the column inimitably Walter Winchell."
That voice was like nothing that had graced newsprint before or since, though there have been many imitators. Walter Winchell invented the modern gossip column, which spawned the obsession with celebrity that drives the media today. And he did so in a slangy style that let the masses in on a not-so-secret code at odds with the old guard of the fourth estate. The colorful people in Winchell's column saw "moom pictures" at movie palaces, clinked illicit drinks at "hush parlors," and, after "makin' whoopee," sometimes had a "blessed event."
Klurfeld does not deny Winchell this originality. Rather he praises the "bright, sassy language," that brought attention to the items. He hails Winchell's dramatic flair and instinctive understanding of his audience. Both he and Gabler acknowledge that Winchell was a household name before Klurfeld went to work for him in 1937. But in Klurfeld's view, he elevated Winchell to a new level by injecting poetic philosophy and political commentary into the show biz-centered mix, and by leading a groundbreaking crusade against anti-Semitism.
"I made the Winchell legend. I was responsible for that," Klurfeld insists. "I could always do what he did, but he couldn't do what I did."
It was often Klurfeld who composed the "lasty," as Winchell called the relentlessly rewritten final line of his broadcast. One audience-pleaser addressed the death of Pres. Franklin Roosevelt's mother: "A great lady went to Heaven and left a great son who is trying to make a Heaven on Earth." But perhaps the most prophetic was, "There's nothing 'ex-er' than an ex-big shot."
In his book Klurfeld estimates that, during nearly three decades in Winchell's employ, he wrote more than 4000 columns. Because they were all signed by Winchell, it's virtually impossible to substantiate such claims. Klurfeld himself says he couldn't go back and cull all of his own efforts. "His style was my style, and my style was his style. Even I couldn't tell the difference after a while."
Yet James Klurfeld, vice president and editorial-page editor of Newsday, says he can recognize his father's work. "It's the turn of phrase, the sharp play on words."
That Klurfeld is one of the last remaining members of Winchell's inner circle further limits dissent or consensus on the magnitude of his role. When asked about Arnold Forster, another surviving Winchell comrade, Klurfeld says, "He will tell you what I tell you, what he once said publicly: 'The real Walter Winchell was Herman Klurfeld.'"
Thinking he might be misinterpreted, the media-savvy retired journalist calls back less than ten minutes later to amend his declarations; he never meant to imply that he was more important than Winchell. "He was Columbus. He was the one who discovered the gossip column. I just helped him steer the ship later on. But you can't take away the captain of the ship," Klurfeld elaborates. "Nothing could have been accomplished by me without Winchell. I would have still been an errand boy."
Indeed, though Klurfeld says he turned down offers from other New York columnists and Hollywood producers during the heady days at the summit of Winchell's success, there was no other paper to run to when he was summarily dropped by the falling idol in 1965. Instead Klurfeld switched to writing books and working in public relations. He never again had a popular outlet for his opinions.
Outraged now by Clinton's impeachment, Herman Klurfeld wishes he could warn people of the dangers of extremism, as he had in the many anti-Nazi missives that made him and Winchell so proud. "Now I'm a man without arms. I don't have any power. I had a helluva lot of power. I could speak to Mr. and Mrs. America."
Contact Margery Gordon at her e-mail address: