Wrestling With Walter Winchell's Ghost
Tat-a-tat-tat. Herman Klurfeld taps his coffee table with the tips of his shoes, an audible punctuation that mimics the famous ellipses he and Walter Winchell used to separate items in nationally syndicated newspaper columns more than 30 years ago. Winchell -- arguably the most popular and influential journalist from the 1920s to the '50s -- transferred this trademark to his radio broadcast, tapping at a telegraph key with the tips of his fingers as he launched into his famous salutation, "Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea. Let's go to press!"
Klurfeld penned many of the lines that followed but rarely claimed authorship in public -- until now. A paid ghostwriter for 27 years, Klurfeld sheds Winchell's shadow in a new HBO movie based on his 1976 book, Winchell: His Life and Times. The script paints him as an underdog who provided his master with not just copy, but a conscience. While Klurfeld, who served as an advisor on the film, says Winchell is only "about 60 percent accurate," its recent spotlight has given him the chance to do his own revision of the Winchell legend. Winchell's ghostwriter is wrestling with Winchell's ghost.
"I used to call myself 'the assistant king of the world,'" says the 82-year-old Klurfeld from his unassuming throne, a black rocking chair in the den of the Boca Raton home where he has lived for the last 17 years. He isn't rocking, but the movements of his hands and feet hint at a contained impatience, perhaps a holdover from those days spent with Winchell, whose nervous energy was as much a hallmark of his persona as his megalomania.
Klurfeld qualifies that "assistant king of the world" bit: Because of the secrecy Winchell demanded, Klurfeld had been unable to explain his occupation to acquaintances. So when pressed he had simply replied with a "gag" along the lines of those he submitted to Winchell in the mid-'30s.
He pulls a yellowing index card inscribed with his first published joke -- "Girls used to dress like Mother Hubbard. Now they dress like a cupboard" -- from a wooden catalog file shelved in his garage. Based on the strength of such gags, a 40-year-old Winchell offered the awestruck 19-year-old a full-time job. By 1940, Klurfeld says, he was responsible for 50 to 60 percent of Winchell's output, writing roughly one-third of the Sunday-evening radio broadcast and three to six of the daily syndicated columns per week. The two-tiered exposure brought Walter Winchell to an estimated 50 million Americans a week at a time when the population was about 150 million -- a concentration unimaginable in today's diluted media environment.
Klurfeld loved the life and the work. He was whispering in the ears of millions, making good money, dining gratis at the best tables in the swankest clubs in town -- all the while basking in Winchell's reflected glow. And he remembers mainly praise, appreciation, and fatherly camaraderie from his boss.
He claims it didn't bother him so much that Winchell never gave him a byline. "I thought maybe someday Winchell would do that for me. But he never did," Klurfeld says quietly, shuffling his feet like a disappointed child rearranging the sand under a swing.
His large, watery eyes brighten as he describes how the crew of HBO's Winchell fussed over him. Klurfeld had lived and written what they strove to re-create. He proudly quotes his son James' observation: "When my father walks on the set, he's not just a celebrity, he's a god."
"I finally got the credit that my son and my mother always felt I deserved," says Klurfeld, his jowly face spreading into a grin. "I never could have dreamt it." His girlfriend, Erna Rubinstein, says they watch the movie all the time, especially Klurfeld's cameo as a customer in the barbershop where Winchell and his cronies gather every evening.
Rob Fried, executive producer of Winchell, cites Klurfeld's "15 minutes of fame" at the film's New York premiere, where he rose to speak to Winchell's heirs. "For this brief moment," Fried recalls, "the most prominent journalists on Earth were eating up every word of a man who, during the bulk of his career, was invisible."
This theme charges a scene in which Winchell (played by Stanley Tucci) tells Klurfeld (Paul Giamatti) to write a column, based on a tip from Sen. Joseph McCarthy, accusing New York Post editor James Wechsler of being pro-Communist. When Klurfeld refuses, an incensed Winchell yells, "You write what I tell you to write. You say what I say."
"And I gave you a job, and don't you forget it," Winchell says. Klurfeld wordlessly capitulates.
He now says the confrontation never happened, that he voluntarily wrote the redbaiting column out of his own anger at the Post, which had been waging a dirty war against Winchell. One of its 1952 exposes outed Klurfeld on the front page under the banner "Winchell's No.1 Ghost." A framed copy of the Post cover hangs in Klurfeld's living room opposite a collage made by his cousin from Life magazine's recent issue on the 100 most important Americans of the 20th Century. There is something at once desperate and endearing in the way Klurfeld points out his own signature under the large black type that spells out Winchell's name.
"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:
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