Barbara Walters to Retire—Really

Get a hanky. Lloyd Grove talks to a few stunned TV news colleagues on an unthinkable end of an era.

The idea that Barbara Walters would ever hang it up is so difficult to wrap one’s brain around, so far beyond the realm of human comprehension, such a grievous assault on the senses, that even people not easily shocked find it impossible to accept.

“I’m tempted to say that I really can’t imagine Barbara retiring,” Dan Rather told me on Thursday, as rumors of Walters’s impending announcement reached critical mass. “Her whole life has been a triumph of the will.”

Gossip doyenne Liz Smith, a longtime friend of the television powerhouse, recalled doing a magazine interview with Walters a couple of years ago. “She said she wanted to give it all up. And I didn’t believe her.”

“She never stops,” said veteran producer Jim Murphy, who worked with Walters on and off at ABC News and came away thinking “she is literally one of the greatest people in the history of the business.”

And still, by most accounts, she has decided that she is stopping—getting off stage and off camera. In the frazzled world of network television—its ratings and revenue battered by the onslaught of new technology—the end of Walters’s brilliant career is yet another sign of the apocalypse.

On an earthly level, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that a woman of 83 would relish a chance to relax. “God bless her, she deserves it,” said the 81-year-old Rather. After all, it was only late January that she took a bad spill during a party at the British ambassador’s residence, was hauled away to the hospital, and then came down, bizarrely, with a prolonged case of chicken pox. But this is Barbara Walters!

This is the same indestructible octogenarian who, a mere 15 months ago, scooped the world with a tough, headline-grabbing interview with Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad, rushing to the presidential palace in Damascus as Assad’s thugs were slaughtering protesters in the streets. There’s no doubt Walters is still at the top of her game. At a recent meeting on ABC digital strategy, she arrived and asked the most relevant and piercing questions of all the assembled supposedly more digitally savvy staff.

“She always had game,” said Rather, the former CBS News anchorman, “and I don’t doubt for a moment that she’s still got game. Barbara is a marvelously determined person. But a lot of people had the dream, and even had the determination, but they don’t have the work ethic that Barbara has had. And can you imagine how difficult it was for any woman to break through on television? Barbara did it. A few other women have broken through, strictly on the entertainment side, but Barbara was the first one in news who really climbed to the top of Everest.”

MSNBC anchor Mika Brzezinski, co-host of Morning Joe, is not alone among women who credit Walters for their jobs in television. “Saying that Barbara Walters blazed a trail for a generation of female journalists would understate her impact,” Brzezinski told The Daily Beast’s Lizzie Crocker. “Barbara broke the rules, made up a new set for women to work by, and broke them again in a sweeping, breathtaking career that revolutionized broadcast news and made my career possible."

Although Walters herself wasn’t dishing on Thursday—“Sorry,” she emailed coyly, “we are not answering any rumors”—a source familiar with her plans confirmed reports that the broadcast legend will soon reveal, perhaps as early as Monday’s installment of her daytime panel show The View, that she will leave the popular program and ABC News behind in May 2014. Her departure will be commemorated by a series of specials celebrating her nearly 60 years in the medium.

She first appeared on the small screen in 1956. She was a recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence, just married to a baby-bonnet manufacturer, the first of her three husbands, and booking fashion segments for CBS’s Morning Show. When one of the models failed to show, Walters persuaded the director to let her go on camera instead. She was a natural ham with a theatrical flair—maybe as a result of having grown up around showgirls and comedians in her father Lou Walters’s nightclubs in Boston, New York, and Miami.

As her television talents revealed themselves, her sometimes-clanging voice and trademark lisp (a godsend to the late Saturday Night Live performer Gilda Radner of “Baba Wawa” fame) didn’t stop Walters from cutting through the clutter. By 1974, she was cohost of NBC’s Today show (and constantly fighting for the respect of the network suits); she was also hosting WNBC-TV’s Not for Women Only, a precursor to The View. Two years later, she was the highest paid journalist on TV, making a cool million as co-anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight, opposite a resentfully sexist Harry Reasoner. It was a disastrous pairing that almost killed her career; with the encouragement of ABC News President Roone Arledge, Walters reinvented herself as a celebrity interviewer—the celebrity interviewer—who conducted emotional excavations of politicians, moguls, and movie stars and occasionally made them cry.

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“Nobody can ask questions like Barbara can,” recalled socialite archeologist Iris Love, who first met Walters in the 1970s as an interview subject on the Today show. “She sort of leads you down the garden path, and then strikes like a snake when you’re not expecting it. I do think she’s a wonderful interviewer.”

Meanwhile, Walters’s father Lou had proved to be a reckless businessman and compulsive gambler. After he ran through all the family money, she supported him, her mother, Dena, and her older sister, Jacqueline, for the rest of their lives.

“It’s easy to speculate that her father’s reverses had been traumatic and formative, but something is driving Barbara, and whatever it is, I don’t think it will ever let go,” Jane Pauley, who succeeded Walters as co-host of Today, told me for a 2007 profile of Walters in New York magazine. “But I don’t think she’s tormented by it. It would be tragic if she’d been driven to a life she loathed, but isn’t it obvious that she thrives on her work?”

On Thursday, former anchor Connie Chung, who had been Walters’s colleague at ABC, recalled for The Daily Beast how Walters “burrowed through the morass of vying for interviews, working hard, and demanding excellence from everyone… They knew that if they were going to produce something for her it was going to be a winning story.” Years later, when Chung stopped working to be a full-time mom, Walters “looked at me admonishingly and said, ‘What happened to your drive?’ I had to laugh.”

Walters’s drive has never diminished. She has grilled eight presidents, accompanied Richard Nixon on his historic trip to China, spent quality time with Fidel Castro and Vladimir Putin, and prodded the Israeli-Egyptian peace process with her groundbreaking 1976 joint interview featuring Menachem Begin and Anwar el-Sadat. Her Oscar and “10 Most Fascinating People” specials consistently drew huge audiences for ABC. And her 1999 conversation with Monica Lewinsky remains the highest-rated news interview in television history.

She managed all this while grappling with the often-dismissive attitudes of male colleagues. The late Peter Jennings didn’t take her seriously and didn’t bother to hide it. “When they’d be sitting at the anchor desk for something like Princess Diana’s funeral, he would ask Barbara to comment on what people were wearing, because he knew it would drive her crazy,” an ABC staffer recalled for New York magazine. Walters would passive-aggressively pretend to slip up and address Peter as “Ted,” as in Nightline anchor Ted Koppel.

In 1997, over Arledge’s deep doubts, Walters launched The View, a salty, no-holds-barred kaffeeklatch pitched to a female audience and leaving few controversies undiscussed. Co-owned by Walters and ABC, it was a near-instant hit and continues to attract a robust viewership—averaging 3.7 million viewers (1.2 million in the key 25-54 demographic) as one of the current season’s top-rated daytime shows.

The secret of Walters’s success? “That’s a fabulous question—what made her different?” Liz Smith told me. “It wasn’t her looks. It wasn’t anybody interceding for her. She didn’t have a boyfriend who helped her. I think she just wanted to be first and she made herself first.”

Luckily, Walters isn’t leaving the scene just yet. Next week she’ll be front and center at Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s Women in the World Summit, moderating a panel April 4 on “Women in War” featuring eyewitnesses to the atrocities in Syria.