AUDITIONS: A MEMOIR, by Barbara Walters, Knopf, 611 pages, $29.95, 32 pages of photos. (also available in Random House audio, 5 compact discs, read by the author, $29.95)
John Kenneth Galbraith, Harvard professor, prolific author and adviser to presidents, once wrote an entertaining little book titled "Namedropping" about all the famous people he had known. TV's Barbara Walters would have been better served had she used the same name for her memoir, "Audition."
In fact, the book's inner spine is completely covered with the hundreds of celebrities and politicians Walters has interviewed sometime in her 45-year career: Walter Cronkite, Jimmy Carter, Michael J. Fox, Audrey Hepburn, Angelina Jolie, Ted Kennedy, Johnny Carson, Richard Nixon, Mike Dukakis, Fidel Castro, Sean Connery, Yassir Arafat, Anwar Sadat, Goldie Hawn, Ellen DeGeneres, Naomi Campbell, ad infinitum.
Walters is justifiably proud of having spoken on camera with these and countless others for "Today," "20-20" or one of her numerous specials. But writing at length about how she obtained each interview and how successful it was or wasn't makes for some pretty dull reading.
Besides, even with Walter's extensive experience interviewing, her credentials as a journalist remain meager and the pedestrian style of her writing makes for serious overkill. That's why the audio edition is a better bet for someone who might be scared off by 611 pages except it is narrated by the author, whose monotonous voice and overuse of cliches smothers the ear.
It is a given that Walters' career is worth writing about, but a good editor would have cut and sliced it with abandon in order to salvage the good stuff and eliminate the tedious. Walters accidentally fell into television, which partially explains why her first TV job was as "the Today Girl" on NBC's overtly sexist morning show.
That epithet partially explains why Walters had such a difficult time climbing in television, because women were considered purely ornamental when she started. So, she became co-host of "Today" only because a good lawyer had that clause inserted in her contract should Frank McGee ever quit. Surprisingly, he died of cancer in his early 50s and NBC had to name her co-host, where she stayed for 13 years.
A recurring theme in this memoir is the difficulty Walters had getting along with male newsmen, i.e., McGee and Harry Reasoner, who was scandalized when ABC foisted Walters upon him as the first woman co-anchor of a network newscast. McGee and Reasoner were probably both sexist, because she seemed able to charm most of the male world leaders she spoke with even Fidel Castro, who picked her up in his plane for a second unplanned interview in the skies over Cuba.
Walters spends far too much time explaining all of her father's business dealings as a showman who could not only make money but could lose it even more quickly, over and over. Walters exudes guilt for the way she treated her older, mentally challenged sister. She labels herself as unfit for marriage on the basis of having failed three times but adores her adopted daughter.
From the time the book was released, the major story interesting to journalists was Walters' tale of an affair she allegedly had with the first black U.S. senator since Reconstruction, the dapper Edward Brooke of Massachusetts. Brooke, now 88, has refused comment on her account.
But the most irritating portion of the memoir is the extensive space Walters devotes to her invention of the daytime TV show, "The View," in which four well-known women discuss politics and current events, occasionally moderated by Walters. The author goes into excruciating detail about the hiring and firing of Star Jones and the controversy generated by Rosie O'Donnell.Walters is at her best when she admits to being offended by comedian Gilda Radner, who developed an almost perfect imitation of Walters doing an interview. (Bah-wah-wah-wah) Her daughter cut her down to size by saying to her, "Oh, lighten up, Mom!" It was only then that Walters realized it was a compliment to be mocked by a comedy star.