BARBARA WALTERS: AN UNAUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY; By Jerry Oppenheimer; St. Martin's Press; $19.95.
In "Barbara Walters: An Unauthorized Biography," author Jerry Oppenheimer portrays the doyenne of celebrity interviews as tough, controlled, determined and demanding.It's not the personality profile you'd expect of a troop leader, but in this life you either get to be a Girl Scout or have a mega-watt television career.
We know the choice Barbara Walters made.
Framed in that context, Oppenheimer's expose is not explosive. But given that Walters has so ably managed to control her image in the press, this biography comes in low and hits hard.
Professionally, Walters might most resent the extended airing of the debate first saliently couched by news executive Richard Salant when he asked: "Is she a journalist or is she Cher?"
Walters' high-profile scoop interviews with world leaders are dismissed by some in the industry as yielding more personal publicity than news. In the same vein, she is accused of having paid for her access to the mighty with her objectivity, thereby surrendering her journalistic integrity.
Personally, Walters is pictured as a woman who couldn't find the way to a colleague's heart with a map. She is driven, a Type A+ personality, incapable of summoning the daily chatter that eases office relationships. In other words, she is more at ease tete-a-tete with Kissinger than sharing a cold cup of coffee with a production assistant. No crime, that; merely a trait that insures that when an unauthorized biographer comes calling, people will talk.
Possibly the most damaging, and disputed, account in the book concerns Walter's 1982 attempt to have People magazine kill an unflattering profile. Writer Cheryl McCall damns her as "incredibly manipulative; she's a control freak. She uses everything in her arsenal, from yelling at you to guilt."
Real journalists don't, or at least don't get caught trying to, determine the outcome of an interview with tools more strenuously applied than charm and duplicity. Only celebrities do that.
Attention is paid to Walters' three marriages - the first she rarely talks about and indeed it seems to have occurred in passing - and the quality of her mothering. While her adopted daughter Jacqueline did attend several schools that "catered to troubled children" the intended inference that the genesis of a confused adolescence was Walters' career seems a tad nasty.
Did Oppenheimer do a number on Walters? It seems not. What he provides is other perspectives, a correction, if you will, of the sights trained on Walters. This off-camera Walters has not the intimate, embracing qualities of her public persona, but she seems more in line with her league - which is big.