Barbara Walters Did the Work

THE RULEBREAKER: The Life and Times of Barbara Walters, by Susan Page

Much of the material in “The Rulebreaker: The Life and Times of Barbara Walters” has been told before, with persuasive narrative control, by the late television journalist herself in her dishy 2008 memoir, “Audition.” Don’t let that stop the reader of this thorough, compassionate biography by Susan Page: It’s a valuable document, sobering where “Audition” aimed for sassy.

If anything, the 16 long years between autobiography and biography endow the two books, taken together, with a memento mori gravitas for any student of Walters, or of television journalism, or of the past, present and future of women in the TV workplace — or, for that matter, of Monica Lewinsky. More on her in a moment.

Walters called her autobiography “Audition” to emphasize the need she always felt to prove herself, pushing her way to professional success in a world that never made it easy for her. Nearly 80 then and still in the game, she acknowledged that personal contentment — love, marriage, meaningful family connections — lagged far behind. She wrote of being the daughter of an erratic father, who bounced — sometimes suicidally — between flush times and financial failure as a nightclub owner and impresario.

She told of her fearful mother, and of the mentally disabled older sister to whose welfare she felt yoked. She wrote of the three unsatisfying marriages, and of her strained relationship with the daughter she adopted as an infant.

She breezily acknowledged the ease she felt throughout her life with complicated men of elastic ethics like Roy Cohn and Donald Trump. She leaned into her reputation as a “pushy cookie.”

Page, the Washington bureau chief of USA Today, who has also written books about Barbara Bush and Nancy Pelosi, tells many of the same stories. (“Audition” is an outsize presence in the endnotes.) But in placing the emphasis on all the rule-breaking Barbara Jill Walters had to do over her long life — she died in 2022 at 93 — the biographer pays respect to a toughness easy to undervalue today, when the collective memory may see only the well-connected woman with the instantly recognizable (thanks to Gilda Radner’s “SNL” impression) speech impediment.

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