When I was 17, I entered the local Miss Fire Prevention Contest. I knew the judges would ask what I hoped to do with my life, and I'd planned to say, "I want to become a fourth-grade teacher." But I'd seen the Today
show that morning, and it popped into my head to say my goal was to be a TV journalist. "What kind of journalist?" one of the judges pressed. I've never forgotten my answer: "I want to be like Barbara Walters."
Thirty-three years later, I'm getting a tour of Barbara's Manhattan apartment, which is filled with antiques and artwork from her travels around the world. If these walls could talk, one of them would speak volumes—she calls it her wall of fame and infamy, lined with framed photos of every president and first lady since Lyndon Johnson, as well as Fidel Castro, Yassir Arafat, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and dozens more leaders, dictators, and cultural icons she's interviewed. The photos, many signed with personal notes, are a testament to one of the most extraordinary women of our time.
Barbara was born 73 years ago to nightclub owner and theatrical producer Lou Walters and his wife, Dena. The couple had already lost a son and had an older daughter who was mildly retarded. The family bounced back and forth from Boston to Miami to New York, where they lived in penthouses until her father lost his fortune in the mid-1950s. Barbara, who'd just graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, helped support her parents with her income from a secretarial job.
Following a brief first marriage, Barbara landed a position as a writer for the Today
show. By 1964 she'd become a " Today
girl"—her job was essentially to make the male anchor look good, and to look good herself. Eventually, she became the cohost. With her second husband, theatrical producer Lee Guber, she adopted a daughter, Jacqueline.
The couple divorced in 1976, the same year Barbara moved from NBC to ABC for an unprecedented $1 million salary. Male colleagues complained that she was overpaid; some decried her "infotainment" style. After less than two years, the president of ABC removed her as coanchor of the nightly news and reassigned her as a correspondent. During that difficult time, she was also dealing with the death of her father. But her prime-time Barbara Walters Specials
met with success—and a couple of dozen pre-Oscar interviews later, Walters signed on as cohost of 20/20.
In 1997 she also became co–executive producer of The View
—a responsibility she'll keep when, after 25 years, she gives up her weekly 20/20
gig this fall. Sitting in her living room overlooking Central Park on a beautiful sunny afternoon, she talked about ambition, regret, heads of state, children, and what's next for her. Start reading Oprah's interview with Barbara Walters
This interview appeared in the October 2004 issue of
O, The Oprah Magazine.