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.
Oprah: By the time this interview appears, you'll be doing your last regular episodes of 20/20. Why are you leaving?
Barbara: I've worked all my life, and I've never had time to go to a city or country where I haven't been in the studio. I watched your special [Diane Sawyer devoted an hour of Primetime to Oprah's work in South Africa] not just with tears but with yearning. I've been to China four times—but I've never really seen China.
Oprah: Because you were always working.
Barbara: Yes. While I'm still healthy and young enough, I want time to do these things. And I want more time with my daughter before I turn around and say, "Where did that go?"
Oprah: Your daughter, Jackie, is 35. Hasn't there already been a moment when you turned around and said, "Where did the time go?"
Barbara: Oh, yes. I tried to be with her a lot—but why wasn't I there more? My new arrangement gives me the opportunity to stay in television, because I'll still do five specials, and I'll do 20/20 from time to time.
Oprah: Up until the moment you leave, won't you feel the sense of competition—of needing the next big "get"?
Barbara: Well, I can't pretend that I didn't go after the big interviews. Years ago I traveled to Cairo and threw pebbles against Anwar el-Sadat's window before the signing of the Camp David peace treaty, hoping he'd come out and do one more interview. I mean, that's insane. Then I'd get on a plane and do an interview in New Orleans. During the years when I covered the Middle East, I was constantly traveling. Now I don't have that burning ambition.
Oprah: When Martha Stewart was first indicted, did you think, I have to get that interview?
Barbara: No. I thought, I'd like this interview, I hope I get it. A few years ago, I would have said, "I must have it." Now I want something I haven't had since I was in my 20s—time. I'll miss certain things. I love my producer. But I also feel very content with my choice. I want to write a book, and I want to do it myself.
Oprah: I still have your first book, How to Talk with Practically Anybody About Practically Anything.
Barbara: I did that in my 30s. Now I've got to write about growing up and my father, who was such an extraordinary person, and my poor sister, who was borderline mentally challenged.
Oprah: You've got to write about what this life has meant to you.
Barbara: And I want to learn Spanish.
Oprah: Me, too.
Barbara: I find it fascinating that you told Bill Clinton you'd never want to be in politics. I feel the same way.
Oprah: Why would we want politics?
Oprah: You've sat at the center of the world, doing what you do, and for so many years. I've said what a mentor you've been for me. Had there not been you, there never would have been me. Do you feel like the leader on the frontier?
Barbara: No, because I didn't deliberately pave the way. I wasn't Gloria Steinem. When I look back at the kinds of things I wasn't allowed to do when I began as a writer, even on the Today show...
Oprah: What year?
Barbara: Around 1960. I could write only the so-called female pieces. The big breakthrough was when I could write for men. I remember when I was there with an anchorman named Frank McGee. He had to ask three hard-news questions before I could ask one.
Barbara: I also remember writing to the president of NBC News and saying, "We should do something on the women's movement." And he wrote back, "Not enough interest." Now I'm very encouraging and admiring of women. The other night I was on with [CNN anchor] Paula Zahn and I said, "I feel I'm your fairy godmother." I feel that way about quite a few of the younger people on the air. And I want to say something else. There's been a rumor rattling around for years, and it drives Diane Sawyer and me crazy. It's been said that we're competitive because Roone Arledge [the late president of ABC News] brought Diane over to do a newsmagazine show, and I did a newsmagazine. I just want to say that I have such admiration for Diane. We feel very good about each other. Always have. We can laugh together. This whole business that we've always been out to kill each other is such an old story. We're sick of it.
Oprah: So you've been competitors with respect for each other.
Barbara: Great respect. If I don't get the interview, I want Diane to get it. I think she feels the same way.
Oprah: That rumor never would've happened about men.
Barbara: If Ted Koppel and Peter Jennings competed, we'd never hear about it. But we still have these clichés.
Oprah: I was in broadcasting when you made the move to do the ABC Evening News. I remember your first night on the air like it was happening to me.
Barbara: Then you must have felt awful. It must have been the worst time of your professional life. You must have been thinking, "I'm drowning and there's no life preserver."
Oprah: No, no. Barbara, do you remember that this was the biggest deal? A million dollars.
Barbara: I keep saying this, and no one is listening. I did not get a million dollars for doing the news, which is what everyone thought. And I'm not saying that a million dollars isn't a great deal. It is. But I made $500,000 to do the news—with Harry Reasoner, my unwilling coanchor. Then I made another $500,000 to do four one-hour prime-time specials. The first special had Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter and Barbra Streisand. But everybody seized on the million dollars. One magazine headline said SHE'S A FLOP. When I saw the editor, I said, "That's so painful. Why would you say that?" He said, "Because, Barbara, you are a flop."
Oprah: Oh, no.
Barbara: At that point, Harry Reasoner was the bigger star. I was the upstart. I hadn't learned everything from the Associated or United Press. I was a child of television, and I was a woman. How dare I even think I could do the news?
Oprah: Wasn't that in 1976?
Barbara: Yes. The first night I did an interview—I talked with [Egyptian president] Anwar el-Sadat. Then the second night I interviewed [Israeli prime minister] Golda Meir. My publicity was so hideous. I got killed for it. That's when I did the now famous interview with Anwar el-Sadat and [Israeli prime minister] Menachem Begin, which was the first joint interview the two had ever done. Then I went to Cuba and spent ten days with Fidel Castro.
Oprah: That was your way of saying, "I'm not gonna let 'em have me."
Barbara: What was I going to do? I had a child to support. I was supporting my family then.
Oprah: Were you devastated, Barbara?
Barbara: I really did feel that my career was over. What saved me were my friends and my child. I'd decided to go to ABC because it was time to see my child in the mornings without always being so exhausted. Then I had four years of all these big interviews. It was a different time—we wanted to see heads of state. Now heads of state call up and ask, "What's your rating?" I'm not kidding. It's like, "Hello, this is Saddam Hussein. How many viewers do you have? Do you reach a young audience?"
When I went over to 20/20, I felt I needed a home. The show's anchor, Hugh Downs, was very honest and said, "Look, I like her very much, but I don't really want her." ABC said, "It will make the ratings better to have a partner." He was wonderful. So it's good to fail sometimes. When you fail, you have to prove yourself. That's often the best thing that can happen, because then you're sure your success isn't just luck.
Oprah: Have you ever been nervous before a major interview?
Barbara: No. Thirty years ago, I used to smoke one cigarette beforehand. You know when I did get nervous? When I'd go on Johnny Carson or David Letterman. Now with David, I just let it fly.
Oprah: So you weren't nervous before the Sadat and Begin interview?
Barbara: No. It helps that I do so much homework.
Oprah: How about with Castro?
Barbara: I was concerned that it might be a boring interview, but I wasn't nervous. However, put me on a dance floor, and if I have to dance by myself, I can't do it. I also don't drive.
Oprah: You don't?
Barbara: No. Years ago I heard my daughter on the phone saying, "My mommy doesn't drive. My mommy burns the meat loaf. My mommy doesn't do anything except television." There are whole areas in which I feel very inadequate. Who doesn't drive except me?
Oprah: Quincy Jones. You're the only two people I know.
Barbara: Thank goodness. We can share a car.
Oprah: But how can you not be nervous with some of the people you talk to?
Barbara: During an interview, I'm in control. It's in other aspects of my life where I'm not. And listen, when I say I'm not nervous, I want you to know that I'm hardly the most self-confident person. I second-guess almost everything I do, except editing. I love to edit. But I can't tell you whether I should wear the red dress or the green, or whether I should take the trip or stay home. It's torture. Years ago when I was covering fashion for the Today show, I remember trying to decide whether I should stay in Paris another week. I decided I should take the money and go to a psychiatrist because I couldn't make up my mind. But then I couldn't make up my mind which psychiatrist to go to!
Oprah: Is that a true story?
Barbara: Yes. Anybody who knows me knows this. At work I know what questions to ask. In real life, I'm asking myself, "Should I marry him?" until the day I get married. The only thing I've been certain of is my love for Jackie.
Oprah: When you sit down to talk with a major head of state, do you use a certain technique?
Barbara: No. I know I have to ask certain tough questions, though I sometimes don't want to. You're damned if you do and damned if you don't.
Oprah: You're really damned if you don't.
Barbara: Exactly. I might ask, "What's the biggest misconception about you?" That gives the person the opportunity to discuss the difficult issues. I did the first live interview with Richard Nixon after his resignation. I asked all kinds of foreign policy questions, and he was wonderful about them. When I wanted to ask about him personally, I said, "What got you through it? Was it your spirituality? Was it your family?" He said, "Oh, Barbara, you don't want to ask these personal questions. Nobody's interested." I said, "They really are, Mr. President." When he griped about it, I tried to go back to my list of foreign policy questions—but I couldn't find them. Before an interview, I write hundreds of questions on little cards, then boil them down. For this interview, I'd written so many that, fortunately, I remembered some. I usually know more about the person I'm interviewing than he knows about himself. When the interview was over, Nixon was perspiring. I was ice-cold. I stood up to shake his hand, and I realized that I'd put the questions under my fanny.
Oprah: What a great story! Back in '77, during your interview with Sadat, didn't you know you were making history?
Barbara: Yes. But with other interviews, I often have to decide whether I want to make The New York Times or to ask a question that the audience wants to hear. There must be a balance.
Oprah: Are celebrities difficult?
Barbara: Young celebrities are difficult because they haven't done much [to talk about]. Comedians are difficult.
Oprah: Yes. I saw an interview you did with Richard Pryor.
Barbara: He's fascinating because he's more than a comedian. I interviewed him four times. The second time was after he'd set himself on fire. The third was when he admitted to me that he'd set himself on fire. I'm touched by Richard Pryor because I saw this brilliant man self-destruct. I'm going to make a comparison, and you're going to think I'm nuts, but I'm also touched by Margaret Thatcher. I'd talked with her before she was prime minister and while she was in office. I also did an interview with her after her fall. So I saw all those years in a progression. You become emotionally involved. Those are memories I treasure.
But yes, young celebrities are hard, and I won't have to do many of them anymore. When I do a special, it really has to be special—and I worry a little about that. I'm contractually committed to specials for far longer than I ever thought I'd be working. But I'm also proud, because I'll probably have been in news longer than any other woman. That's not the kind of thing you put in Ripley's Believe It or Not!, but maybe we'll have less age discrimination. Mike Wallace is 86, God bless him. It wouldn't occur to the networks that a woman might be working until that age.
Oprah: You're still on the frontier.
Barbara: Yes, and that will affect other women. That makes me feel good. All I need is good lighting and a little Botox [laughs].
Oprah: It took me years to get good lighting.
Barbara: It's more important than makeup. Shall we tell people about that in their own homes? Watch your lighting.
Oprah: It's everything. So you were talking about areas in your life where you don't feel in control. Do you think you were a great mother?
Barbara: I was a loving mother. But a career is a difficult thing to balance with a very young child. These days you can bring your child into some workplaces. If I had brought Jackie in with me...
Oprah: Can you imagine?
Barbara: I wanted my child so much. She was indeed the chosen child. She was adopted after I'd had three miscarriages. I used to say that you could have a great marriage and a great career, a great marriage and great children, or great children and a great career, but you couldn't have all three. Now you can, with the support of a mate, if indeed you have one. It's a different time, and there are many women who do it. I was traveling so much, and I rationalized it by saying, "If I hadn't worked all those years, I wouldn't have been able to help my daughter accomplish some of the things she has accomplished." Do you know what my daughter does? She runs a therapeutic wilderness program for adolescent girls in crisis. Isn't that wonderful?
Oprah: Yes. Is there anything you would have done differently?
Barbara: I would have been home more—and you and I wouldn't be talking today.
Barbara: Yes. It's not just about spending quality time. It's about time in general. There are kids who don't need quite as much. But you really have to think about it.
Oprah: Is that a regret?
Barbara: Jackie's so wonderful now that it's not. But had she not been, it would have been a very deep regret. When she was going through the turmoil of her teen years, which I don't want to talk about, it was a terrible heartache. But maybe I did something right, because look how she turned out. She sometimes says to me—though not always with great pleasure—"I'm just like you, Mom. I'm a workaholic."
Oprah: Do you spend a lot of time with her?
Barbara: We spend much more time together these days. She used to live on the West Coast. She moved to Maine to be nearer to me. She doesn't really like New York, but Maine is two hours away by plane.
Oprah: Maya Angelou said that her mother was a better mom to an older child than she was to a younger child.
Barbara: I'm not sure which is true for me. I love babies. Jackie used to say that she had to watch me in the park 'cause I'd kidnap one. My daughter doesn't particularly want to have children. I would love to have a grandchild. I've told her, "Have a grandchild and give it to me." But I understand women who don't want children. That's one of the good things about our society today. Nobody says, "You don't want children? What's wrong with you?" My mother had friends who were childless, and people looked down on them.
Oprah: That's right.
Barbara: See, Jackie adores what she does. She feels these [girls she works with] are her kids. And she doesn't want to have children. I did—desperately. If you don't want them desperately, and you've got a big career, don't have them.
Oprah: Thank you, Miss Barbara!
Barbara: You're very welcome. Anytime. Just lie down on my couch.
Oprah: My friend Gayle [King] goes, "You never wanted kids?" She was one of those people in high school who was already naming her sets of twins. I've never done that.
Barbara: Then I'm so glad you didn't have them just to show them off or to be able to say, "Now I've experienced everything."
Oprah: Yes. Is there anything that frightens you?
Barbara: Other than driving and cooking?
Oprah: Well, as a woman on the front lines, you've always seemed to know how to handle yourself.
Barbara: Oh, I don't know. Listen, I certainly haven't been very good at marriage. [A third marriage, to producer Merv Adelson, ended in 1992.]
Oprah: Don't you think it would have been difficult for you to be great at marriage with your dedication to your career? It takes a very special man to understand that.
Barbara: Maybe if he were also very busy... Marriages like that seem to work.
Oprah: You couldn't have had a man with a lot of time. He'd be saying, "Where are you?"
Barbara: I've always been attracted to men who were busy and successful in their own lives. And by the way, I do want to mention the one thing that has changed others' perception of me: It's The View. People realized I could be silly and funny. I had to think about whether being on that show would interfere with my interviews with heads of state. Would I still be able to do hard news? I'd been around long enough that I had the reputation, so I could do both.
Oprah: Was that a serious consideration?
Barbara: In the beginning, yes. The news department didn't want me to do The View.
Oprah: Especially because of the places you all go sometimes.
Barbara: That's right. There are still times when I put my face in my hands on The View. The news department is a very holy club, H-O-L-Y. Though more and more, people can be human and show both sides.
Oprah: As we were walking past your wall of fame, my eyes started to water because there's such history and depth and meaning there. Do you still get impressed with yourself?
Barbara: I forget what I've done until I start working on a retrospective. Then I'm amazed. I was never supposed to be in front of the cameras. I wasn't beautiful. I didn't speak perfectly. At the time, the very few women on TV were weathergirls. Isn't it funny that we now have all these weathermen?
Barbara: I consider myself blessed. But I also know I'm normal. I don't walk around saying, "Look what I've done."
Oprah: But what do you feel when you walk down that hallway?
Barbara: I wish I'd kept a diary. In the beginning, I was so sure I was a failure that I didn't. Then I got too busy, too tired at night.
Oprah: You thought you were a failure?
Barbara: At ABC I was a failure.
Oprah: But did you still feel that way once you'd landed the Sadat and Begin interview?
Barbara: I'm still auditioning.
Oprah: But you don't have to anymore, Barbara.
Barbara: Well, up until a couple of years ago, I was auditioning.
Oprah: I understand. Up until a couple of years ago, I thought, "If I don't have this job, I don't know if I'll ever work again in TV."
Barbara: Having had a life with great economic uncertainty—my father lost everything and I had to support the family—financial security meant a great deal to me.
Oprah: Once you have that security, you can do what you do for the pure joy of the craft. You can't live from airplane to airplane if it's only about the money.
Barbara: None of us does it just for money. I used to say I would do my job for nothing, and I was afraid that ABC would say, "Okay!" Giving up 20/20 will make a financial difference.
Oprah: Aren't you set for life?
Barbara: Yes. That's why I'm able to walk away. It's actually not that I'm still auditioning. I just know people who are far more confident than I am. Maybe you have to be the way I am to have the kind of drive I've had. Make sense?
Oprah: Yes. When you interviewed Martha Stewart, she said work was her whole life. How has work fit into the scheme of things for you?
Barbara: What sustained me during bad press, or when I didn't get an interview, were my close friends. When Martha Stewart said, "My work is my life," I understood that. She also has a child she is close to. But my life is my life. Part of my life is my work. Another part is Jackie. Then there's my social life. I love to be with my friends. I find great joy in that.
Oprah: You're always out.
Barbara: Too much.
Oprah: Three nights a week?
Barbara: Yep. I've often joked that after I leave 20/20, I won't be sitting next to the prime minister. But I have to tell you, sometimes sitting next to the prime minister is extremely boring. It's more fun at the other table.
Oprah: You always get the best seat.
Barbara: That may change, and that's okay.
Oprah: Wait a minute, that won't change! You're Barbara Walters!
Barbara: Do you think to yourself, "I'm Oprah?"
Barbara: So I don't think, "I'm Barbara Walters."
Oprah: When I see my image on a magazine cover or hear people talk about me, I try to imagine what they see.
Barbara: We've known each other for a long time, so we can talk about this. You're extraordinary. Look at the lives of people you've changed, the schools, your work in Africa. Plus you're funny and you're cute and you're sexy.
Oprah: But I don't think about it like that.
Barbara: You want to know what people think of you? I think you're the most remarkable woman I know.
Oprah: Thank you, Barbara.
Barbara: I don't do what you do. I have not changed the world.
Oprah: But you're Barbara Walters!
Barbara: But I don't see myself as "Barbara Walters."
Oprah: What does being "Barbara Walters" mean?
Barbara: Sometimes it's okay—and sometimes I can't drive. Most of the time when I look back on what I've done, I think, "Did I do that?" And you know what I say to myself? "Why didn't I enjoy it more? Was I working too hard to see it?"
Oprah: Because you were just going from one plane to the next.
Barbara: And worrying about the shows and getting them on the air—and then thinking, "Was it right?" What I'm trying to do now, before it's too late, is to finally smell the roses. I know it's a cliché, but I want to enjoy it. I want to get rid of the alarm clock every day. I've done enough.
Oprah: What you just said in that moment changed me. That resonates with me to the core, big-time. I got it. I'm trying not to cry. Everybody always ends up crying in your interviews.
Barbara: Time is what it's all about. Look at all those pictures in the hallway. Look at what I accomplished. Yet I was always onto the next thing.
Oprah: Wow, Barbara. That was the most powerful insight you could have given me.
Barbara: Good. Then maybe I've changed someone's life.
Oprah: Bravo. Barbara, what do you know for sure?
Barbara: That you've got to have someone you love—and not necessarily that you have to have someone who loves you. You've got to have a reason to get up in the morning. That doesn't mean you have to have a career. But you must have something you really care about. And you have to have friends. I don't want to do all the clichés for you, but the older I get, the more I think you must be kind. That's why I probably will be less and less of a good interviewer.
Barbara: Sometimes you have to ask the tough questions. I can't be quite as brash as I used to be. I know it hurts. I've become a kinder person.
Oprah: When you walk out of that 20/20 studio, what will you do?
Barbara: I plan to go to a spa the next day. I haven't been to a spa in ten years, maybe 15. I'll go somewhere with no television because I don't want to watch—it will make me cry. Then I'll come home and I'll be fine. I would love to be your age, Oprah. I would love to be a kid of 50. But I have never been at a better place in my life.