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Remembering Barbara Walters

'The hardest thing you will ever do is trust yourself.'

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • January 08, 2023

A conversation isn't a competition.

Trailblazing journalist Barbara Walters passed away on December 30 at age 93. The first woman to serve as co-host of the Today Show and as anchor of a network event news program, she kicked open the door for those who came after her. Later, in her long career as a celebrity interviewer, she created a new form for the industry with her incisive, emotionally intelligent style of questioning.

An uneven upbringing

Life sometimes brings enormous difficulties and challenges that seem just too hard to bear. But bear them you can, and bear them you will, and your life can have a purpose.

According to Walters, she inherited both her drive and her insecurities from her father who also worked in the entertainment industry managing clubs and producing shows. She described him as having made and lost several fortunes in his lifetime leading to a certain amount of instability during her growing-up years. During the good times, Walters recalled her father taking her to rehearsals of the shows he produced and directed. She felt that these experiences kept her from being "in awe" of celebrities once she began interacting with them in her own career.

Making her place in a man's world

Just do your job. Get in early. Stay late, and don't complain. Fight the big fights.

During her early years in broadcasting, Walters clearly had to walk a fine line and choose her battles. She left an early job working for TV host Igor Cassini after he reportedly pressured her to marry him and started a fistfight with the man she was seeing. In 1961, she became what was often known as the "token woman" writer and researcher for the Today Show. In her first onscreen appearance, she was asked to don a swimsuit in place of a model who didn't show up. After that, she made semi-regular appearances as the show's regular "Today Girl" and gradually moved up to become a reporter-at-large developing, writing, and editing her own reports and interviews.

In her memoir, Audition, she describes the culture of journalism as being one where it was believed that no one would take a woman seriously. Yet she persevered and by 1974, she became the first woman to co-host the show. Two years later, she graduated to anchor the evening news, establishing another first for women.

A new interview style

Wait for those unguarded moments. Relax the mood and, like the child dropping off to sleep, the subject often reveals his truest self.

Walters became known as an interviewer who drew out big revelations from her subjects. Her interviews became headline news because she asked the questions that were on everyone's mind. Although at times she was mocked for going off-script—she famously asked Katherine Hepburn what kind of tree she would be—she had a gift for getting her subjects to open up. She landed countless once-in-a-lifetime interviews with iconic figures from Fidel Castro to Taylor Swift.

Walters laid the pathway for the success of a generation of women who followed in her footsteps, including Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Connie Chung, Jane Pauley, Robin Roberts, Savannah Guthrie, Gretchen Carlson, Gayle King, Maria Shriver, and many more.

History-making interviews

Show me someone who never gossips, and I’ll show you someone who isn’t interested in people.

For more than five decades, Barbara Walters was a household name and her Emmy Award-winning shows, many of which she produced, received top ratings. During her career, Walters interviewed nearly every sitting U.S. president and first lady from Pat and Richard Nixon to Barack and Michelle Obama. She scored sit-down interviews with many world leaders as well, including Anwar Al Sadat, Boris Yeltsin, Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi and others. Her signature programs from 20/20 to The View spawned a number of imitators and debuted a new style of talk show.

Here, we remember some of her memorable interviews:

  • Barbra Streisand: The famously private singer/actress appeared on the Barbara Walters Special riding high on the success of her starring role in 1976's A Star is Born.
  • Christopher Reeve: In 2002, Walters interviewed the Hollywood leading man, who was paralyzed in a 1995 equestrian accident, about his work advocating for the rights of the disabled.
  • Lucille Ball: In 1977, Walters sat down with the iconic comedy queen and her husband Gary Morton.
  • Muhammad Ali: Meeting with the legendary boxer in 1978, she discussed his recent defeat to Leon Spinks and invited him to imagine what the next bout would look like. Ali would defeat Spinks later that year.
  • Oprah Winfrey: Following Walters' passing, Winfrey commented, "Without Barbara Walters there wouldn't have been a me." In 2010, Walters and Oprah sat down for a one-hour ABC News special.

Her legacy

It would be nice to feel that we are a better world, a world of more compassion and a world of more humanity, and to believe in the basic goodness of man.

At times, Walters was criticized for her provocative, real-talk style and her probing, headline-grabbing interviews. But she stayed true to herself and, in response to her massive success, the industry changed around her. In her memoir, she reflected on the fortuitous timing of her career—the cusp of the internet era: "If I was, perhaps, atop of the game, I also had the advantage of being ahead of the game." She will be missed.

Photograph of Barbara Walters by Christopher Peterson, under CC 2.0.

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