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THE MEDIA IN THE AGE OF WINCHELL

"Did you know Walter Winchell?"

The answer to that question was posed the other day by someone who had just seen the HBO special "Winchell" and couldn't believe his eyes.

My answer was, "I knew him slightly, but he was on his way out by that time."

When I lived in New York City, it was difficult to be unaware of Walter Winchell, the man whose approval could make a production a success. His disapproval could do the same. But around the corner lurked modern media with their tabloids and Jerry Springers.

Anyway, about once a month I would say to my secretary: "Send a copy of the latest issue to Walter Winchell and attach a note. The note should say that anyone wanting to know what happened to the New York Yankees will find the answer in the latest issue of Cavalier magazine."

Of course, it wasn't always the Yankees, but we always got a plug. By that time, Winchell had lost most of his power and was losing newspapers all over the place. In his day -- and it's almost impossible to tell a person how powerful he was -- I would have had trouble getting the magazine across his threshold.

If you have the chance, catch a movie called "The Sweet Smell of Success." It tells how much raw power Winchell had, and it wouldn't have been made if he still had his fastball. Someone in Hollywood, a place not famous for integrity, figured he had slipped to the degree that it was safe to make a movie about his power. And the likes of Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis were in it.

Back to my personal contact. One day a United Press writer named Oscar Fraley approached me with a project. He had done a book called "The Untouchables" that was not getting much attention. Rightfully so, because the book stank.

The lead character in the book was Elliot Ness, who had put away a criminal named Al Capone for income tax evasion. Those of you who remember the TV series -- and that will be most of you young old-timers -- will have memories of Elliot Ness blasting away at sundry outlaws.

The word we got was, "Elliot Ness never fired a weapon in anger." And one day we got what we were hoping for -- a "touchable" untouchable. Yes, a person who dipped his hand in the till and looked the other way when needed.

Of course, his story interested us and we invited him to come and see us. And who showed up with him? Oscar Fraley, who explained, "I tied up all their bylines."

What has this to do with Winchell? Well, someone in Hollywood who hadn't gotten the word about Winchell slipping did a story on Ness and asked Winchell to narrate it.

That two-parter became a hit and much of its success was given to Winchell's voice. Then it became a series and finally a movie.

I would often tell that story when successes were mentioned. And I would conclude with the statement: "Oscar now lives in Florida and greets the postman who comes with residuals almost every day. And Oscar needs the money from those residuals because he has four wives."

Anyway, Oscar was a fine dude.

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