Barbara Walters lived one of the fullest, richest, most interesting lives anyone could imagine. She died in New York at age 93 on December 30, 2022. Over her long career, she became an icon of journalism. She made her mark as the first woman to co-anchor a major network evening news broadcast and conducted insightful interviews with many of the world’s most powerful and influential people. Here’s what you need to know about her amazing life:
Host of ABC Evening News and The View
In 1974, when Walters debuted as Harry Reasoner’s co-anchor on the ABC Evening News, it was a very different time. Conventional wisdom said that a woman couldn’t cover “serious” subjects like politics, the economy, or war. Women, in this view, were too “emotional” or too ignorant of the complexities of these issues. Thanks in large part to Barbara Walters, today these views are almost universally ridiculed as the limiting nonsense they are.
Walters spent 17 years as lead panelist on ABC’s The View, working with often much-younger co-hosts. That was deliberate. The idea for The View came to Walters in a conversation with her then-late-20s daughter. It struck Walters how different her daughter’s worldview was from her own, and she realized that an inter-generational talk show, featuring women of differing backgrounds, could bring out important angles on an issue.
Walters, as a veteran of evening news broadcasts, seemed an unlikely person to launch a talk show like The View, but it continues to be one of daytime’s most popular series. It’s become a cultural force unto itself, offering millions of viewers opinions outside their own social bubbles.
Early Life and Career
Barbara Walters was born in Boston in 1931, to a Jewish family. Her father owned a nightclub, so she grew used to being around celebrities at an early age. Her family’s financial success ebbed soon after she graduated Sarah Lawrence College in 1953, and she had to earn her own living.
She worked in an ad agency and then as an assistant in the New York City NBC affiliate’s publicity department, learning how to write for television. The year she turned 30, she was working as a writer and occasional on-air journalist for the Today Show. As the “Today Girl” beginning in 1964, she turned what had been a segment focused on light, “women’s” topics into one in which she participated as a serious newsreader on the show.
In 1974, she received the promotion that made her co-host of the Today Show. And in 1976, she took her seat beside Harry Reasoner, one of the most respected newscasters in a decidedly all-male club, as co-host of the ABC Evening News. Her $1 million salary made her the highest-paid journalist of that time. In 1979, she became a correspondent on 20/20, transitioning to co-host in 1984. She would stay with the program until 2004.
Early in her career, Walters pursued one-on-one interviews with celebrities and world leaders and became highly accomplished in the form. On Today in the 1960s, she interviewed Grace Kelly, Judy Garland, and Jacqueline Kennedy. By the mid-70s, she had begun to produce the series of Barbara Walters Specials that kept her front-and-center of international conversations and won her an Emmy Award.
Walters interviewed every sitting president and first lady from the Nixons to the Obamas. She also interviewed both Donald Trump and Joe Biden, just not while either was president. President Jimmy Carter was among her favorite conversationalists. During the presidential campaign of 1976, she found him to be a deeply serious thinker despite his modest, folksy manner.
Her interview subjects ranged from Lucille Ball to Fidel Castro, Monica Lewinsky to Vladimir Putin. She interviewed John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, Muhammad Ali and his wife and then-toddler daughters, and Elizabeth Taylor and her then-husband, Senator John Warner. She interviewed Yasser Arafat, Muammar Gaddafi, Hugo Chavez, and the Shah of Iran only two years before that country’s revolution. Walters confirmed that the Shah did not think of women as equals, and then he said, “We can always have some exceptions.”
In a major journalistic coup, she conducted a joint interview with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1977, during talks that would lead to the historic Camp David Accords the following year. This was the sit-down that Walters once called the “most important” interview of her career. She had already interviewed both men separately. Finally, Begin asked Sadat, why couldn’t “our friend Barbara” interview them together?
Secrets to a Compelling Interview
Walters sometimes shared her secrets for conducting her legendarily revealing interviews:
Do your homework. She once said that by the time she had prepared for an interview, she knew more about the person than they did themselves.
Write down questions in advance, as many as you can. She would typically work with dozens of index cards with questions. She would add and subtract as she prepared, and then she would arrange them in priority order.
Know your questions, so you can discard them as needed. The writing and organization were for Walters more of a memory aid than a script.
Ask about family, love, and early memories. Walters was famous – at the height of her fame, some would have said infamous – for quietly but relentlessly zeroing in on emotional moments.
Ask broad, open-ended questions. Ask about a person’s philosophy of life, and about why they think they might be misunderstood. These can be extremely revealing.
Keep the toughest questions in reserve until the end. Speaking with Nixon, Walters famously concluded with some fire: She asked whether he regretted not burning the tapes that incriminated him.
An interviewer’s interviewer, a shatterer of newsroom glass ceilings, and an irreplaceable presence in our daily lives, Barbara Walters will truly never be forgotten.