Makin' whoopee

Book:WALTER WINCHELL by Neal Gabler, Picador £20
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The Independent Culture
TOMORROW, or sooner, these words will grace cat-litter trays across the nation, and rightly so. A journalist with an eye on posterity rarely sees print, let alone pulls in the annual $500,000 and perks which were Walter Winchell's in his Thirties heyday on Broadway - a street whose romance was vividly described by Winchell's fellow journalist Gilbert Gabriel as "that strange, boomerang-shaped nightly thoroughfare of broken hearts and blessed events". With a pungent column syndicated in 2,000 newspapers, heard by millions on the wireless, subject of songs, sought by the movie industry and Roosevelt, his was an astonishing success for an ex-vaudevillian whose modus operandi was now to sit in the Stork Club and see what gravitated towards him. Here, said Hemingway, was "the greatest newspaper man that ever lived", while Roosevelt's all-purpose fixer, Ernest Cuneo, thought his "IQ of brilliant proportions, nearly the equal of Einstein".

Dead as recently as 1972, the first voice of mass culture is even more forgotten than he was in the Sixties. Of all those millions of words, all those crumbled columns, two survive: the phrase "makin' whoopee" was his invention - and indeed he did, although one young singer recalled that sex was fraught, for "the telephone kept ringing with items for his column". Otherwise, he is known to cineastes as the inspiration for the cool evil of Burt Lancaster's J J Hunsecker in that dark-hued masterpiece Sweet Smell of Success.

Alluringly unappetising, Winchell is a fascinating study in contradiction. One of the first to attack Hitler, he later supported McCarthy; brave enough to withstand heavy mocklering from gangsters, he was prone to petty revenge upon friends and family. Winchell revelled in slang and in strewing dots across the page (nobody ever spoke as he and Damon Runyon wrote), causing Ben Hecht, the co-author of The Front Page, to liken him to "a man honking in a traffic jam".

Unlike Hecht, though, Winchell's work is lost in the mass grave of unindexed, yellowing newsprint. His biographer has been heroic. Winchell's daughter wanted to donate his papers to a university, but they asked for a cataloguing fee. The crates languished for years until sold to aid a medical centre, which forbade Neal Gabler to look at the contents until the auction preview. At Winchellesque speed, he had to read items into a tape-recorder, bid for others and watch the rest scatter.

Would that we were more in his debt. 700 sedulous pages need not be a long haul but, devoid of humour, Gabler cannot be taken more than 65 at a time. He defuses the drama in every situation - admirable in a police chief at a siege, fatal for a biographer. Here are dozens of stories looking for a good sub. One should thrill to the account of Louis Batcheler, known as Lepke (Yiddish for "butcher"), who began by murdering a union-leader in front of 13 witnesses; 70 more died as the racketeer netted $10,000,000 a year over the course of a decade. Rival government agencies were after him, and the mob chose Winchell as go-between at midnight assignations by solitary pay-phones - but Gabler's account remains flat. He overlooks a column that obliged Billie Holiday to re-record "My Sweet Hunk O' Trash", when Winchell took exception to Louis Armstrong's vigorous swearing discernible in the background. And Gabler keeps his best moment for a footnote: Winchell and Al Jolson were only reconciled "when a mutual friend gave Walter a salve for haemorrhoids that Jolson had used with success".

Success swelled the ego that was to be Win-chell's downfall. Although an advocate of black rights, in 1951 he supported the Stork Club owner's apparent discrimination against the newly- returned Josephine Baker. Rattled, even unhinged, Winchell turned from support of her to violent attack. Proportion and dignity were lost. Paranoid megalomania grew, merging with enthusiasm for McCarthy, and his day was done. By the 1960s he was scarcely published; at his death in 1972, he was almost forgotten, the embodiment of the moral fable enshrined in Sweet Smell of Success.