The biggest get of all, she said, was the first televised interview with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky, whose affair with President Bill Clinton led to his impeachment.
“What will you tell your children when you have them?” Ms. Walters, then with ABC’s “20/20,” asked Lewinsky in March 1999, a month after Clinton was acquitted in the Senate of charges related to lying about his sexual encounter in the Oval Office.
“Mommy made a big mistake,” Lewinsky replied.
“And that,” Ms. Walters said, turning to the camera, “is the understatement of the year.”
The line was characteristic of her wry and intimate style that helped lure more than 70 million viewers to the Lewinsky segment.
Ms. Walters repeatedly enjoyed the last guffaw over doubters and detractors during a career spanning five decades. She shattered glass ceilings, sending shards into many male egos. She became the most durable and versatile TV host of her era, as well as a celebrity more controversial than many of the ones she covered.
Analysts debated whether she had helped push network news down the slide toward sensation and trivia or merely rode the inevitable flow. Traditionalists said she became too involved in events she covered. Her face adorned magazine covers. Oprah Winfrey called her a personal role model. Tabloids tracked her romances, real and rumored.
Her 2008 memoir, “Audition,” provided a dramatic personal narrative much like the ones she extracted from interview subjects. She described a difficult childhood, losing her virginity, painful shyness, three failed marriages, affairs with prominent men, and heartache over her daughter’s substance-abuse problems. Like some in the elite Washington, New York and Hollywood crowds she frequented, she played coy about her age.
A statement by Bob Iger, chief executive of ABC parent company Disney, confirmed the death but gave no cause.
Ms. Walters’s ascent was fueled by grit rather than raw talent. “Pushy cookie,” she called herself. Her hard-won female “firsts” — co-host of “Today” from 1974 to 1976 and co-anchor of ABC’s evening news show from 1976 to 1978 — opened the field to younger women. In 1976, she became the first TV news personality of either gender to get a $1 million contract, prompting pay spikes for male competitors.
Unlike her TV pantheon peers, such as Mike Wallace, Johnny Carson and Winfrey, Ms. Walters mastered diverse time slots and genres. She straddled entertainment and hard news.
Periodic “specials” attracted huge audiences. For extended periods, Ms. Walters starred on two programs. While doing “Today,” she presided over “Not for Women Only.” In 1997, while a mainstay on “20/20,” she helped create “The View,” a frothy talkfest also featuring panelists such as Joy Behar, Whoopi Goldberg, Star Jones, Meredith Vieira, Rosie O’Donnell, Lisa Ling and Elisabeth Hasselbeck.
In whatever setting, she displayed a distinctive knack for building a rapport with audiences. “She invented intimacy on television,” Ene Riisna, an ABC producer, was quoted as saying in Nichola Gutgold’s book “Seen and Heard: The Women of Television News.” “No one had done it before.”
Ms. Walters’s fans loved watching what often seemed like a private conversation in a cozy setting. Even her critics struggled to look away when a Barbara Walters “special” was on the air. Guests returned for sequels because she avoided Wallace-style confrontations and often persuaded them that she wanted to hear their side — that she cared.
In a 1980 interview on “20/20,” Nixon conceded, after Ms. Walters’s persistent coaxing, that he should have destroyed the Oval Office recordings that sealed his ouster.
“Are you sorry you didn’t burn the tapes?”
“The answer is, I probably should have,” he replied. “But mainly, I shouldn’t have even installed them.”
“If you had it to do all over again, you’d burn them?”
“Yes,” the former president said, “I think so, because they were private conversations subject to misinterpretation, as we have all seen.”
Ms. Walters spent two years trying to arrange an interview with Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Her efforts came through in 1977.
“You allow no dissent,” she told him in what is often regarded as one of her most memorable broadcasts. “Your newspapers, radio, television, motion pictures are under state control.”
“Barbara,” Castro replied, “our concept of freedom of the press is not like yours.”
In 1993, she got the first post-prison interview with Jean Harris, the former headmistress of a McLean private school who was convicted in 1981 of killing her paramour, Herman Tarnower, a doctor who wrote the best-selling Scarsdale Diet book. The story became a national sensation amid revelations of Tarnower’s psychological cruelty and rampant womanizing.
“You did become the symbol of the woman wronged,” Ms. Walters said in the broadcast.
“No, I think I’m the woman who let herself be wronged,” Harris replied.
Ms. Walters said she regretted her handling of a much-watched 1981 interview with Oscar-winning actress Katharine Hepburn. The conversation stumbled into bizarre territory when Hepburn said she was a strong person — “like a tree or something.”
“What kind of tree are you, if you think you are a tree?” Ms. Walters asked, in one of the oddest follow-ups in TV history.
Hepburn, flummoxed, said she’d probably be an oak. Ms. Walters received years of taunting for the question, but she said it was not as terrible as her worst interview ever, with actor Warren Beatty.
“I asked him ‘How are you?’ ” she recalled years later. “There was interminable dead silence. Finally he said, ‘Fine.’ ”
Four years after Ms. Walters scored the two-hour Lewinsky coup, knowing that the interview had angered the Clintons, ABC executives told her not to compete for another major “get” — Hillary Clinton, who was preparing to promote her memoir “Living History.”
Ms. Walters stood aside for a colleague, and was astonished when then-Sen. Clinton (D-N.Y.) invited her in anyway. Clinton knew that her husband’s philandering would come up but may not have expected so direct a query: “What if he does it again?” Ms. Walters inquired.
Clinton parried: “That will be between us, and that will be the zone of privacy I believe in.”
Writing in The Washington Post, television critic Tom Shales described the interview as an “hour-long book plug masquerading as a news special.” Ms. Walters, he added, “seemed now and then to get Clinton to spill a bean or three more than she wanted to, or at least to be more intimately revealing than she maybe planned on being. It was by no means an hour chock-full of surprises, but neither was it ever a bore.”
Ms. Walters frequently focused on her subjects’ formative years. “I like difficult childhoods,” she once observed. Her own qualified.
Barbara Jill Walters was born in Boston on Sept. 25, 1929. Her father, Lou, a vaudeville agent aspiring to be an impresario, and her mother, the former Dena Selett, who yearned for stability, had suffered grief. Their son died in infancy. Their daughter Jacqueline was mentally disabled.
Lou Walters eventually operated successful Latin Quarter night clubs in Boston, New York and Miami. A better showman than businessman, Lou gyrated between wealth and penury. His family shuttled between penthouses and cramped flats. Barbara changed schools frequently.
Whatever the venue, Lou was rarely present. Worries about money and her older daughter preoccupied Dena. From an early age, Ms. Walters wrote in “Audition” that she knew she would be responsible for Jacqueline, if not the whole family. “I realize I was never young,” she wrote.
At Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., theater classes and acting fascinated her, but she lacked the nerve to pursue a stage career. Lou arranged auditions; Barbara didn’t show up.
As the Class of 1951 dispersed, she found a job as an ad agency stenographer. Then, by chance, she found work in the publicity department of WNBT (now WNBC), a television station in New York.
The manager wanted all staffers to learn the rudiments of production, and Ms. Walters was an avid pupil. She had an affair with the executive, whom she recalled as “balding and short, with a bit of a belly.” She had decided “it was time” to part with virginity. He lost his temper when she dated someone else, and she lost the job.
Then she tried marriage. Bob Katz was a handsome businessman from a family that produced children’s bonnets. She called him Katz Hats behind his back and tried to break the engagement because he bored her. But Lou Walters had rented a Plaza Hotel ballroom. Besides, he said, all brides suffer nerves.
When she married in 1955, she wrote, “My heart never felt so heavy. But . . . my heart would be heavy every time I married.” She divorced Katz in 1957. With her second husband, Lee Guber, a theater owner, she adopted a daughter, Jacqueline, after suffering three miscarriages. That union also ended in divorce. Her third partner in marriage and divorce was Merv Adelson, a television producer.
Unhappy as Mrs. Katz, the housewife, she became a booker on CBS’s floundering morning show. When it folded, she went into public relations, finding valuable contacts but no satisfaction. In 1961, a surprise offer proved a turning point. “Today” needed a temporary producer-writer for a daily segment targeting women.
The initial assignment died just as a slot for a regular staff writer opened, and Ms. Walters got it. The program in that period had a succession of “Today girls,” usually decorative former models or actresses who flanked the male host but had limited aptitude for live give-and-take. When another “girl” flunked in 1964, managers decided to give the diligent, serious Ms. Walters a tryout.
She gradually expanded the female turf to include hard-news interviews, particularly after Nixon won the presidency in 1968. She had called the charisma-challenged candidate “sexy” and done a friendly piece on the new president’s daughter Tricia.
He reciprocated by telling national security adviser Henry Kissinger and Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman to grant Ms. Walters their first on-camera interviews. During a royal visit in 1969, Nixon even brokered a Walters session with Prince Philip, who had long declined such requests.
Might Queen Elizabeth abdicate, Ms. Walters asked, in favor of Prince Charles? “Who knows,” Philip responded. “Anything can happen.” In Britain, their repartee became the sensation du jour.
Nixon, she wrote later, “turned out to be one of my greatest champions.” While Ms. Walters never displayed partisanship, and chatter on “The View” decades later tilted liberal, she had particularly close relationships with prominent Republicans. Kissinger and Roy Cohn, the notorious former aide to redbaiting Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.), were good friends for decades.
Among numerous lovers, the three she labeled “special men” were also Republicans: Alan Greenspan, while chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers; John Warner, after he headed the Navy Department; and Edward Brooke, the first African American popularly elected U.S. senator.
She never let romance trump work. By 1971, Ms. Walters was “Today’s” untitled co-host. When Frank McGee took over as host and demanded that she revert to “girlie” material only, she eked out a crumb of compromise. She would be able to participate in some major interviews — after McGee asked the first three questions.
McGee’s diktat did not apply to pieces done outside the “Today” studio, so Ms. Walters accelerated her pursuit of “gets” in Washington. Her standing with the White House got her a seat on the press plane accompanying Nixon to China in 1972. She was the only female network correspondent.
Meanwhile, she wrangled a contract clause ensuring her promotion to co-host in the event that McGee left “Today” — a circumstance NBC thought would be many years off. But his sudden death in 1974 activated the provision. Newsweek’s cover story dubbed her “queen of the morning” and noted her workaholic ways. It quoted her father: “I think a halo of fear affected Barbara and affects her today, [fear] that she might not be able to get a job tomorrow.”
That apprehension, and the realization that NBC would keep her on dawn patrol indefinitely, made her receptive to ABC’s courtship in 1976. As the also-ran network, ABC sought star power and innovation. She would co-anchor the evening news with Harry Reasoner and do four entertainment specials annually. Salary: an unprecedented $1 million.
Her coup immediately soured. Walter Cronkite of CBS, dean of anchors, echoed other prominent naysayers when he reported feeling “sickened” at the mixing of news and show business. Gilda Radner, a comic on “Saturday Night Live,” invented a new caricature: Baba Wawa, a funny-talking ditz.
And it became generally known that Reasoner wanted no co-pilot — certainly not a female derided as the “million dollar baby.” On air, their chemistry curdled. “Harry and I were mismatched, misguided and so painfully uncomfortable together,” Ms. Walters later said.
Their program remained in third place. Then Ms. Walters’s first special got mixed reviews. “I felt very wounded,” she told the New York Times in 1992. “I had a mother, a father, a retarded sister and a daughter I was supporting. And my career [seemed] finished.”
But the new head of ABC News, Roone Arledge, knew that changes would be necessary and enabled Ms. Walters to play to her strengths — major interviews and big events.
In 1977, she was one of four journalists on the plane carrying Egyptian President Anwar Sadat on his historic flight to Israel, where he would meet Prime Minister Menachem Begin. She had earlier interviewed — and charmed — both leaders.
In flight, Sadat kidded her about her salary; his was only $12,000. “But you have fringe benefits, like palaces,” she replied.
Passing notes while Cronkite and NBC’s John Chancellor weren’t looking, she got Sadat to agree to an interview. But he balked at a joint conversation with Begin. Once on the ground, however, she sold the idea to Begin, who told Sadat: “Let’s do a favor for our friend Barbara.”
The conversation was more important for its atmospherics than its content but was a notable scoop nonetheless. ABC’s tapes were en route to New York when Cronkite learned he had been skunked. He pleaded for, and got, his own joint interview. His final words were caught on a mic he thought dead: “Did Barbara get anything I didn’t get?”
The incident strengthened her news credentials. Arledge soon revamped the evening news format, Reasoner left the network, and Ms. Walters became a roving correspondent while continuing the entertainment specials. She found a firm base at “20/20” in 1979 and did most of her serious work there over the next 25 years.
CBS, once home to her sternest critics, in 1991 offered a $10 million annual contract and stewardship of her own news magazine program. Ms. Walters declined, explaining later that she wanted to avoid further professional upheaval.
Critics continued to carp, even as she neared retirement. Echoing Cronkite’s complaint in 1976, the cultural historian Neal Gabler wrote in the Times decades later that she “tore down the wall separating news from entertainment, the serious from the frivolous.”
But by the end of her career, she increasingly seemed a creature of an industry that followed the money by increasingly emphasizing entertainment and sensation. She tacitly acknowledged that reality in explaining why she left “20/20” in 2004, of her own volition, essentially turning in her press pass. Competition for “gets” was fiercer than ever, and wearying.
More important, she wrote in “Audition,” the networks’ appetite for segments on major issues and world leaders was declining dramatically. Public affairs turned off many younger viewers. Meanwhile, her fascination with entertainers and criminals had ebbed.
In her final days at “20/20,” the White House offered her an interview with President George W. Bush. It would have been a classy farewell. But there was competition for that time slot: a female teacher convicted of having sex with an underage boy.
ABC chose the child molester. Barbara Walters, the woman blamed for trivializing TV news, commented: “I rest my case.”