Book review of The Rulebreaker by Susan Page

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Barbara Walters may forever be remembered as Barbara Wawa, thanks to Gilda Radner’s 1976 performance on “Saturday Night Live.” Radner, Rachel Dratch and Cheri Oteri played the character for the next four decades, illustrating that Walters and her contributions to television journalism had become enduring features of popular culture. Indeed, her presence would dominate television from the late 1960s to the early years of the new millennium.

Drawing on over 150 interviews and on extensive archival research, biographer Susan Page paints a colorful portrait of Walters in her compulsively readable The Rulebreaker: The Life and Times of Barbara Walters. Tracing Walters’ life and career from her childhood through her three failed marriages, her estrangement from her daughter and her groundbreaking interviews with celebrities and political figures, Page reveals an ambitious woman who reached the pinnacle of her profession, even as she was dogged by insecurities and fear of failure. Page describes how both Walters’ ambition and her fear were fueled by her father, an entrepreneur and impresario who opened several high-profile nightclubs in Boston, New York City and Miami, but whose gambling and often extravagant spending resulted in his professional failures. Page traces Walters’ early career, cutting her teeth as a publicist, Redbook staffer and host of the “Today” show. Her big breakthrough came in 1976 when ABC offered her a $1 million salary to co-anchor its evening news program. But she didn’t stay for long. Three years later, she became co-host of “20/20.” The rest is history. 

Walters is best known for penetrating interviews of political and entertainment figures, never shying away from asking probing, and sometimes regrettable, questions. She asked Ricky Martin about his sexuality before he came out publicly; pushed Fidel Castro to admit the impoverished state of Cuba when the leader touted his role in the country’s prosperity; and asked Monica Lewinsky how she planned to explain the Clinton scandal to her children. Walters pioneered the tell-all interview and took it to new heights with “The View,” which premiered in 1997. 

The Rulebreaker explores the cultural history in which Walters and her career developed and flourished. Readers will be compelled by this story of an American icon who shaped the expectations that viewers have of television news programs, and whose flair and penetrating approach revealed the private lives of the powerful and famous.

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