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The late Barbara Walters was first class all the way

The news of Barbara Walters’ death Friday, at the age of 93, resonates for me for several different reasons.

Obviously, her passing marks the final chapter of one of the most distinguished — and, at times, controversial — careers in television journalism.

While my connection to her was professional, and not personal, like it was with her colleague Regis Philbin, who passed away in 2020 — Walters, from our first encounters, treated me with respect and, yes, unexpected humor and decorum from someone who didn’t need to do that. But that’s the type of person she was.

It was a tricky balancing act with Barbara, since we covered her and, subsequently, “20/20” and “The View” — which she co-created and co-hosted, starting in 1997 — with an oft-critical eye to what she said on the air, from politics to entertainment to everyday stuff.

Photo of Barbara Walters sitting on the set of the "Today" show, probably in the 1970s The "Today" logo is on a screen behind her.
Barbara Walters on the set of NBC’s “Today” show, where she reigned supreme for 14 years and blazed a path for women in television journalism.
Getty Images
Photo of Barbara Walters on "20/20" circa 1980. It's a closeup shot and she's smiling into the camera with the ABC logo visible in the bottom right-hand corner.
Barbara Walters joined ABC’s “20/20” in 1979.

She was a public lightning rod, engendering in most (in my opinion) a respect, if even grudging, that she earned by trailblazing a path for women journalists in a predominantly male field, starting with NBC’s “Today” show in 1962, and snaring headline-making interviews with just about every newsmaker — “getting the ‘get,’” to use industry terms.

Others, though, cast a critical (and sometimes mocking) eye toward her, not only Gilda Radner’s classic “Baba Wawa” character in those early days of “Saturday Night Live,” but toward her interview style, sometimes hard-hitting and sometimes just plain head-scratching, particularly with celebrities.

Case in point: her 1981 interview with Katharine Hepburn, in which Barbara asked one of the greatest, distinguished actresses in history, in all seriousness: “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” Barbara later recounted it somewhat differently, putting the onus on Hepburn, saying she just asked a logical followup question. Discuss amongst yourselves.

The flip side of the coin is that, if you were among those covering Barbara’s career — and I’m guessing many of my fellow journalists would agree — she treated you with a professional decorum that stopped just short of chumminess.

Fans wondered about Barbara Walters, who has rarely been since since retiring, after Whoopi Goldberg wished her a happy 93rd birthday on "The View."
Fans wondered about Barbara Walters, who has rarely been since since retiring, after Whoopi Goldberg wished her a happy 93rd birthday on “The View.”
Getty Images

When I got her on the phone for one of our many interviews, she always referred to me as “Mr. Starr” (not Michael; Walter Cronkite did the same way. Pure old-school). And I’ll let you in on a secret of which you might not be aware: Barbara sent warm, hand-written thank-you notes and holiday cards, which initially surprised me so much that I kept a handful of them.

This is one is dated March 13th, 2001.

Dear Michael,

Once again, a huge thank you for the article on “The View.” It is always such a pleasure to talk to you because, when you quote me, you quote me accurately, and that is very rare. I am appreciative, and so is everybody on “The View.”

With my warmest wishes,

Barbara

And this is from a holiday card. (I’m not sure of the year, but Barbara is posing on the cover with her beloved Havanese, Cha-Cha, in what appears to be her apartment.)

Dear Michael,

Thank you for your consideration and thoughtfulness (including last week’s column) and all year round.

Warmest Wishes,

Barbara

Barbara Walters
The journalist and broadcaster died in her home with her family by her side, according to her rep.
New York Post

She didn’t need to do that, especially since we at The Post often gave no quarter when reporting on what she said on “The View,” for instance, and when she clashed on-air (and behind-the-scenes) with her co-hosts.

The headlines could be merciless, including the time “Babbling Barbara” swore, on the air, that Cha-Cha talked to her and told her that he loved her. To her credit, the day after that story ran she did, if memory serves, joke about it on “The View.” Or maybe I’m just remembering it that way.

When Barbara retired from “The View” in 2014, essentially ending her long career, she was nice enough to grant me an exit interview of sorts, where she talked about her decision to retire, among other topics, and then hopped on the phone a year later to talk about what turned out to be one of her last, if not her last, primetime specials.

Say what you want about Barbara Walters — and much, of course, has been and will continue to be said and written about her for years to come — but, to me, she was first class all the way.

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