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Trailblazing journalist Barbara Walters has died at 93

Updated December 31, 2022 at 2:16 PM ET

Barbara Walters, one of the most famous American broadcast journalists, has died at the age of 93 on Friday evening, according to ABC News, her former employer. A cause of death was not provided immediately.

Though a celebrity as much as anyone she covered, Walters pursued serious subjects as well. She was an unexpected pathbreaker. And if you remember Walters as a journalist who blurred the lines between news and entertainment, there is some truth to that.

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She easily delivered lines like these to introduce Hollywood's "it" couple for her special, "The 10 Most Fascinating People of 2006" saying, "Those lips, those eyes, that body. When Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie met on the set of 'Mr. and Mrs. Smith,' it set off Hollywood's hottest romance."

Whether she was interviewing celebrities or the first couple, her questions were often direct.

In a Thanksgiving special with President Barack Obama and the first lady Michelle Obama, Walters asked the first lady, "You love him very much, don't you?"

To which Mrs. Obama, replied, "I do," and the president quipped, "She's a little biased."

Yet over the decades, Walters posed plenty of tougher questions. She had the only joint interview of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin amid their peace talks in 1977. In 1999, she scored the first big interview with Monica Lewinsky.

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In December 2011, she asked Syria's President Bashar al Assad about brutal reprisals against protesters.

"You have seen, I am certain, the pictures of Egypt from the President Mubarak in jail, pictures... in Libya of Moammar Gadhafi killed," Walters said during the interview. "Are you afraid that you might be next?"

"No, I'm afraid that the people won't support me, Syrian people," Assad responded.

The interview was the first Assad gave to an American journalistsince the uprising began in his country. It was not the first time Walters had interviewed a leader like Assad. She also spoke with Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi.

Barbara Walters was born on September 25, 1929, just a month before the Wall Street crash that kicked off the Great Depression. She later said that throughout her life she was driven by fear of financial collapse.

Walters' parents held her out of many social settings to stay with her older sister Jackie, who had a mental disability. Walters said she learned patience and empathy from Jackie, traits that proved handy.

Walters' father ran nightclubs and was often absent, as she told NPR's Steve Inskeep in 2008.

"You know, there was such a dichotomy because on the one hand here was this glamorous life of nightclubs and gorgeous showgirls and big stars — Frank Sinatra and Milton Berle. And I'm sure it's a life that people would look at and envy and think, 'Oh, isn't that terrific?' I didn't want that," Walters said. "I wanted a normal life. I wanted a daddy who was home."

Her father's livelihood eroded as television ascended, but after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, Walters joined TV as a writer and producer.

"She loved not only making serious news but she loved the lighter side ... [She] knew that people were interested in these things and she never felt that she should look down on them for that."

At NBC's "Today" Show, she contributed occasional on-air features as well, then developed into a hit as she expanded her role there. In 1974, she became the show's first female co-host.

Her friend Andrea Mitchell of NBC News says she was inspired as a teen by seeing a woman alongside the men of the "Today" show.

"She always had to wait to ask the fourth question, because the men in charge wouldn't let her ask first but she just pushed ahead and she always asked the smartest questions," Mitchell said.

In 1976, Walters left for ABC to become the first female evening news anchor and was spoofed by the late Gilda Radner on "Saturday Night Live."

That impression was the price of success. She was the first million dollars a year network anchor. Her ABC co-anchor, Harry Reasoner, could not have been less gracious.

"First of all, I don't think he wanted anyone to be an anchor with him. He wanted it all to himself," David Westin said, who later became Walter's boss as ABC News' president. "I think the idea of a woman, and particularly a woman who had already done not only done news, but fashion, and also, so called back then, women's issues, I think he found deeply offensive to him."

Barbara Walters chats with co-host Harry Reasoner following her debut on ABC's evening news program in New York in October 1976. She was the nation's first female news anchor and the first anchor to take home a seven-figure salary.
Ray Stubblebine
/
AP
Barbara Walters chats with co-host Harry Reasoner following her debut on ABC's evening news program in New York in October 1976. She was the nation's first female news anchor and the first anchor to take home a seven-figure salary.

The pairing with Reasoner was quickly canceled, but Walters fought her way back, moderating two presidential debates. Yet she also displayed her instinct for show business, interviewing celebrities as well as world leaders and eventually devising an annual Oscar interview program, specials on the year's most fascinating people, and the daytime chatfest, "The View."

"She loved not only making serious news but she loved the lighter side. They reflected her interests and appetites," Westin said. "She also stood in for a lot of the audience and knew that people were interested in these things and she never felt that she should look down on them for that."

Walters' private life also revolved around celebrity. She was married four times to three men, had a rocky five-year affair with then Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, and dated other prominent figures. But none of the relationships stuck.

Walters focused on her career, a foot in entertainment and the other in news, and faced criticism for her style — unfounded, she felt.

After being widely mocked for asking actress Katherine Hepburn what kind of tree she would want to be, Walters defended herself by noting it was Hepburn who made the comparison. Walters simply asked, "What kind of tree?"

And Walters' competitiveness could not be underestimated.

NBC's Andrea Mitchell was in Havana for a planned interview with Fidel Castro — a network jet was on the way with a full crew — when the Cubans cancelled it because Walters had decided she would have one and insisted hers be exclusive. Walters' fame was that powerful.

"It was humiliating in the extreme but this was just the course of doing business with Barbara," Mitchell said.

They remained friends.

Over more than a half century, this driven celebrity journalist not only staved off financial disaster but built one of the most remarkable careers in TV news.

Barbara Walters is survived by her daughter Jackie, named for her older sister.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: December 30, 2022 at 9:00 PM PST
A previous photo caption incorrectly said that Walters was married five times to four different men. In fact, she was married four times to three different men.