Javascript is not enabled.

Javascript must be enabled to use this site. Please enable Javascript in your browser and try again.

Skip to content
Content starts here
Leaving Website

You are now leaving and going to a website that is not operated by AARP. A different privacy policy and terms of service will apply.

9 Things You Might Not Know About Barbara Walters

What we learned from Susan Page’s ‘The Rulebreaker,’ a deep dive into the life of the trailblazing journalist

spinner image Barbara Walters in her 40s in front of dark blue curtain with A B C microphone in front of her
Barbara Walters, seen here at a 1976 press conference, is the subject of journalist Susan Page’s newest book, “The Rulebreaker.”
Bettmann/Getty Images

If you’ve forgotten Barbara Walters’ titanic influence on American culture since her death in 2022, consider this figure: 70 million. That’s the average number of viewers who watched at least part of her blockbuster interview with Monica Lewinsky in 1999.

Compare that to Oprah Winfrey’s much-ballyhooed interview with Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex in 2021, which drew 17.1 million viewers.

Walters’ interviews were big. They made news, made stars, made enemies (of her competitors) and famously made people cry (like Norman Schwarzkopf). She probed the psyches of an astonishing list of icons — royalty, rogues, dictators, peacemakers, presidents, artists, jocks — from Saddam Hussein to Muammar Gaddhafi, Judy Garland to Christopher Reeve, Mike Tyson and Robin Givens to the first joint interview with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin.

Her unlikely rise from a nightclub owner’s daughter to journalistic trailblazer is chronicled in Susan Page’s entertaining and absorbing new biography, The Rulebreaker: The Life and Times of Barbara Walters. Page previously wrote bestselling biographies on Barbara Bush (The Matriarch) and Nancy Pelosi (Madam Speaker), making The Rulebreaker part three in an unplanned “badass women of the Silent Generation” trilogy, says Page, USA Today’s Washington bureau chief, by email.

How significant is Walters? “She cut a path no woman had walked before,” Page believes. “Every woman in journalism, including myself, owes her a debt. As an interviewer, she redefined whose stories were worth telling and how they could be told. At age 67, she expanded TV’s boundaries by creating The View.”

And she was fearless. “At a time when ambition was seen as unladylike,” Page writes in the book, “Barbara plowed into a profession that wasn’t ready to welcome her.”

Here are nine things we learned from The Rulebreaker about Walters’ triumphs, her ferocity and the disappointments of her personal life.

spinner image Image Alt Attribute

AARP Membership— $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.

Join Now


1. As a child, fake stomach pain led to unnecessary surgery.

Walters had a lonely childhood. Her father, Lou, an immigrant showbiz impresario and nightclub owner, prioritized work over family (an adult Barbara would do the same). Her anxious mother, Dena, fretted about the family’s finances: Lou’s big-money successes routinely led to self-inflicted failures. Her special-needs sister, Jackie, required care and attention. To redirect the family spotlight toward herself, Walters, then 7 or 8, complained of stomach pains. The mystery ailments were a fraud but provided precious one-on-one time with her mother as they visited doctors and shared postexam meals. Even when a doctor suggested an appendectomy, Walters embraced the lie — and the attention.


2. She had a love-hate relationship with her sister.

Though Jackie was diagnosed as “mildly retarded” (the term used at that time) she was possibly autistic, Walters suspected. She credited Jackie with building “a compassion and an understanding of people that I might never had had [sic],” but admitted, “there were times I hated her too. For being different. For making me feel different. For the restraints she put on my life.” Decades later, Walters read a book titled The Normal One: Life With a Difficult or Damaged Sibling and saw herself: “The prematurely mature child; the looming responsibility for a sibling’s care and well-being; the compulsion to be an overachiever; the fear of failure.”


3. She lied about her father’s attempted suicide.

In 1958, when her father swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills, Walters, then working in publicity, told the press he’d suffered a heart attack. Famed gossip columnist Walter Winchell uncovered the truth, but most of the New York media accepted the false story (The New York Times even mentioned the heart attack in Lou’s 1977 obituary). Walters didn’t publicly acknowledge the suicide attempt until her father, mother and sister had all passed away, but she was transformed by the sudden need to support her family. Until then, “she hadn’t yet demonstrated the drive, the focus, the initiative that would enable her to triumph in a way no woman and few men had succeeded before,” Page writes.


spinner image Book with words The Rulebreaker, The Life and Times of Barbara Walters, Susan Page, New York Times Bestselling Author of Madam Speaker
“The Rulebreaker” chronicles the life of Barbara Walters, one of the most successful female broadcasters of all time.
Simon & Schuster

4. She was stung by Gilda Radner’s Baba Wawa impression.

Despite a lisp, which she tried to correct, Walters rose from a lowly publicity department job with NBC’s affiliate in New York to cohost of the Today show. But the speech impediment was an easy target. In 1976, as Walters was leaving Today to coanchor ABCs Evening News, Gilda Radner unveiled her Elmer Fudd-like Baba Wawa character on Saturday Night Live. Publicly, Walters laughed it off, Page writes. Privately, it hurt. And yet she handled the wounds with class. When Radner died of cancer in 1989, Walters sent a sympathy note to her husband, Gene Wilder, and signed it “Baba Wawa.”


5. Even by 1970s standards, Harry Reasoner was seriously sexist.

Walters dealt with disdainful male peers throughout her career, but Harry Reasoner, her reluctant cohost on the Evening News, may have been the chauvinistic champ. He expected women to know their place and was unapologetically defiant as women sought equality in the workplace. The bullying dinosaur and his aggressive new partner were destined to clash. Reasoner didn’t want a male coanchor, let alone a pioneering woman dubbed “the million-dollar baby” for her unprecedented salary. The relationship was tense. Ratings were poor. “Barbara at that time was like a wounded bird,” ABC colleague Ted Koppel told Page. Reasoner soon returned to CBS, and Walters mounted a comeback. In 1977, she interviewed Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat, and landed the first joint interview with Sadat and Begin.


6. She denied a romance with Fidel Castro.

Walters blamed romance rumors on sexist attitudes but acknowledged the Cuban leader’s “magnetic personality” (“There was chemistry” between them, said eventual ABC News president David Westin). She was attracted to powerful men. Walters received an abrupt marriage proposal from notorious attorney Roy Cohn, dated Sen. John Warner and attended events with Henry Kissinger. She also had an intense affair with Sen. Edward William Brooke III, the first Black man elected to the U.S. Senate since reconstruction.


7. She hid in a bathroom at Camp David.

On the third day of talks between Begin, Sadat and Jimmy Carter at Camp David, 50 reporters arrived by bus. They saw the leaders take a break, heard a military band and were shuffled back to their buses. Walters, however, was missing. The wife of Carter’s communications adviser soon spotted her feet in the stall of the visitors bathroom, thus spoiling Walters’ plan to corner Israeli officials. Given the security, it was “jaw-dropping in its audacity,” Page writes — and it was classic Walters. She was relentless, even vicious, in her quest for exclusives. In 2001, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell was scheduled to interview Castro. Walters not only arranged her own interview to trump Mitchell’s but convinced Cuba’s foreign minister to cancel Mitchell’s interview entirely. “She was addicted to the chase, the thrill of the scoop, the envy of her colleagues, the global headlines,” Page writes. “Woe to anyone, man or woman, who stood in her path.”


8. Diane Sawyer was her fiercest rival.

In 1989, ABC News president Roone Arledge lured Sawyer from CBS without consulting Walters — and a bitter rivalry was born. Among the battles: Walters tried to prevent a Sawyer interview with Katharine Hepburn, even as crews set up cameras and lights in Hepburn’s apartment. Later she stole an interview from Sawyer with Ronald Reagan’s attempted assassin, John Hinckley Jr. In 1996, ABC execs wanted Sawyer to interview Bill Clinton; Walters covertly snagged it instead. Sawyer could play tough too. Walters was scheduled to interview Yasser Arafat in 2000, but Sawyer beat her by preemptively flying to the Middle East. In The Rulebreaker, Page shares an old adage she heard from multiple ABC veterans: “Diane will stab you in the back. Barbara will stab you in the front.”


spinner image Susan Page smiling in front of light gray background
USA TODAY journalist Susan Page has also written bestselling biographies about Barbara Bush (“The Matriarch”) and Nancy Pelosi (“Madam Speaker”).
Hannah Gaber

9. She paid a price for her ambitions.

Her competitiveness and single-minded focus on her career left scars, Page says. Walters had three failed marriages. Her only child was shuffled to boarding schools and struggled with drugs. Mother and daughter were estranged for a time. Extremely competitive, she viewed other women in TV as rivals rather than potential allies. She died at 93, and her final years were lonely. “I asked more than 100 people who knew Barbara if she was happy, even at her moments of greatest triumph,” Page says. “She was clearly proud of what she achieved and reveled in all it brought her. She earned our respect. But was she happy? Almost no one said yes.”


                                  More Members Only Access


Discover AARP Members Only Access

Join AARP to Continue

Already a Member?