Barbara Walters, the pioneering news broadcaster who became a force in a male-dominated industry and whose relentless journalism inspired generations of women, has died at the age of 93.
“Barbara Walters passed away peacefully in her home surrounded by loved ones. She lived her life with no regrets,” a rep for Walters said in a statement to Rolling Stone on Friday. “She was a trailblazer not only for female journalists, but for all women.”
Walter’s career spanned five decades, during which she won 12 Emmy awards, and whose television interviews with celebrities and world figures weaved show business and journalism, forever changing the media landscape.
She joined the ABC News team in 1976 as the first female anchor on an evening news program. Three years later, she became the co-host of 20/20, and she launched The View in 1997, making her final appearance as a co-host in 2014. Walters remained an executive producer on The View and continued to conduct interviews and special features for ABC News.
Barbara Jill Walters was born in Boston on Sept. 25, 1929, to Dena, a homemaker, and Louis “Lou” Walters, who was a prominent nightclub owner in New York and Broadway producer. “Because my father was in show business and because there were these ups and downs, I always felt that I had to work to take care of myself,” Barbara said in a 1989 interview with the Television Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Growing up surrounded by celebrities taught her a valuable lesson that she remembered throughout her rise in a growing and challenging media industry. “I would see them onstage looking one way and offstage often looking very different. I would hear my parents talk about them and know that even though those performers were very special people, they were also human beings with real-life problems,” Walters shared in the interview. “I can have respect and admiration for famous people, but I have never had a sense of fear or awe.”
She received her degree in English from Sarah Lawrence College. Upon graduating she worked at an NBC affiliate in New York City writing press releases. In 1953, she got her start as a producer, creating a 15-minute children’s program called Ask the Camera. Then in 1955, Walters was brought onto CBS’ The Morning Show as a writer.
Walter would become an official co-host on the morning show in 1974 after the death of Frank McGee. About two years later, she became the first woman to host an evening news show when she coanchored the ABC Evening News with Harry Reasoner until 1978.
Her first Barbara Walters Special was televised in 1976. For the first half of the show, she interviewed President-elect Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn; for the other half, she spoke with Barbra Streisand and her then-boyfriend, producer Jon Peters.
While many a male colleague grumbled about Walters’ meteoric rise in journalism, her tenacious drive continued to pay off. In November 1977, she gained a joint interview with President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel prior to their historic 1979 peace treaty. Walters’ interviews with world leaders reflected the latter part of the 20th century’s political and social climate and included former Shah of Iran Mohammed Reza Pahlavi; Jean-Claude Duvalier of Haiti; Russia’s Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin; the UK’s Margaret Thatcher; and Fidel Castro in Cuba, with whom she cruised on a patrol boat across the Bay of Pigs.
In 1995, Christopher Reeve, who was thrown from a horse during an equestrian competition and paralyzed, spoke with Walters in his first interview since his tragic accident. “For years to millions of moviegoers, Christopher Reeve was Superman. I think he’s more Superman now,” Walters said as she introduced the actor. The interview became one of 20/20’s highest-rated programs and earned Walters a Peabody Award.
Walters continued to break barriers for women, and as she became known for her intimate “scoop” interviews with celebrities, often bringing them to tears, she became one herself. She sat-down with the “terribly shy” and “modest” Fred Astaire, the controversial boxer Mike Tyson, Lucille Ball, Truman Capote, Diana Ross, Audrey Hepburn, Tom Cruise, Eddie Murphy, George Clooney, and many others.
Notably, her 1999 two-hour special with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky drew in 74 million viewers, during which she infamously asked Lewinsky why she held onto the stained blue dress linked to her affair with then-President Bill Clinton.
Walters had some regrets. In 2010 she told the Toronto Star that she felt she had pressed Latin pop singer Ricky Martin too far in an interview to comment on whether he was gay. “I pushed Ricky Martin very hard to admit if he was gay or not, and the way he refused to do it made everyone decide that he was,” Walters admitted. “A lot of people say that destroyed his career, and when I think back on it now I feel it was an inappropriate question.”
There was also the 1981 chat with Katharine Hepburn, whom she asked the comically whimsical question, “What kind of tree are you?” The actress replied: “I hope I’m not a Dutch elm, because then I’m withering. I guess everyone would like to be an oak tree.”
In her 2008 autobiography, Audition, Walters shared insight on the ones who got away including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Diana, Princess of Wales, who instead gave her first interview after her separation from Prince Charles to BBC’s Martin Bashir.
Walters’ impact on journalism spanned generations. She was inducted into the TV Academy’s Hall of Fame in 1990, was honored by a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2007, and received Lifetime Achievement Awards for her TV work in 2000 and 2009.
She married the Broadway producer Lee Guber, and their grandson, Noah Shachtman, became Rolling Stone’s editor-in-chief in 2021. “Barbara was tough, brilliant, charming, erudite, and, above all, fearless,” said Shachtman.
“I’ll never forget how kind she was to my mom, or how wickedly funny she could be. In many ways, the Barbara you’d see at holidays was the same Barbara you’d watch on TV,” he added. “She’d stare into your eyes, and ask you these questions that burrow right into your soul’s deepest cracks. It was equal parts interrogation and act of love. Was she an inspiration? You’re damn right she was.”
Barbara Walters is survived by her daughter Jacqueline, named for her older sister.