Revisiting Lindbergh and Winchell Ahead of 'The Plot Against America' (Guest Column)

Charles Lindbergh AND Walter Winchell-Split-H 2020
AFP via Getty Images; Photofest/ABC

Charles Lindbergh and Walter Winchell.

Brandeis University professor Thomas Doherty, author of an upcoming book about the Lindbergh kidnapping, weighs in ahead of the premiere of HBO's limited series adaptation of Philip Roth's novel.

On March 16, HBO will roll out The Plot Against America, a limited series based on Philip Roth's counterfactual novel from 2004 about a Nazified America in 1940. Not being among the Elect, I have no advance screeners, but I have read the book and I look forward to the televisual resurrection of two of its quite factual featured players, Charles Lindbergh and Walter Winchell. Both soared over the landscape of their times, though in different vehicles.

A chilling experiment in speculative fiction, The Plot Against America conjures an alternative universe that is just a few frames out of sprocket. In the presidential election of 1940, as war rages in Europe, Charles Lindbergh leverages his heroic backstory to defeat FDR on an isolationist platform (slogan: "Vote for Lindbergh or Vote for War"). It can happen here and it does: The aviator is a stalking horse for an American Reich. Incited by the White House, the worst impulses of a nativist nation spring to the surface. For a Jewish-American family named the Roths living in Newark, New Jersey, the cloud of fascism chokes a once happy all-American life. They are cursed at in restaurants, ejected from hotels, menaced on the streets and threatened with relocation. Newark in 1940 morphs into Berlin in 1933.

In Roth's nightmare world, only one patriot has the courage to speak out against the tightening grip of the gangster state — Walter Winchell.

Winchell will seem an unlikely hero to those who know the name. Once a multi-platformed media giant — a reign that began with the first deep penetration of radio into American culture in the early 1930s and ended with the rise of television in the early 1950s — he is now little known outside of a coterie of Old Time Radio buffs and media historians. In his heyday, however, Winchell was not just a household name but a voice as influential and feared as any in the history of journalism. He was also one of the very few high-profile commentators in the 1930s who was both unapologetically Jewish and vehemently anti-Nazi.

Roth, who died in 2018 before the Nobel Prize for Literature committee in Stockholm could come to its senses, harnesses this forgotten chapter in Winchell’s life to set up the central ideological face-off in The Plot Against America. The gesture is both an act of historical reclamation and a kind of posthumous rehabilitation for a man not treated kindly in popular memory, when remembered at all.

Born in 1897 in Harlem to a Russian-Jewish couple named Jacob and Janette Bakst Winchel, Walter Winchell (he added an l) entered show business while barely in his teens (his first foot in the door was as an usher at the Imperial Theater in New York with Georgie Jessel). He tried to make it as a song and dance man on the vaudeville circuit but soon discovered that dishing the dirt on the rest of the troupe was his true métier. In 1929, he was hired by William Randolph Hearst to write an "On Broadway" column for the New York Mirror, a forum on page 6 that remained a mainstay of the tabloid until it folded in 1963. Winchell built his brand on a rat-tat-tat collage of Hollywood gossip and Washington news linked only by ellipses and wisecracks. Gangsters and tycoons, movie stars and politicians, debutantes and chorus girls — everyone was fair game for the Winchell treatment.

From his perch at table 50 at the Stork Club, located in the inner sanctum of the VIP-only Cub Room, Winchell gathered items for his column and received obeisance from flacks, picking up tips and soaking up the atmosphere that fueled a vast empire — his column for Hearst, syndicated in over 1,000 dailies; a weekly radio broadcast; theatrical appearances; and the occasional movie project. Instantly recognized by byline, voice and face, he was as well-known as the stars and singers whose press agents begged for his seal of approval. On his 15-minute appointment radio program for NBC's Blue Network (later ABC) on Sunday nights at 9:00, he was clocked at 227 words per minute, firing off copy as if read hot from a crackling ticker tape, his trademark intro and nasal delivery inspiring impressionists amateur and professional: "Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America, and all ships at sea!" he barked. "Let's go to press!" Whether on the page or behind the microphone, Winchell spattered his prose with a patented lingo ("Winchellese") that sometimes entered the vernacular, sometimes not so much: "pro-and-conning," (giving both sides), “Garbo-ing,” (being alone) and "Reno-vated" (getting divorced). If he bestowed an "orchid" upon you, your play was a hit; if you got a "DD" (drop dead), you were exiled to Palookaville.

Winchell's eye looked far beyond Broadway, however. From the day Adolf Hitler came to power on Jan. 30, 1933, he saw the danger on the horizon and sounded the alarm. As a second-generation, native-born Jew, he had had little of the feeling of cultural marginality that afflicted, say, the Hollywood moguls. He took after Hitler and the Nazis with a ferocious zeal and relentless venom, scoffing at "der Führer" with an bottomless inventory of derisive insults: "Schicklgruber" (Hitler’s alleged real name), "Adolf the paper hanger," (his early employment history), or, when inspiration failed, simply "the big bum." He especially delighted in puncturing the myth of Aryan superiority with contrary evidence. "The home run king is a Jew and the heavyweight champ a Negro!" he crowed in a 1938 column, referring to Detroit Tigers first baseman Hank Greenberg, who hit 40 home runs that season, and Joe Louis, who knocked out the great Nazi white hope Max Schmeling in two minutes and four seconds. His favorite term of contempt for the enemy camp was "the Ratzis."

It should be noted that many of Winchell's jibes at Hitler were infused with the homophobia of the day. Again and again, he insinuated that the exemplary Nazi ubermensch was in fact a "sissy" or "nance." He smirked that the German people might be interested to know "that Hitler uses 23 varieties of perfume — and he still smells bad!" It drove the Nazis crazy. In 1937, when the Völkischer Beobachter, the official newspaper of the Nazi party, published Winchell's picture with the caption, "Walter Winchell is the New Germany's greatest menace because he tells such unconscionable lies about Der Führer in over 100 American newspapers," Winchell was thrilled — and he couldn’t help adding that "the reverse side of that page is one of our better laugh getters. It shows Hitler with his hand on his shapely right hip."

Hitler's stateside allies — pro-Nazi outfits like the Silver Shirts and the Friends of New Germany, later the German American Bund — were not amused. In 1935, while leaving a barber shop on 7th Avenue in New York, Winchell was beaten up by a pair of Nazi thugs. They did not deter him.

As Winchell was excoriating the Nazis, Lindbergh was cozying up to them — and the Third Reich could ask for no better celebrity endorsement. For many Americans, Lindbergh was still wrapped in the aura from his epochal flight in 1927, when he became the first man to fly across the Atlantic, New York to Paris, non-stop, alone. The exploit propelled the 25-year-old flyer — lean as a rail, movie-star handsome — into a celestial realm of adoration never before seen and never since surpassed. (This is not hyperbole.) In 1929, when he married the whip-smart, rich, and pretty Anne Morrow, the nation blessed the union and cooed collectively when, the next year, a son was born. Inevitably, the baby was nicknamed Little Lindy.

And then, the unimaginable: On the night of March 1, 1932, the 20-month-old boy was kidnapped from the Lindbergh home in Hopewell, New Jersey. Ten weeks later, his body was found less than five miles from the house. The tragedy hit Americans like a death in the family. In 1935, when the Lindberghs left the U.S. for England to seek privacy from a ravenous press corps, their countrymen were heartsick, but most understood.

Many Americans were less understanding when Lindbergh embraced Nazi Germany, a nation that shared his penchant for the Spartan physicality, aviation-minded militarism and racial purity. Between 1936 and 1938, Lindbergh visited Germany six times, bathed in its admiration and accepted its honors — including, on Oct. 18, 1938, the Service Cross of Order of the German Eagle with Stars, the second-highest German decoration after the Iron Cross, an honor personally authorized by Adolf Hitler and bestowed by Reich Commissioner of Aviation Herman Goering.

After Sept. 1, 1939, when war broke out in Europe, Lindbergh's pro-Nazi stance intensified; he became the most prominent spokesman for the America First Committee, an 800,000-member cohort of isolationists and nativists who believed that European wars should be left in Europe and considered American interventionists a greater threat than Nazi Germany. At radio microphones and before the newsreels, he hectored his fellow citizens to keep out of European affairs and to recognize that Nazi Germany was not just a geopolitical reality but the wave of the future.

Given the nature of the regime Lindbergh championed, his shift from the politics of isolationism to the rhetoric of antisemitism was no slip of the tongue. On the evening of Sept. 11, 1941, in Des Moines, Iowa, in a speech delivered to cheering throngs from the America First Committee, Lindbergh warned against the war-mongering partnership between the beset British, currently under Nazi bombardment, and American Jews, who looked out only for each other. "I am saying that the leaders of both the British and the Jewish races, for reasons which are as understandable from their viewpoint as they are inadvisable from ours, for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war," he declared. As for the Jews: "Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our radio, and our government."

Lindbergh's Nazi sympathies — and the admiration that millions of Americans still felt for the gallant Lone Eagle, with whom they had bonded in triumph and tragedy — provide the historical grounding for the electoral upset that ignites The Plot Against America, a conceit that seems more plausible the more you ponder it.

No less plausible is the notion that Winchell would lead the charge against a President Lindbergh bent on remaking America after the Nazi model. Winchell had lashed out at the real Lindbergh the minute the first wire photos of the smiling flyer among Hitler's henchmen had crossed the wires. "When he climbed a Ratzi rostrum and let Hitler's buddies pin a medal on him," the hero of 1927 surrendered any claim he had on his countrymen's respect, wrote Winchell. Lindbergh had sacrificed universal admiration to become the "star 'Shill' for the America First Committee," a subversive fifth column consisting "mainly of members of the German American Bund and various other groups which sympathize with or admire Hitler and Mussolini." To those who said that Lindbergh was surely sincere in his beliefs, Winchell shot back, "What of it? So is Hitler. He believes in murder and hate." So fierce were Winchell’s attacks on Lindbergh that many local newspaper editors cut the remarks from his syndicated column.

In the book, after the Lindbergh administration takes the first steps to make America Judenfrei, Roth channels Winchell's oppositional voice with pitch-perfect fidelity, a literary performance that is not so much parody as ventriloquism. "Flash!" exclaims Roth’s Winchell. "To the glee of rat-faced Joe Goebbels and his boss, the Berlin Butcher, the targeting of America's Jews by Lindbergh's fascists is officially under way." Himself a radio baby glued to the set in Newark during the 1930s, Roth powerfully evokes the electric jolt of solidarity that Jewish American families felt while clustered around the Philco listening to a fearless Jew condemn Nazism. As the Modern View, the Jewish weekly, noted approvingly, "Mr. Winchell is a 'Hebe' and he is proud of it." (Naturally, Winchell preferred his own coinage for the tribe: "Joosh.")

It would be churlish to spoil the plot twists in The Plot Against America, but a few words about Winchell's real life fade out might be in order. In the postwar era, Winchell's principled anti-communism (though an FDR liberal, he despised the Popular Front apologists for Joseph Stalin) became increasingly intolerant and strident. Most notoriously, he served as a star shill for Sen. Joseph McCarthy and McCarthy's right-hand henchman Roy Cohn, with whom he dined regularly at the Stork Club. Throughout the darkest years of the Cold War, Winchell's "On Broadway" column functioned as a compliant conveyer belt for accusations against communists ("scummies") and fellow travelers ("yellow travelers"). When Winchell named a name, it was as lethal to an actor's career as testimony before Congress. He had always made enemies — Al Jolson, Ed Sullivan, Ethel Barrymore, Harry Truman, etc. — but in the 1950s, as his influence waned, he seemed to specialize in the practice.

The second body blow to Winchell's reputation came from in the form of the arsenic-laced film noir Sweet Smell of Success (1957), directed by Alexander MacKendrick and written by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman. Just as Orson Welles' portrait of the mythical media mogul Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane (1941) has come to filter the memory of the real-life media mogul William Randolph Hearst, Burt Lancaster's unforgettable performance as the Walter Winchell-like columnist J.J. Hunsecker has come to overshadow the complexity of the original. Hunsecker is venal, sadistic, ruthless and utterly unscrupulous — a media villain for the ages.

However, more than his complicity with McCarthyism or the residue from Sweet Smell of Success, it was the television camera that savaged Winchell's reputation. Winchell was a high-energy "hot personality" who looked ludicrous on the small screen sporting a snap-brimmed fedora. His attempts to restage his radio shows on television bombed, badly. Tellingly, his only true TV success came as the offscreen narrator to the Prohibition-era throwback The Untouchables (ABC, 1959-1963).

When Winchell died in 1972, the obituaries were respectful but not affectionate. At Variety, his longtime colleague Abel Green delivered the most even-handed eulogy. "For 40 years, Winchell was the undisputed Boswell" of the entertainment scene, he wrote. "He set a pattern for other columnists, none of whom had his sources." Green also wryly noted that Winchell would have loved the fact that his death made the front page of The New York Times.

One suspects that Winchell would also have loved his revival in The Plot Against America, in which he nabs a featured part on the medium he never mastered, a role commemorating the proudest moment in his career, fighting the good fight against Schicklgruber and the Ratzis.

Thomas P. Doherty is a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University and the author of numerous books about the media and entertainment industries, the most recent of which, Little Lindy Is Kidnapped: How the Media Covered the Crime of the Century, will be published by Columbia in the fall.