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Remembering the legacy and storied career of Barbara Walters


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: Much is known about the storied career of the legendary journalist Barbara Walters, who died over the weekend at the age of 93.

But less is known about who she was as a person and the high cost her professional success took on her personal life.

For a fuller picture of the iconic broadcaster's life on camera and off, we're joined by Susan Page, the author of an upcoming biography of Walters.

Susan, welcome back. Good to see you.

Susan Page, Washington Bureau Chief, USA Today: It's great to be with you.

Amna Nawaz: You have been interviewing a number of people, sharing accounts about Barbara Walters and her life. You have been reporting on this for almost two years.

Talk to me about the earliest days of her career. There weren't a lot of women in the business when she broke in. How did she do it?

Susan Page: She did it by just being the most -- the hardest-working, most persistent person you can imagine. She overcame impossible obstacles, including the fact that she didn't really speak very well. She had this sort of odd speaking pattern.

And yet she managed to succeed in this business, against -- against all odds.

Amna Nawaz: Her big break came when she was named co-host of NBC's "Today Show." How she you land that job?

Susan Page: Oh, there's a great story.

So, she's working on "The Today Show" with Frank McGee, the host, who didn't like her at all, didn't think of her as a real journalist. And he went to the head of the network and got a rule set that, when they were doing an interview, he would ask the first three questions, and only then was she allowed to speak.

And she lived by that. She then started doing interviews outside the studio in an effort to be able to ask the first question and the second one. But then Frank McGee unexpectedly died in 1974 of cancer. He was in his 50s. No one knew that he was so ill.

And NBC announced that they were going to be looking for a new host for "The Today Show." And Barbara Walters' agent, Lee Stevens, called the executives and said, you mean co-host, because, as it turned out, they had put in her last contract a provision that said, if Frank McGee leaves for any reason, Barbara Walters will become co-host, something that the NBC executives hadn't even paid much attention to.

That is how she broke that first barrier, the first woman to be a co-host at a morning show. And, of course, today, you can't imagine a morning show that wouldn't have a woman on the air.

Amna Nawaz: What about how she worked? Was she competitive?

Susan Page: She was fiercely competitive.

And, of course, she had to be. Men and women in that job would have to be. She had to be especially so. She was constantly working to get the big interviews, the big gets, which was one of the things she made into an art.

When she was trying to interview Mark David Chapman, the man who murdered John Lennon, she wrote to him in prison for 12 years before he agreed to give his first TV interview to her.

Amna Nawaz: She was known for her relentless work ethic too. That had to take a toll on her relationships. How did that impact both her professional relationships and also her personal ones?

Susan Page: You know, we think now of all the accolades she's getting as this wonderful groundbreaker, cut a path for so many women who followed.

And all that's true, but it was not free. Three marriages, three divorces. She was long estranged from her only daughter, although they eventually reconciled. Her work always came first, and everyone around her, family and friends, understood that.

Amna Nawaz: Did she ever expressed any regret about that or articulate the wish that she might have done things differently?

Susan Page: You know, she would sometimes talk about: Did I make a mistake.

But then she would say: But if I hadn't done this, I wouldn't have gotten where I am.

So, I think she was not a woman who was given to many regrets.

Amna Nawaz: You have spoken to how many people so far for this upcoming book?

Susan Page: More than 100.

Amna Nawaz: More than 100.

Did anything you have heard surprise you so far?

Susan Page: A lot of it is surprising.

One is how hard she worked. Another is what a good friend she was to some other women. She was very competitive with women like Diane Sawyer, with whom she felt a special rivalry. But to women like Connie Chung and Katie Couric and Lynn Sherr, they have all told me stories about how helpful she was to them in their careers.

Amna Nawaz: Over the course of that career, almost 50 years, right, working in this industry, she moved across news and entertainment seamlessly.

She innovated a lot as well. When you look at the industry, where is her mark today? And tell me about what happened to her life after she left working in television.

Susan Page: Of course, she spans the whole story of the rise and then the challenges that network television has faced.

And think about what she innovated. She innovated kind of the blending of news and entertainment. Not everybody thought that was a good idea. But it's undeniable that that has happened. She defined the big interview get, including Monica Lewinsky, in an interview that got nearly 50 million people to watch her.

And she was 67 years old, at a time almost everybody would be retiring. She created "The View," a whole new form of TV talk show, one that, 25 years later, is still going strong.

Amna Nawaz: Was she OK being out of the spotlight?

Susan Page: It was hard for her to retire. I think it was hard for her to step away. She was in her 80s by the time she retired.

And then she had a long period where her health failed, where she was increasingly isolated. And I'm sure it was very hard for her to not be on TV.

Amna Nawaz: We have lost one of the greats. We can't wait to read many of those stories in your upcoming biography of her, Barbara Walters.

Susan Page, thank you so much.

Susan Page: Thanks so much.

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