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'The Rulebreaker' reveals how Barbara Walters' professional success came at personal cost


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

Amna Nawaz: Barbara Walters became an icon of the news media industry, rising through the ranks to become one of the country's first and most successful female television journalists.

But her enormous professional success often came at great personal cost. Her life is the focus of a revealing new book I discussed recently with author Susan Page called "The Rulebreaker: The Life and Times of Barbara Walters."

Susan Page, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

Susan Page, Author, "The Rulebreaker: The Life and Times of Barbara Walters": Great to be here.

Amna Nawaz: So, Barbara Walters was a very public figure. She even had parts of her private life covered in the tabloids. What was missing from her narrative that you felt needed to be explored and told in this book?

Susan Page: You know, I think one thing that we have lost is a sense of how hard it was for her.

We remember her as this enormously successful, wealthy person with lots of honors, seen as a real groundbreaker, but she got there with a process that took unbelievable grit and determination and putting up with all kinds of grief.

Amna Nawaz: Lou Walters was her father. What really struck me was how much of an impact he had on her life. He was a showbiz guy, right? How did he inform how she navigated her path forward?

Susan Page: So he was a great impresario. He originally was booking Vaudeville acts. He became the founder of famous nightclubs, including the Latin Quarter.

But he would earn a fortune and gamble it away. He would have a successful nightclub, open another one, see it go bankrupt, and at one point he even attempted suicide, a great pivot point for Barbara Walters in her life.

Amna Nawaz: What did that uncertainty and the instability do to her? How do you think it impacted her?

Susan Page: It gave her the sense that you could never be content. You were never safe, that, however famous you were, you could lose it in a flash, just like her father had.

Amna Nawaz: And yet she did break barriers, became the first woman to host a morning show on national television. How did she do it? How did she get where no other woman had gone before?

Susan Page: It's not like they welcomed her. Nobody wanted her to go where she was going.

Nobody had done it before, so she had no model. She didn't have a mentor. But she wanted it, and she was really good at doing interviews, and she just plowed ahead. She became a correspondent on "The Today Show" with Frank McGee, who was the host of the show.

He set a rule that she could not speak during an interview until he had asked the first three questions. Can you imagine?

Amna Nawaz: In every interview.

Susan Page: In every interview. This was, of course, very frustrating to her. She responded eventually by setting up her own interviews outside the studio, so that she could ask all the questions.

And with that, she really found the thing she was best at, which is the big interview.

Amna Nawaz: She had a reputation for being very competitive, very tough, and there's this quote in your book from her as well.

She says: "Television is a tough game and you don't win by always being Ms. Nice Guy."

Was she ever Ms. Nice Guy, though?

Susan Page: Well, not when she was climbing the ladder. She was never Ms. Nice Guy.

And if you wanted to think how competitive she was, ask Diane Sawyer, because their competition, their rivalry at ABC is the stuff of legend.

Amna Nawaz: There's a quote from Connie Chung about this, actually. You explore this idea with people who knew her at the time.

And Connie says this: "It was a constant battle royal," talking about the competition between her and Diane, "but so were the three anchormen," she points out, "Peter, Dan and Tom, Jennings, Rather and Brokaw."

She says: "When Barbara and Diane were fighting it out, they'd call it a cat fight."

How much of that whole narrative do you think was informed by sexist tropes?

Susan Page: Some of it. Some of it was. And it's true that male anchors were also enormously competitive with one another.

But there was an edge, I think, to the rivalry between Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer that went beyond that between anybody else. What made her so driven? And I think it was not that she was so confident. I think it's because she was so uncertain. She was so anxious. She never felt, as I said, that she was content and could rest on her laurels.

She was never content that it was enough. It was never enough, not even at the point when she was in her 80s and finally retired from "The View." After that show, another correspondent said to her backstage, "What is it that you want?" meaning, do you want to go to the Bahamas? Do you want to learn to play golf?

And she said, "I want more time," meaning, I want more time on the air.

Amna Nawaz: Did she at all resent that other women who came after her had a lot of things easier than she did?

Susan Page: She did resent that.

And Barbara Walters cut a path for herself because she wanted to do these things. And it had the effect of cutting a path that women afterwards could walk with more ease than she ever did. And she liked the idea that she was the groundbreaker, but she resented the fact that the women who followed her had an easier time than she had.

Amna Nawaz: And yet she defined this whole new genre, this big interview get, right, that really defined big moments in television, millions of people tuning in to watch her talk to Monica Lewinsky or Ronald Reagan or others.

You write in the book, the Barbara lived for the get, getting that interview. "She would feel a void in her personal life that was dominated by her needy parents and sister, her disappointing marriages, her estrangement from her only child, but only her professional life could fill her with a sense of victory and vindication."

What is the personal toll of that kind of career?

Susan Page: She paid a price, three failed marriages, for a long time an estranged relationship with her only daughter, this sense of constantly being competing.

We talk about work-life balance these days. For Barbara Walters, there was no work-like balance. There was work. Any time there was a conflict between her life, her personal life, and her professional life, work would come first.

And that is a tough thing for husbands and children to understand.

Amna Nawaz: There's a 2004 interview with Oprah when she was asked about her life. And she said: "Most of the time when I look back on what I have done, I think, did I do that? And you know what I say to myself? Why didn't I enjoy it more?"

Was all the work and the sacrifice, was it worth it to her in the end?

Susan Page: I think it was worth it to her.

And one reason I say that is because of what she chose to put on her gravestone. Her gravestone is not a traditional one. It's not the beloved wife, the beloved sister, the beloved mother. Her gravestone says: "No regrets. I had a great life."

Amna Nawaz: The book is "Rulebreaker: The Life and Times of Barbara Walters."

Susan Page, thank you so much. Great to speak with you.

Susan Page: Thank you.

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