For more than 40 years, broadcast journalist and TV host Barbara Walters led America’s watercooler conversations by interviewing movie stars, presidents and other newsmakers. A groundbreaker in TV news, she paved the way for a new generation of female journalists.

The relentless competitive spirit that drove Barbara is explored in a new book, The Rulebreaker: The Life and Times of Barbara Walters, by Susan Page, Washington bureau chief of USA Today. “In the beginning, she was the first and she was the only woman,” Page exclusively tells Closer, “but she liked that by the end of her life, there were a lot of women doing big jobs in TV journalism.

Barbara’s father, Lou Walters, was a well-known nightclub impresario, demystifying the world of celebrity for his daughter, but also giving her a fear of how fleeting success could be. “He would make a million dollars, and then he would lose a million dollars,” says Page. “He had a gambling habit that was very disruptive for the family.” This instability could move them from a penthouse overlooking Central Park to a tiny Miami rental in a matter of months. “It made Barbara feel that no matter how rich or successful you were, it could all just vanish,” Page says. “That made her competitive, but I think it also cost her any sense of contentment no matter how much she achieved.”

Still, it took a crisis to light the fire in Barbara. “Her father attempted to commit suicide when she was 28,” says Page. “Up until that point, Barbara was a little bit at sea. She had just gotten divorced from her first husband and was not particularly serious about a career.”

With her father unable to work, Barbara stepped up to support her parents and her sister, Jackie, who was born with mental disabilities. “It’s interesting. Barbara’s mother didn’t call an ambulance,” says Page about Lou’s suicide attempt by pills. “She called Barbara. It was a pivotal point of Barbara’s life and the rocket fuel that motivated her the rest of her days.”

A Difficult Balance for Barbara Walters

Barbara joined The Today Show as a writer in 1961 and worked her way up to an on-air reporting job. Within a decade, she was hosting her own affiliate news show. By 1974, she became the first female cohost of a national news program. Her competence, accessibility and ability to score scoops would eventually make Barbara the highest-paid news anchor, male or female.

Barbara Walters’ Dad’s Suicide Attempt Was ‘Pivotal' in Her Life
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The same drive that helped her obtain interviews with every U.S. president from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama left little room for a private life. “She adored her daughter, Jackie, but she was not a great mother,” says Page.

Married four times to three different men, Barbara’s husbands always came second. She even broke off her long affair with Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke when she felt that the relationship might negatively impact her job. “If there was a conflict between her career and her personal life, she would always choose her career,” says Page.

Barbara passed away in 2022 at age 93. She had made many sacrifices in her life but felt pride in all she’d accomplished. “She put on her gravestone: ‘No regrets. I had a great life,’” says Page. “I think that is how she felt.”