|Actress Merle Oberon and Walter Winchell at Manhattan's Stork Club|
“It had traditionally been the function of society to set an example for Americans; not only power but decorum had emanated from the Old Guard,” wrote biographer Neal Gabler in Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity. “But what was one to make of this new mélange of show folk and socialites mixing at nightclubs? What were they teaching the unfortunates of this country during the Depression?”
“The Old Guard had maintained its power partly through the mystification of its own isolation and privacy; one was powerful enough, secure enough, not to need or want attention, unless it was that of one’s social equals. Café society was predicated on something else entirely. Here power was really a function not of wealth or breeding or talent or connections but of publicity. ‘Publi-ciety’ Cleveland Armory called it, where the object was to be seen and known, where the object was to be famous.
“The ones who could bestow fame, particularly upon individuals who hadn’t done anything to deserve it, were the press...
“In a very real sense, then, social authority in the early thirties had been turned on its head; now it derived from the media, or as Walter put it, ‘Social position is now more a matter of press than prestige.’ And since the king of the media in the thirties was Walter Winchell, café society was in many ways a function of him.”
“On its face it seemed absurd that a nation racked by unemployment should care about a band of swells whose deepest concern was whether they rated a column mention. (Walter thought it ridiculous too constantly scolded the idle rich while continuing, hypocritically, to feed their publicity habit).
“Yet people did care, and they read about café society as if it were an exciting new social drama to replace the now-shuttered bawdy farce of twenties Broadway. If Broadway had been an imaginative landscape coruscating with images of hot freedom, café society was an imaginative world shimmering with glamour, just as so many Depression-era movies did.
“For most Americans, ‘café society’ immediately triggered images of women in smart gowns and men in satin-collared tuxedos, of tiered nightclubs undulating in the music of swell bands, of cocktails and cigarettes, of cool talk and enervated elegance, all of which made café society one of those repositories of dreams at a time when reality seemed treacherous.”
In other words, Winchell midwifed the direct spiritual ancestors of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian.