California Literary Review

Book Review: Mike Wallace, A Life by Peter Rader

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July 2nd, 2012 at 10:46 am

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Mike Wallace, A Life by Peter Rader
Mike Wallace, A Life
by Peter Rader
Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, 323 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★


A Feared and Influential Figure

Mike Wallace, the great television journalist whom all Americans know from the program 60 Minutes, died in April 2012, a month before reaching his 94th birthday. Now comes this first biography of him, written by Peter Rader who is best known as a film writer, director, and producer. (Rader wrote the screenplay for Waterworld starring Kevin Costner; his most recent success was The Last Legion with Colin Firth and Ben Kingsley.) One may wonder how a filmmaker decided to write a biography. He explains that his sister, Claudia Rader, worked for Wallace in the 1980s and first led him toward the story that he tells.

It is not an authorized biography. Rader says that Wallace was initially receptive to the idea of a book, but later declined to help him, while giving him his blessing to pursue people who knew him, including close collaborators.

Rader tells us that his own cinematic background led him to a cinematic style of writing. Certainly he keeps us in suspense as we watch Wallace’s long, successful, often dramatic and stormy life. More importantly, though, this is a book written in clear English and carefully researched, a book that brings out both the major faults and the major attainments in Mike Wallace’s long life. Biographers may lose balance, in either excessive love or hatred of their subject; Rader steers successfully past both perils.

This reviewer would guess that Rader’s book will remain the definitive biography of Wallace for many years to come. It is and surely will remain a basic resource for those interested in the modern history of our mass media. What is less sure is whether this will suffice to keep Mike Wallace alive in our national memory, which is most often unkind to journalists. We remember Horace Greeley and H.L. Mencken and Edward R. Murrow and…not many others.

Certainly Mike Wallace was not only a famous but a very influential American. He worked hard to become and to remain that. He was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1918, the youngest of four children of immigrants from Kiev. His father lost his prospering wholesale grocery business when an uninsured cargo was lost at sea, and had to start again from scratch as an insurance salesman, “…rebuilding himself and paying off every penny he owed.” Throughout Mike’s own career, Rader says, he would pride himself on the kind of integrity he learned from his father. What comes late in the book, though, makes one question whether at times the son forgot the father’s lesson.

One sees in Wallace’s childhood the man he was to become. He was rambunctious, mischievous, not handsome, intensively competitive. Rader says he forced himself to become an extrovert–and learned, as Wallace himself said later, “how to produce a voice.”

Wallace first got away from the Northeast when in 1935 he entered the University of Michigan as an undergraduate. Michigan had initially rejected his application, but an uncle who was a professor of economics got the decision reversed. The professional future seemed clear for the businessman’s son and economist’s nephew–until, he recalled years later, he discovered university courses on “the exotic art of broadcasting.” He was hooked–and then he was excited, when the famous radio show Information Please hosted by Clifton Fadiman invited him to become one of their occasional student panelists. He used his appearance to tell a poor joke. It fell flat, and when he returned to Ann Arbor his professor told him he had disgraced the university.

That did not dissuade him from pursuing a career in radio. This began modestly after his graduation from the university, with a part-time job as an announcer for a station in Grand Rapids. Despite a gaffe or two he soon went on to work for a larger station in Detroit, and in 1941 moved to Chicago where he worked with versatility at jobs that ranged from broadcasting the news to acting in soap operas.

Our author makes clear that he finds this a modest start. In a sense it was; but the reaction of the reviewer, who was a boy in Chicago during the Great Depression, is that Wallace was doing quite well for the time. It was a time when, for example, two college graduates in Chicago, friends of the reviewer’s parents, felt fortunate to find jobs respectively as a milkman and a steel mill foreman.

Wallace served creditably as a naval officer in World War II and returned to a wife and young son, to a marriage that would not last. Soon, Rader writes, Wallace’s life was hit by a blond and buxom torpedo named Buff Cobb. He was, we begin to see, what was called then a ladies’ man. He liked women, and he married four of them over his long life.

Buff Cobb was not just a blond torpedo; she was the granddaughter of the famous writer Irvin S. Cobb, and herself a person of some brilliance who soon teamed up with Wallace in a Chicago radio show. He divorced his first wife, Norma, with whom he had two children, and married Buff in 1949. The two moved to New York and to television, where their Mike and Buff became, Rader reports, the talk of the town. Wallace had started out as a news reporter and would end, in a sense, as that at 60 Minutes, but meanwhile he did other things as well, for example cooperating with Buff in a popular CBS show called All Around the Town that focused on interesting corners of New York and people who worked there.

Our biographer does not, perhaps, emphasize as he might have done the fact that MIke Wallace in his early thirties was, if not at the summit of the broadcast media, already in its top echelon. His marriage to Buff Cobb did not last; in 1955 he married a third wife, Lorraine Perigord, who if not brilliant and not a fellow journalist was “refined, mysterious and elegant.” By the end of the 1950s he was making a major name for himself with a hard-hitting interview show called Night Beat.

As one of Wallace’s coworkers told the author, “Before Mike Wallace and Night Beat, radio and TV interviewing was very sedate and proper–and bloodless and ball-less.” Wallace raised eyebrows and, indeed, tempers, interviewing not just personages like Elsa Maxwell and Norman Mailer but strippers, mobsters, and Klansmen. He had found his niche, an increasingly big niche, in Night Beat and the interview shows that followed, beginning with The Mike Wallace Interview on ABC. 60 Minutes, on CBS, began in 1968 and was the vehicle that brought Wallace to the very top of American journalism.

But Wallace’s path did not lead ever upward. The bad joke he told as an undergraduate on Clifton Fadiman’s radio show was followed over the years by a series of mistakes, miscalculations, and lawsuits. There was a time, when he was in his early forties, when it seemed no network wanted him. He suffered, too, the tragic loss of his oldest child, Peter, who disappeared while backpacking across Europe after his sophomore year at Yale. His father went looking for him in Greece, where he had last been seen–and it was Mike Wallace himself who found his son’s body beneath a precipice that had given way and sent him to his death.

Some of the lawsuits that involved Wallace were not, strictly speaking, of his own making. It was not Wallace but the mobster Mickey Cohen who, when interviewed by Wallace, called Los Angeles police chief William Parker a “sadistic degenerate.” However, years later, as Rader notes, Wallace admitted that he should immediately have dissociated himself from what Cohen was saying. He did not do so, Parker sued ABC for two million dollars, and Wallace had to make a statement of retraction and apology.

The biggest of the lawsuits came later, in 1983, when General William Westmoreland, former U.S. commander in Vietnam, sued Wallace and his network, CBS, for $120 million after a CBS documentary in which Wallace alleged that Westmoreland had changed intelligence reports and deliberately underestimated enemy strength, to maintain support for the U.S. war effort. Two years later Westmoreland withdrew his suit. The general and his lawyers had concluded, says Rader, that he simply did not have a case. But the experience had been wrenching for Mike Wallace. In 1984 he had written a suicide note and taken an overdose of sleeping pills. Fortunately his new, fourth and final wife, Mary Yates, had found him still alive and gotten medical help.

Of many radio and television shows that Mike Wallace ran or took part in, there seems little doubt that he will best be remembered for his role in 60 Minutes, which he helped launch in 1968 and which continues today, after his death. Mike Wallace spent four decades on 60 Minutes; his last interview on the show came in 2008, the year he turned ninety years old. By then, Rader says, “Mike’s pieces were becoming more about his own performance than the story he was reporting.” Sometimes, now, the performance was less than impressive. When he interviewed Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2006, the Iranian “controlled the tempo of the interview” and Wallace dug himself into a hole. He simply did not, says his biographer, have the instincts he had once possessed.

In the years when he still had his instincts and all of his great energy, Mike Wallace was not just a great name but a much feared man. He himself could be fearless. When President Lyndon Johnson, who could intimidate almost anyone, summoned Wallace to his ranch for an interview in 1971, he made clear that he did not want to discuss Vietnam. Wallace, however, said to him frankly that the war had first been Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s war but “…then it became Mr. Johnson’s war.” And Wallace, as in the Westmoreland case, would continue to pursue the truth about that war.

It was also Wallace who in interviewing Israeli leader Menachim Begin made Begin livid, when he compared recent acts of Palestinian terrorism with Begin’s own acts of terrorism in 1946, when the Zionist group he led blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem and killed ninety people.

But if Wallace was fearless, this biography portrays a man who was far from faultless. HIs mistreatment of subordinates was said to be legendary. He had four wives and he liked to fondle women, which today would be called sexual harassment. His suicide attempt was only the most visible moment in a long history of depression. His use of hidden microphones and cameras was viewed by many as wrong and unethical, and he could be even more aggressive and intimidating than Lyndon Johnson.

With all his faults, Rader concludes, Wallace was “…a legendary figure who had shed light on our understanding of both the world in which we live and also on what it means to be human.” It was an important life, and a fascinating one.

One might wish for the author to have engaged in a little more speculation than he does. Is it possible, for example, that Wallace was initially turned down by the University of Michigan because he was Jewish? Such things happened in Midwestern universities then and for years afterward. Similarly, one would like to know a little more about Wallace’s time in the Navy, where too there was a sizable amount of anti-Semitism. We see him enlisting, and next he is a commissioned officer; how did he get commissioned?

One would also like to know a little more about Wallace’s first wife, Norma Kaplan. We read only that she was bright and athletic, came from a well-to-do family, bore two children–and waited for her husband while he was off on wartime service in the Pacific (where he fell for an Australian girl).

These are minor points. The major point is that Peter Rader has written with a fine balance in fine English an altogether fine book.

The reviewer will in conclusion reveal that he knew Peter Rader as a boy in Rome; he was the son of an expatriate American architect who on weekends liked to make home movies. We are fortunate that the son came home to America, to make movies and now this biography.

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