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Barbara Walters puts life on display with book

No one doubts she's hard-driving. But she has never learned to drive, Barbara Walters reveals in her new memoir, "Audition."
/ Source: The Associated Press

No one doubts she’s hard-driving. But she has never learned to drive, Barbara Walters reveals in her new memoir, “Audition.”

She also discloses that she looks better on camera when shot from the left — advice she got from Sir Laurence Olivier when interviewing him in 1980.

And she allots six pages from the book’s 612 for a startling confession: Her “long and rocky affair” in the 1970s with a politician who was married and — further upping the ante — an African American. This covert romance between U.S. Sen. Edward Brooke and Walters, then co-host of NBC’s TODAY show, made headlines (and raised eyebrows) when it was leaked last week.

“I think it surprises people because it’s me,” said Walters during an interview Friday in her lustrous corner office at ABC News. “I know people see me as” — she paused, searching for the right word — “a little stern, or a little priggish.

“It WAS 30 years ago,” said the 78-year-old TV legend, “and it was a big part of my life at the time. I thought in the beginning that he was exciting and brilliant, and I didn’t expect it to progress. But when it did, that’s when I got scared and said, ‘You’re a married man, I must break this off.’ And he went home and asked for a divorce.

“I knew it was something that could have destroyed my career. And, since I’m always talking about feeling guilty: I don’t THINK I destroyed his career, but, for whatever reasons, he did not get re-elected.” In his bid for a third term, the Massachusetts Republican was voted out in 1978. “He was a superb senator.”

Despite this steamy tidbit, “Audition” doesn’t kiss and tell. Readers who hope it unearths mounds of celebrity dirt should be advised: It isn’t a tell-all. No settling scores: “I have no one to get even with,” insisted Walters.

Her display of equanimity includes Rosie O’Donnell, a panelist last season on Walters’ weekday ABC chat show, “The View,” who routinely picked fights with her fellow panelists and the world beyond.

“We had our ups and downs,” Walters said, “but I have enormous affection for Rosie, and I think she’s a great talent.”

Walters also pardons Harry Reasoner, who sabotaged the experiment that, in 1976, brought her to ABC as the first female co-anchor of the evening news.

“Harry didn’t want a partner,” Walters recalled. “Even though he was awful to me, I don’t think he disliked me.”

How could she be so forgiving?

“I may not be a very good interviewer anymore,” she replied, deadpan. “I’ve gotten very mellow.”

The final part of “Audition” addresses Walters’ resurrection at ABC News as co-anchor of the “20/20” newsmagazine, where, for a quarter-century, she interviewed nearly every public figure worth interviewing — unless she happened to be talking to them for her “Barbara Walters Specials.”

She has always felt at home plying notables with questions.

“I’m not afraid when I’m interviewing,” Walters said. “I have no fear! ... In my private life, I’m much more coulda-shoulda-woulda. Including when I was writing this book.”

Even so, “Audition” — Walters’ first book in 38 years — does what an autobiography should: charts her remarkable life, her relationships (three marriages among them) and career, while also striving to make sense of that life, and herself.

“The book makes me feel very exposed,” she said. “But I’ll get used to it.”

Her account of her formative years lays to rest any notion that Walters, whose father was the noted nightclub impresario Lou Walters, was raised in New York cafe society. Her father made and lost fortunes in a dizzying cycle that taught her success was always at risk of being snatched away, and could neither be trusted nor enjoyed.

“That’s why the book is called ‘Audition,’” Walters said. “I always felt I need to prove myself, over and over.”

Growing up, she found her insecurity was made all the worse by her older sister, Jackie, who was mentally disabled. In that less enlightened era, Jackie’s condition had a spillover effect on Barbara, stigmatizing both of them in the eyes of other kids.

“It was a lonely, isolated childhood,” Walters said.

The complicated feelings that churned long after her sister’s death in 1985 inspired “Audition.”

In fall 2004, when Walters retired from “20/20,” she was thrilled at the prospect of having time “to take Spanish lessons and go to museums. And then I thought, ‘Am I going to get very depressed? “20/20” was a big part of my life.’ ”

She decided to write a book about her childhood and her sister — just a little book. But after prodding from her publisher, her scope kept expanding. And then she signed a new contract with ABC News to continue her quarterly interview specials. Not much time left for museums.

“For the past three years, all summer long, I was writing this damn book — although when I was writing it, I said more than ‘damn.’ ”

Then came revisions and proofreading. And now publicity, including her visit Tuesday to “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” and an hour special on ABC, “Audition: Barbara Walters’ Journey,” airing Wednesday at 10 p.m. EDT.

Walters summed up this journey: “I never would have done a book, had I known!”

It was particularly hard to write the chapter about her sister, Walters said — “going back and examining the guilt that I felt about how she was always so very loving, even while I was resenting her.”

Harder still for Walters was the chapter on her daughter, also named Jackie, whose troubled adolescence led to serious drug abuse.

“That was the chapter I was not going to put in. I didn’t think it was necessary. But Jackie felt that if parents saw we went through it and survived, it might give them hope.” Now living in Maine, Jackie Danforth runs a residential therapy intervention program for girls.

Also difficult for Walters was revisiting those first years at ABC News, a period that seemed to mark the end of everything she’d worked for.

“I thought it was all over: ‘How stupid of me ever to have left NBC!’ ”

But salvation arrived in the form of a new boss, ABC News president Roone Arledge.

“I don’t know what would have happened if Roone hadn’t come in and sent Harry back to CBS, where he was much happier. Roone could’ve said, ‘We’ll pay her off. We’ll keep Harry. We know him.’ Instead, he said, ‘We’ll take a chance on her.’ ”

Since then, Walters has lived a life that, when she takes a moment to consider it, amazes her. But during her interview, she looked ahead cheerfully. She even spoke of making a clean break from ABC (including “The View”), maybe in the not-too-distant future.

“And I do think about death,” she added, though not in any way that bums her out. “I’m a very optimistic person. And I’m VERY healthy, knock glass,” she said, rapping her glass-top desk.

This talk of mortality reminded her of the zany Broadway hit “Spamalot,” based on a Monty Python film.

“You know the scene where they’re collecting dead bodies during a plague, and there’s a guy they keep throwing in the heap, and he keeps saying ‘I’m not dead yet’? Then they bash him on the head, and he gets up again and says, ‘I’m not dead yet!’”

Barbara Walters smiled and said, “He’s my hero.”