Dwight Eisenhower was president and all the talk was about Little Rock, the Cold War and Carol Burnett on Broadway. A 41-year-old Mike Wallace was just getting started with the questions.
Did William F. Buckley Jr. enjoy the role of angry young man? Would Tennessee Williams ever be a completely happy human being? Does Hugh Downs like being seen as a yes man? Did Carol Burnett have a problem with producers whose interests were less than professional?
Actors, artists, writers, activists, thinkers and politicians took turns under a bright studio light bulb and answered Wallace’s questions through a cloud of cigarette smoke on two early shows, “Night Beat” and “The Mike Wallace Interview.” Cameras zoomed in on their outrage and tears in a way not yet common to viewers of the novel new medium of television.
Wallace died April 7 at age 93. He had covered the news for the CBS show “60 Minutes” from its start in 1968 until 2008. The memorial tributes at his death replayed well-known interviews with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., U.S. presidents, Jack Kevorkian and the tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand.
But before “60 Minutes,” Wallace made people laugh, cringe and dodge on two shows that aired on the independent station WNTA, Channel 13 in the New York City market.
Syracuse University had the foresight to ask Wallace to donate his personal papers from those shows in the mid-1960s – even before Wallace became one of the best-known broadcasters in history.
Now, as an era ends, Syracuse University’s Special Collections Research Center in Bird Library is home to the unadorned relics of Wallace’s interviews with some of the most important people of the time, from 1958 to 1961.
Anyone can open the 11 boxes and study the pages Wallace held in front of him as he interviewed Henry Kissinger, Ayn Rand, James Michener, the recently paralyzed Brooklyn Dodger Roy Campanella, Errol Flynn’s mistress and King, who could still be described as a leader in a “new movement” for the struggle for dignity and equality for blacks.
To leaf through Wallace’s fragile early papers is to witness the seeds of the Civil Rights movement and to feel the fear and tension of censorship, communism, interracial marriage and abortion rights.
It also shows the birth of Wallace — the direct, bulldog reporter who would later wrestle with heads of state and corporations before 40 million viewers and the sound of a “60 Minutes” stop watch.
From the start, Wallace said he wanted to ask nosy, irreverent questions that anyone would ask if given the chance. He did not shy away from politics, religion and sex. Often, he talked frankly about race relations.
At the time, Wallace was having a tough time holding down a steady journalism gig that didn’t involve a sales pitch for Philip Morris’s Parliament cigarettes, according to his memoirs. But researchers at SU already saw him as a prominent figure in journalism and broadcasting.
SU had just started the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and researchers wanted to add to the library’s new manuscripts division. Wallace, who graduated from the University of Michigan, had no ties to Syracuse. Still, before he went off to a long career at “60 Minutes,” he donated his early papers to the SU library.
There are no videos in the collection.
The papers mostly show Wallace’s questions for each interview, typed and edited in pencil on fragile yellow and blue carbon-copy papers. Scribbles in the margins show the editing process that often turned a rambling question into “How about it?”
There were interviews with civil rights pioneers such as P.D. East, a Mississippi newspaperman whose crusade against racism cost him all of the readers in his hometown but won 106 letters and cards from Wallace’s “kind, even generous” viewers, East wrote in a letter to Wallace.
There is an interview with Alan Guttmacher, a Mt. Sinai Hospital obstetrician and gynecologist, who told viewers that his was only one of many first-class hospitals that performed abortions for reasons other than to protect the life of the mother – which was illegal in New York state at the time.
Guests’ fears and tears
Actors, singers, athletes and other publicity seekers paraded through the show.
Sammy Davis Jr., introduced his new bride for the first time to the public on Wallace’s show. Davis, one of the most well-known black entertainers of the time, had caused a stir with his marriage to May Britt, a white woman from Sweden. At the time, interracial marriage was banned in many states.
Wallace asked Davis why he would come on the show. The answer: “I like you.”
Davis said Wallace’s interviews were honest.
“People have said to me, ‘Gee, I got a chance to see you in a different light than I would on the stage,’” Davis said.
Eartha Kitt, the sultry singer and actress, appeared on the show in 1961.
Wallace’s script says he would ask her, “Do you think you’re an easy woman to be married to?” and “Do you think you have it in you to be a steady, stable, patient wife and mother?”
Kitt burst into tears on the show.
Despite the tough questions, people were still eager to test their might with Wallace. One letter in Wallace’s records summarizes the mix of fear and fun he elicited from his subjects.
In 1959, Wallace interviewed Eleanor Butler Roosevelt, the daughter-in-law of President Theodore Roosevelt. (Not to be mistaken for FDR’s wife, also Eleanor.)
Eleanor B. Roosevelt wrote a thank you note to Wallace about one month after the interview aired.
“I have been thinking about writing you ever since our interview, but couldn’t decide whether I was mad at you for asking me every single one of the questions I had particularly requested to have omitted, or was flattered into complete submission by all the extremely nice things you said to me,” she wrote.
Roosevelt said she received letters from viewers who congratulated her for “parrying” Wallace’s questions.
“Now I realize the whole thing was really great fun,” she wrote. “You certainly handed me a battle of wits and I surprised myself two or three times by thinking fast.”
Researchers and fans of celebrities and newsmakers of the 1960s can find other historic artifacts in the files: original Broadway programs, autographs and publicity photos. There are also newspaper and magazine clips from defunct newspapers such as the “New York World Telegram and Sun.”
At a time when other television news involved “ripping and reading” newspaper stories, Wallace was learning a new style. He would consume reams of newspaper clips for his own knowledge, to have solid ammunition to go after his subjects.
In his memoirs, Wallace described how that “painstaking” research gave him the confidence to push people.
“Once we got them on the air, I’d go at them as hard as I could,” he wrote in 1984. “If they appeared to be hiding behind evasive answers, I’d press them – or cajole them – to knock it off, to come clean.”
If they became embarrassed or sullen, Wallace said, he would exploit their moods.
The questions were often ordered in such a way that Wallace would kindly get the person to admit to something, then hammer him on it later.
The script for Harry “Champ” Segal was set up to get Segal, the fighter and gambler, to commit to a friendship with known gangsters Al Capone, Dutch Schultz and others. Then, Wallace would insist that Segal say into the camera that Capone and others were “grimy, shady characters who contributed nothing to this world and probably did a lot of harm.”
“Say it,” the script insisted.
The Wallace papers show the impact the show was having on viewers and policy makers.
Viewers sent letters, postcards and telegrams to share their frustration or praise. Wallace saved even anonymous postcards that trashed his work. Several people responded to Wallace’s 1959 interview with Beverly Aadland, the young companion of Errol Flynn.
“I just heard your interview with Beverly. Pardon me. I threw up,” one postcard reads.
Talking about race
The show issued press releases to push for publicity the next morning.
After a 1961 show, the producers pointed out that Martin Luther King Jr. said on “The Mike Wallace Interview” that he would urge President Kennedy to cut off federal funding to any housing, hospitals, industries and other fields that promote segregation.
In 1959, Wallace and partner Louis Lomax produced a five-part series called “The Hate that Hate Produced.”
They interviewed Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad and brought the Nation of Islam to television viewers, who had never heard of the black supremacy movement.
The story took viewers to street corner step ladders, church pulpits and sports arenas, where it said a group of black dissenters was preaching a gospel of hate that would set off a federal investigation if it were preached by southern whites.
The hate story files contain letters from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and the U.S. Civil Service Commission, saying they were using the program to train employees. They thought the show “would help them to alert our people to some of the dangers which could affect the security of our nation.”
The government requested audio copies of the show because not all of their offices were equipped with televisions.
Contact Michelle Breidenbach at email@example.com and (315) 470-3186.
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