Is it strange that my favorite new TV show is over 50 years old? Just last week, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin released 65 full-length, unedited videos from Mike Wallace’s groundbreaking but short-lived show, The Mike Wallace Interview.” This is the first time these amazing half-hour programs have been available to the public since they first aired in 1957 and 1958, and they are a treasure trove. I’ve watched about 20 of them but I can’t wait to see every single one.
We’re all familiar with Wallace’s “60 Minutes” persona that has struck fear into the hearts of people who have crossed his path on that show for the past 40 years, from world leaders to crooked lawyers to obtuse bureaucrats, but watching these amazing black-and-white broadcasts allows us to see young Mike cutting his teeth as an interviewer whose main objective was never to suck up to his subjects or keep them comfortable.
We tend to be smug when we compare our current sensibilities with those of the repressed Eisenhower era, but I’m here to say that Wallace’s show was far more incisive, authentic, and hard-hitting than anything on the air today, including “60 Minutes” and Charlie Rose. After listening to decades of sycophantic talk-show hosts and attention-deficit-disorder-length sound bites, some of the exchanges between Mike Wallace and his guests on this show will blow your mind.
Wallace’s very first guest was actress Gloria Swanson. “The Mike Wallace Interview” premiered on April 28, 1957, with the following words:
WALLACE: Good evening. What you’re about to witness is strictly personal. A direct, undiluted, unrehearsed, uncensored interview. My role is that of a reporter. Tonight we go after the story of a famous and controversial woman. We will discuss motives, opinions, and the record. I've asked my guest to express her true feelings. Her opinions are not necessarily mine, the stations, or my sponsors. Whether you agree or disagree with what you will hear, we feel that none will deny the right of these opinions to be broadcast. My name is Mike Wallace. The cigarette is Philip Morris.
Oh yes, cigarette smoking was a big part of the show, thanks to Mike Wallace’s and many of his guests’ penchant for chain smoking and, of course, the fact that Philip Morris (and later Parliament cigarettes) sponsored the show. The inane commercials that Wallace reads during the breaks are preserved in these priceless kinescopes and are a marked contract to the sophisticated repartee between Mike and his guests. From the start, Wallace seemed to revel in his role as provocateur. Here’s how he began his interview with the 58-year-old Swanson:
WALLACE: The thing that I’m after, Gloria, is this: what I’m after is why you’re out of pictures. Now we’ve had other maturing actresses who have maintained their popularity, perhaps even increased it despite their age—Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford—could it be that they have made up for their loss of youthful glamour with their acting ability, while you were unable to do that?
Ouch. In the first minute of watching his show, I was ready to hate Mike Wallace for his distorted characterization of Gloria Swanson’s talents and his lack of gallantry. But Swanson held her own and it certainly made for riveting television. One common feature to the shows was the awkward moment when Mike would pull out some unflattering remarks about his subject and ask for a response:
WALLACE: I’d like to read you a criticism of your acting during your hey-day, by columnist John Rosenfield who says: “Emphatically, Gloria Swanson was not the best-dressed woman on the screen, nor was she the most beautiful, nor the best actress. She tackled her big dramatic scenes with all the nuance of Betty Hutton singing “You Can't Get a Man With a Gun.” For pique she shoved out her long under-lip, for grief she threw an arm over her face and buried both in a pillow.” What about that?
SWANSON: Well, I suppose that comes from the silent technique in which one had to express their feelings and thoughts with their face, rather than with lines and it’s quite possible that’s true. I never read all of my notices, let’s put it that way. Perhaps I should have—it might have helped me a great deal. I think I was more known for personality, perhaps. I don’t mean my own personality, but the things that I did than for my acting. It was one of the thorns in my side because I felt even when I was at the top of my career that I’d never done anything to deserve acclaim.
I couldn’t have been more impressed by the way Swanson dealt with Wallace’s cringe-producing questions. She was candid about her life, marriages, and career, and watching their very real interplay made me realize how watered-down every such interaction is today. Swanson refused to budge when Wallace tried to make her say that Hollywood was a den of iniquity in the 1920s. When Mike read a quote that he got by phone that morning from her former co-star, silent star Francis X. Bushman who said that he’d take Marilyn Monroe over Swanson in her prime any day of the week, Gloria let out with a spontaneous and hurt, “Did he say that?” But Wallace also allowed Swanson to talk freely about many of her passions and even solicit donations to help spread the word about an alleged cancer cure she was touting.
Although actors by no means made up the majority of his interview subjects, Wallace seemed to delight in putting them on the hot seat. Here is how Mike introduced Diana Barrymore, the actress daughter of screen legend John Barrymore, who was struggling with alcoholism just like her famous dad. Try to imagine Jay Leno introducing a guest in this way with the camera fixed on that person’s reaction to every word:
WALLACE: Diana Barrymore was the child of an extraordinary couple, actor John Barrymore and Michael Strange, a society woman turned actress and writer. But after a promising start on Broadway and in Hollywood, Miss Barrymore swapped her birthright for alcoholism, three tempestuous marriages, and professional failure. Now, though, she is attempting a stage comeback following the publication of her controversial autobiography, “Too Much, Too Soon.” Diana, first of all, I’d like to know why you wrote a book that reveals intimate and sometimes shocking things about yourself, your family, and your friends. Time Magazine, back on April 15th, suggests one possible reason for your writing the book. They said, quote: “If a former glamour girl is down about, shaken by the DTs, and degraded by three nightmare marriages plus numerous vulgar affairs, how can she rehabilitate herself? She simply writes a book about it all.” What about that, Diana?
Oy. Diana Barrymore’s interview is one of my favorites. I had barely heard of her before I saw this show but found her to be honest, sad, sweet, and tough at the same time. The poignancy of this interview was ratcheted up quite a few notches by the knowledge that a few years later she would fall off the wagon and take her own life. But here, Wallace’s tough questioning did not seemed to phase the troubled actress one bit, and she refused to allow the host to put words in her mouth, interrupting him when he stated that she was blaming everyone but herself for her problems. At times during the half hour, I sensed an odd sexual vibe between the host and his subject. After Diana said that cooking was one of her favorite pastimes, she invited Wallace to come to her apartment for dinner. “May I bring my wife?” he asked, coyly? “You certainly may,” she responded in a tone that implied a lot more was going on than a simple invitation.
It’s amazing that some of Wallace’s guests were allowed to talk freely on national television. They included such controversial figures as Eldon Edwards, the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Earl Browder, the former head of the Community Party in the United States, David Hawkins, a young soldier who defected to Red China when he was taken prisoner during the Korean War, and James Eastland, a segregationist racist senator from Mississippi.
There are fascinating interviews with iconic figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Frank Lloyd Wright, Salvador Dali, Pearl Buck, Abba Eban, Aldous Huxley, Adlai Stevenson, and birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger. Imagine the apoplexy the sponsors must have had listening to Sanger openly talk about abortions and birth control on the national airwaves in 1957. As much as Mike Wallace tried to get her on the defensive, she was unflappable.
WALLACE: Let's look at the official Catholic position on birth control. I read now from a church publication called “The Question Box.” In forbidding birth control, it says the following: The immediate purpose and primary end of marriage is the begetting of children, when the marital relation is so used as to render the fulfillment of its purposes impossible—that is, by birth control—it is used unethically and unnaturally. Now what’s wrong with that position?
SANGER: Well, it’s very wrong, it’s not normal, it’s the wrong attitude toward marriage, toward love, toward the relationships between men and women.
WALLACE: Well, the natural law they say is that first of all the primary function of sex in marriage is to beget children. Do you disagree with that?
SANGER: I disagree with that a hundred percent.
WALLACE: Your feeling is what then?
SANGER: My feeling is that love and attraction between men and women, in many cases the very finest relationship, has nothing to do with bearing a child. It’s secondary.
WALLACE: But you agree that according to the tenets of Catholicism, they rule that birth control violates not only the church’s position, they say it violates a natural law, therefore birth control is a sin no matter who practices it. Now the violation of the natural law—you certainly can take no issue with natural law as the hierarchy of the Catholic Church regards it…
SANGER: Oh, I certainly do take issue with it and I think it’s untrue and I think it’s unnatural. How do they know? I mean, after all, they’re celibates. They don’t know love, they don’t know marriage, they know nothing about bringing up children nor any of the marriage problems of life, and yet they speak to people as if they were God.
You go, girl! But considering the times, I’m surprised Sanger wasn’t openly stoned on the streets! Can you imagine a public figure in any field being so honest on television today? But Wallace also tended to bring out a sense of humor in people that were not known for it, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Frank Lloyd Wright to Margaret Sanger. During one of his ridiculous commercials on the Sanger show, Wallace said the following:
WALLACE: As much as I enjoy smoking during the interview with Mrs. Sanger, I believe I enjoy this cigarette most right now—of course, Philip Morris is easy to enjoy and the taste is natural. There’s mildness here, too. Today’s Philip Morris has what I call “a man’s kind of mildness,” there’s no filter, no fooling, no artificial mildness, because there is nothing between you and the tobacco itself. Which is why I say get with Philip Morris, probably the best natural smoke you ever tasted.
Coming back from the commercial, just before the end of the show, Margaret Sanger openly mocked him in the same serious tone she used to decry the Catholic Church:
SANGER: Mr. Wallace, I’ve never smoked, but I’m going to begin and take up smoking and use Philip Morris as the cigarette for me to take!
Kendall and I recently went to a screening of the movie “Bonjour Tristesse” starring David Niven, Deborah Kerr, and the haunting Jean Seberg in her second film role following her disastrous debut in Otto Preminger’s “Saint Joan.” Here’s how Mike Wallace introduced the 19-year-old actress on his show on January 4, 1958:
WALLACE: Jean Seberg was born in Marshalltown, Iowa, population approximately twenty-three thousand. Today, she stands on the threshold of a motion picture career that could make her an idol of millions, but Miss Seberg’s Cinderella story is more than just grist for the movie magazines. It says something about America’s dreams and values. Let’s try to find out what. Jean, first of all, let me ask you this. Last spring, after a deluge of publicity, you were hailed as a bright new star, and then, after your picture “Saint Joan” was released, you were roundly panned by the critics in your very first film. You wait now for your second film “Bonjour Tristesse” to be released around the country and a lot rides on it for you. Obvious question: How does it feel?
SEBERG: Naturally, I want people to like the film. It would be abnormal if I didn’t.
It’s amazing to hear Seberg speak openly of her vulnerabilities, how hurt she was by the response to her first film, and how unprepared she was for a life of public scrutiny. But even at such a young age, she holds up amazingly well to Wallace’s relentless pursuit:
WALLACE: You have no real professional background. You are a pretty girl, but not the prettiest girl in the world. Otto Preminger found you and in a sense played God with you. If you had it to do again, would you rather learn your job first, and become a star or celebrity second, or would you be perfectly content to do it the quick and the easy way that you’ve done it?
SEBERG: Well, first I’ll disagree with you if I may because it certainly hasn’t been an “easy way” for me, because in a sense I’ve been taking my acting lessons in the most public possible way.
Again, Seberg’s honest, vulnerable demeanor takes on added poignancy with the knowledge that her life would become more turbulent and troubled as time went on and that she would eventually take her own life at the age of 40.
WALLACE: I suppose that a good many of us, at one time or another in our lives, would rather envy Jean Seberg. She is young and attractive, she’s already had sudden fame, some fortune, and the chance for great success. What she said tonight and the way that she said it would seem to indicate that Miss Seberg’s Cinderella story will have a happy ending. In just a moment, I’ll bring you a run-down on next week’s interview with the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for 1957.
These shows are gems that should be preserved forever in a time capsule of American life in the 1950s. It’s fascinating to hear Mike interview people who were clearly superstars at the time but whose names and reputations have not withstood the test of time. Elsa Maxwell was one such subject. I was both fascinated by her and shocked by her arrogance:
WALLACE: Elsa, first question. You’re recognized as the “Queen of International Party Making,” you have dined with the great and the near great but just recently, you drew up a list of what you call a “Nightmare Party.” The guests include Elvis Presley, Jayne Mansfield, and Nikita Kruschev, and I’d like to know why you think—seriously now—why you think that would be nightmarish?
MAXWELL: Well, to me they are three of the most horrible people in the world that I could imagine. They’re horrible on the eyes, they create a horrible atmosphere, these three…
WALLACE: Now, here are people of accomplishment, you may admire or not admire their accomplishment, but they certainly are accomplished people. They would have interesting chatter I would imagine to make...
MAXWELL: I would know what they’d say before they spoke.
WALLACE: Like for instance?
MAXWELL: Well, for instance, Elvis Presley would never speak, he’d just move his pelvis around, that’s all, and I’m not interested in pelvises or their movements and I’m tired of this young, utterly unattractive man without any talent whatever, with a face horrible with that lank hair that falls down that drives young women all over the country in some—some sort of an ecstasy which is…
WALLACE: Well now wait. You say he has no talent and yet I think that you’ll agree that he has been taken into the bosom of America in a certain sense and has been very, very well paid for it, apparently.
MAXWELL: Well, do you think that means talent to be “taken to the bosom of America?”
Oy, there’s someone whose bad side you don’t want to be on. Maxwell openly admitted that she often chose dinner guests for her famous parties based on their looks alone, avoiding intelligent people. “I must have beautiful women and handsome men. If you have a gathering that is gracious and lovely, they’re flowers, they’re decorations they’re living decorations. I’m a perfectionist, that's why I ask them.” At least she was honest! And despite her admitted homeliness, no one could accuse Elsa Maxwell of having a poor self-image.
MAXWELL: Eventually, I think I shall be an evangelist.
WALLACE: An evangelist?
MAXWELL: An evangelist.
WALLACE: Well—I’m—I’m not sure that I quite understand. An evangelist on whose behalf or for what development?
MAXWELL: For myself to help others.
WALLACE: This will be the new Elsa Maxwell cult?
MAXWELL: There might be, you can never tell.
Hollywood celebrities who were interviewed by Mike Wallace on this show include Kirk Douglas, Diana Dors, George Jessell, Bennett Cerf, Dagmar, Rudy Vallee, Oscar Hammerstein, Tony Perkins, Peter Ustinov, Lillian Roth, and stripper Lili St. Cyr. All great interviews but his participation with showbiz folk started to taper off as the show went on. As Los Angeles Times columnist Cecil Smith wrote on December 1, 1957:
Mike is the current reigning favorite of television’s personality kids, sort of the Howdy Doody of the moment. Riding as high as he is, Mike should be clicking his nimble heels and emitting an occasional whoopee. He’s gone a long way for a onetime unctuous spieler of the sudsy commercials of soap operas. However, he’s not. He has a major frustration. Hollywood won’t talk to Mike.
The average film and TV star of this celluloid city has no interest in facing Mike’s lethal barrage of questions. Most of them see no reason to appear on his show, despite the publicity attendant to its high national rating. Why? “What’ll it get me?” said one ranking star thoughtfully. “He’ll dig back into stuff that’s been dead for years and bring it up again. The basic commodity of his show is shock. Why should I get the Wallace hotfoot so he can titillate the public?”
Celeste Holm, who said she’s been asked several times to do Mike’s show, said: “Almost everyone has some foolish or unpleasant incident in his life he’d like to forget. These are the things Mike fastens onto. I’m not ashamed of anything in my past but there are private things that I wouldn’t like to talk about today. Certainly, not in several million living rooms.”
Too bad since the few stars that did appear with Wallace left a record that is so much more interesting than the tripe released by press agents. Ultimately, the show did prove too real, too controversial, and too dangerous for the network. In 1958, after ABC lost a libel suit and had to pay the Los Angeles Chief of Police $45,000 because of some derogatory remarks mobster Mickey Cohen uttered on Wallace’s show, and following a controversy about some cuts made to an interview with John Foster Dulles, the network cancelled the show, making these prescient 1957 thoughts of New York Times television critic Jack Gould come true:
It is because Mr. Wallace has made a notable contribution in widening television’s horizons in the realm of forthright discussion that his conduct on the air is of considerable concern. If Mr. Wallace falters, the medium in all probability will shy away from vigorous interviewing and the set owner will be the ultimate loser.
But read Gould’s further evaluation of the young Mike Wallace:
There is a tension and a combativeness which have not shown Mr. Wallace at his best; he may disown any inclination to sensationalism but his approach may create the environment in which it thrives.
Mr. Wallace perhaps should recall that his local success came slowly, not overnight. By building carefully on a sound journalistic foundation he could achieve a lasting place on national TV; his present risk is that by pushing too hard he may prove to be only a fleeting fad.
Fleeting fad? Over half a century later, Mike Wallace is still going strong. Next month, on May 9, the veteran journalist will turn 90.