Monday, February 11, 2013

The Power Behind a Mighty Pen

They met in a most unusual way.  It was the 1920s and he was reporter for the Vaudeville News, assigned to do a human interest story on a young, out-of-work actress who had taken in a homeless child and was struggling to support them both in a W. 46th Street rooming house in Manhattan.
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Their meeting didn't go as he anticipated.  The actress, Elizabeth June Magee (Astor), refused to open the door.  The reporter, Walter Winchell, was forced to shout his questions through the open transom above.

He never laid eyes on her that day, but he was impressed by her quiet voice and her smart answers.  He was intrigued.  He told a friend later that he really wanted to meet the face behind the voice, so he became a pest.

 His persistence paid off.  A few weeks later, they were married, according to Let's Go to Press, A Biography of Walter Winchell by Edward H. Weiner, 1955.

She, according to the above biography, was the real power behind  the gossip columnist of all gossip columnists.  She was her husband's staunchest ally and harshest critic who waited patiently in Scarsdale for him to return home from the bright lights of the city every dawn, where he mined juicy tidbits about celebrities for his newspaper columns and radio broadcasts.

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used here for educational purposes only.
Elizabeth June Magee was the child of Brookhaven native Mamie Hoskins and a rather handsome rake named Maximillian Maxie C. Magee of the Mount Moriah community near Bogue Chitto.  That marriage, according to at least one genealogy site, took place quickly and ended in divorce.

Records online show the couple was married on July 20, 1903 in Lincoln County, traveled to St. Louis, MO, and Elizabeth June was born there (or Mississippi, according to some accounts) in September 1903.

At some point, daughter June and mother Mamie wound up in New York City and worked together in Vaudeville. Mamie either took the stage name Astor or subsequently married someone with that famous last name.  (More research is needed on that thread.)

Daughter and mother can trace their roots to the Rev. Milton J. Whitworth, the founder of the female college in the heart of downtown Brookhaven.  Whitworth's daughter Ann Elizabeth "Lizzie" married James A. Hoskins, the scion of a sawmill family in town, in the 1800s.  They had several children, including Isaac Hoskins, who married Pauline Watts, after his first wife, Ella McLean, died in 1890.

As much as I tried, I could find little more information on Mamie Hoskins Magee Astor and no gravesite has turned up on Findagrave that I could locate, although there are reports that she is buried somewhere in New York.

The Winchells' story has many twists and turns, and I feel I would be remiss if I did not mention that many other biographical accounts dispute whether Winchell, whose first wife was fellow Vaudevillian Rita Greene, actually ever married June Magee.

But, absent any real proof to the contrary, we'll give the couple the benefit of the doubt here, especially since their children carried the Winchell last name.

Sadly, the children's lives were intertwined with tragedy. Their adopted daughter Gloria died of pneumonia at age 9; their daughter Walda Joan spent time in psychiatric hospitals; and their son Walter Jr. committed suicide in the family garage on Christmas night 1968.  He had been working as a freelance writer for an alternative paper in California, but had also been on welfare and worked as a dishwasher.

Elizabeth June Magee Winchell died of a heart condition in Arizona, where the couple had made their permanent home, in 1970.  Survivors were her husband, daughter Walda and a sister, Mary M. Mayor of Manhattan. (For more information click on the link.)

Walter Winchell, who had made the career-killing mistakes of aligning himself with conservative Sen. Joseph McCarthy and later getting into a public dispute with Jack Paar, announced his retirement in 1969 and spent the last two years of his life as a virtual recluse in a Los Angeles hotel room.  According to Larry King, he was a sad figure, seen handing out mimeographed copies of his columns on the street corner in his waning days.

Winchell died of prostate cancer at age 74.  His daughter Walda was the only person present at his funeral, although it has been reported that she turned away several of his former colleagues who had expressed an interest in attending.

Walda, born in 1927, died in 1987 in Los Angeles.

Please see this link to a 1931 Baltimore Sun photograph of the two girls and their mother, frolicking in the surf off Miami, during much happier times in their lives.

Update: Maxie Magee was the son of a planter and a graduate of Ole Miss, and had quite a career for himself in the banking industry after his marriage to Mamie dissolved. 


  1. Do you have an email at which I can contact you? I'd like to learn more about the Butterfield house, Edgewood. Thank you.

  2. Willie, I do not give out my personal email address here, but since others have asked, I will establish one so we can communicate. Stay tuned.

  3. Thank you; if you prefer you can also send me an email at - I am the great great grandson of the second owners of Edgewood, though it was called Fairview when my family owned it.