MIKE WALLACE, the tough and sometimes controversial broadcast journalist who achieved his greatest fame as the star of television’s 60 Minutes program, died Saturday at 93.
He was described in colorful terms by different media.
USA Today newspaper said Wallace “combined a combative interview style with show-business panache, and his death marks the near end of the era of the tough, old-school reporter. . . No cause of death was reported, but he had been in declining health following triple bypass heart surgery in 2008.”
According to The New York Times, Wallace became “a paragon of television journalism in the heyday of network news. As he grilled his subjects, he said, he walked ‘a fine line between sadism and intellectual curiosity.’ “
IN THE EARLY 1960s, Wallace donated 65 recorded interviews made in 1957-58 from his show to the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin.
According to the Center, most of these were 16mm kinescope films, some of the earliest recordings of live television that were possible, and that survive today. Many had not been seen for more than 50 years, and “they represent a unique window into a turbulent time of American, and world history. From Senators to strippers, Ku Klux Klansmen to Nobel Prize winners, Mike Wallace has interviewed them all.”
ONE OF THE interviews I found most interesting, available in a 1957 kinescope on the Ransom Center website, featured Wallace questioning Margaret Higgins Sanger, an American educator, nurse and birth control activist.
Mrs. Sanger coined the term birth control, opened the first birth control clinic in the United States, and established Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Born in 1879, she lived until 1966.
Her early years were spent in New York City, where, prompted by suffering she witnessed due to frequent pregnancies and self-induced efforts to end them, she started publishing a monthly newsletter, The Woman Rebel.
She told Wallace that it was hard to say what motivated her, but she was at least partly influenced by the fact that her mother had 18 pregnancies in 22 years, and died at age 50 of tuberculosis and cervical cancer. Her one word self-description was “humanitarian.”
In 1916, Mrs. Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the United States, which led to her arrest for distributing information on contraception. Her subsequent trial and appeal generated enormous support for her cause.
She was perhaps ahead of her time in worrying about the world being overpopulated.
ONE OF THE most notable aspects of the interview was the commercialization interspersed with the subject. Wallace was smoking Philip Morris cigarettes throughout, and Mrs. Sanger was at times seen through a haze.
The host began by talking about his choice of brands. Holding up the box, he said, “Here’s why I smoke ‘em and enjoy ‘em.”
Among his reasons: these were made of no ordinary blend of imported and domestic tobaccos so they needed no filters, they provided probably the best smoke you ever tasted and they would stay fresh and uncrushed in their box.
MOST UNUSUAL was the way the interview ended.
Mrs. Sanger commented: “Mr. Wallace, I’ve never smoked, but I’m going to begin and take up smoking and use Philip Morris.”
His final response was, “These few seconds at the end of the interview are among the most enjoyable of the week for me. For, much as I enjoy smoking during the interview with Mrs.. Sanger, I believe I enjoy this cigarette most right now.”
What none of the obituaries mentioned was whether he gave up smoking at some point in that long life.