Fifth Estater: Wendy Walker
How a former Brooks Brothers clerk ended up in charge of Larry King's CNN show
By Paige Albiniak -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/4/2009 7:00:00 PM
When Wendy Walker graduated from Hollins College, she thought she would study art and get married. Instead, she met celebrities while working for Ethel Kennedy, helped start CNN, covered the White House for a decade and ended up the woman behind the scenes at Larry King Live.
None of that figured into her plans when she piled into a car with four girlfriends after college and drove to Washington, D.C., to look for work. Walker found a job selling clothes at Brooks Brothers, where she earned the largest salary she would see for a decade. She also made some good connections.
In 1977, she had left Brooks Brothers to help a client start an art gallery. She was sweeping up one day when she received an odd phone call. It was Ethel Kennedy calling to invite her to a party.
Utterly confused, Walker stammered out a non-committal answer. Kennedy pressed on: “Is this Wendy Walker? The girl who used to wait on me at Brooks Brothers? Do you want to go?” Finally understanding how Kennedy had found her, Walker signed on.
There she learned Kennedy was searching for an assistant, a job she inquired about and got. In the year she spent working for Kennedy, Walker learned about producing as she helped Kennedy plan her annual celebrity tennis tournament, which was televised on ABC.
She also met ABC's White House producer, and decided that was the job she really wanted, even though she had no TV experience. But she applied, and ABC offered her a ground-level job as a secretary. There, she met a desk assistant named Katie Couric, and soon they were roommates and working every spare moment at ABC.
But after a year of near-volunteer work and no promotions, Walker got antsy. That's when Bureau Chief George Watson invited her to join him at the Washington bureau of the new Cable News Network.
Another good friend, reporter Sam Donaldson, told her: “Go with George. Learn how to do this stuff. Go out and do it instead of watching everybody, and then come back.”
For the first three years at CNN, a network that was so cheap it required staff to supply their own coffee cups, she was a woman of all trades. She was the one-person production team on CNN's Newsmaker Sunday. She would book the guests, make the coffee, do their makeup, produce the show and then send out press releases about any news they made.
“Nobody told me to do that stuff,” she says. “That's just what they did at ABC, so that's what I did.”
Walker still had the White House in her sights. When Ronald Reagan was scheduled to attend an economic summit in Paris, she acquired credentials for herself. At the last minute, CNN needed more hands on deck, so off she went. Soon, she was heading over to the White House every day. In 1983, CNN management made her White House executive producer.
“It was 10 years of nonstop work,” she says. “I was always on call. When the Beirut bombings occurred, I was in bed with four wisdom teeth just taken out. I got up and went to work.”
Six months into the first Clinton administration in 1993, she got a call on a Friday night telling her she needed to be at the White House at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning. She finally thought, “This is enough.”
While she was sitting at her desk on a Saturday, Tom Johnson, CNN's president, phoned to ask if she would like to produce Larry King Live. “The White House was a tough act to follow, but I thought Larry King would be interesting.” Walker says. And I thought, 'It will be over at 10 p.m. I won't be awakened in the middle of the night every night.'”
Walker wasn't King's pick. “Reluctantly he said he would meet. I had letters sent to him from President Bush, T. Boone Pickens, Ethel Kennedy and others. He said, 'I've gotten a lot of references from you.' I said, 'Do you want more?' That's when he hired me.”
That's the last time King questioned hiring Walker. “We have gotten along from the beginning,” she says. “We have a really special relationship, and I am totally devoted to him.”
Walker began booking the big guests, from an exclusive interview with death-row inmate Karla Faye Tucker in 1999 that won King a News and Documentary Emmy, to 29 days of live shows in 2003 when the war in Iraq started, to 20 consecutive nights of coverage after Hurricane Katrina hit. She has booked everyone from American presidents and their wives to the biggest Hollywood stars.
Says King: “She's been described as relentless, and that's because she is. Wendy is a 24/7 executive, always on top of every breaking news story, and always landing the biggest guests. I couldn't conceive of working with anyone else.”
Walker won't reveal any trade secrets, but says, “We never lie. We are very careful about making sure whoever goes on the show knows exactly what they are in for.”
Guests concur. “She gives you really clear information on what the show is going to be about,” says Dr. Phil McGraw, who has been a frequent guest. “Someone has to be the calm in the middle of a storm, and she is certainly that.”
Walker's always changing it up, says Jon Klein, president of CNN U.S.: “Both Wendy and Larry are very competitive. They have access to just about anybody in the world, and they leverage that every day.
“Wendy's also introduced Larry to the world of the Web and has created digital extensions for the show. Now they interview guests in the dressing room and post that online, or they solicit questions from our reporters and post those answers online. Wendy steers that ship very skillfully.”
“She's literally a human Rolodex,” says Walker's close friend Lisa Gregorisch-Dempsey, senior executive producer of Warner Bros.' access magazine, Extra. “She really is the queen to Larry's king.”
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