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Wendy Walker: Extraordinary


Despite her years in the trenches as a White House producer for CNN, Wendy Walker wasn’t Larry King’s first choice to become executive producer of his now iconic television talk show, Larry King Live. The two could not have been more different.

“Think about it,” King muses in the foreword to Walker’s newly released book, Producer: Life Lessons from 30 Years in Television. “Jewish Sports Guy from Brooklyn meets WASP White House Producer from the Midwest.” But Walker was armed with letters of recommendation: Ethel Kennedy, President George Bush, Sr., T. Boone Pickens. “Do you want more?” she asked King. Walker got the job.

Over the next 17 years, the two forged a remarkable partnership, scoring major interviews with thousands of notables: presidents and politicians, movie stars and moguls, athletes and scoundrels. (Acquitted in the murder of his ex-wife, O.J. Simpson called the show soon after the verdict.)

“I think it’s a mutual respect,” says Walker when asked about the key to her successful relationship with King. “He lets me do my job and I let him do his. We respect each other with the talents that we have, but we don’t try to do each other’s job.”

Walker, who lives in Rancho Santa Fe with her two children, is curled up on a comfortable sofa in her blue-and-peach living room where side tables are crowded with shells, family photos, and an Emmy for her work on Larry King Live. Her career began, not in a television studio, but at Brooks Brothers in Georgetown where she sold shirts to customers like Ethel Kennedy.

Kennedy was so impressed with Walker that she soon whisked her off to Hickory Hill for a dinner party that included her son Joe. Walker’s “relationship” with Joe was short-lived — they exchanged a few kisses when he drove her home. But Walker became Ethel’s private secretary, moving to the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis for the summer. There, in Ethel’s kitchen, Teddy tasted clam chowder simmering on the stove, and Jackie O floated by on her way to the beach, the picture of elegance. It was while working for Ethel that Walker “caught the producer bug” when she helped to organize the RFK Pro-Celebrity Tennis Tournament.  

Walker got a job as a secretary at ABC’s Washington Bureau, starting on the same day as Katie Couric, another fresh-scrubbed hopeful looking to make her mark in television. Couric would become the first woman to solo anchor a nightly network newscast on weekdays. She and Walker would become fast friends and roommates, called “the odd couple,” because Walker was so organized and Couric was the opposite. “Please don’t kick her out,” Couric’s mother implored Walker. “I know she’s messy, but please don’t kick her out.”

The two friends worked hard and long, even working unpaid weekends they called “Sunday School” to learn as much as they could about the news business. Walker’s boss took notice, and when he left ABC to help Ted Turner start a fledgling network called CNN, Walker went with him.

She eventually became the network’s White House producer, covering presidents and traveling the world. Walker produced 11 U.S.-Soviet Summits for the network — Herculean tasks that were both mentally and physically exhausting. Just ask her about the time a raging storm flipped over CNN’s satellite dish in Malta, smashing it to pieces hours before the summit. Walker and her team managed to find a local sheet metal worker to “cobble together a makeshift dish” just in time for the broadcast.

Years later, Walker would meet Mikhail Gorbachev for the first time in Washington, D.C. He remains, to this day, her most significant “get” because of his impact on world history. Later, during coverage of President Reagan’s state funeral, Gorbachev appeared on the show to talk about the former enemy who had become a profound friend. “What a lesson!” writes Walker. “What a moment!”

Walker’s book is packed with stories about the people — both ordinary and extraordinary — who have made headlines over the years, and the lessons she’s learned along the way. One of those lessons is that “extraordinary things happen when you least expect them” —  seeing Rudolf Nureyev in a hotel lobby or sitting with President George Bush, Sr. during a White House state dinner. But “nothing compares to the day I turned 50,” Walker recalls. That was the day that Paul McCartney played a private concert for Walker and close friends at Delicias restaurant in Rancho Santa Fe, a surprise engineered by Walker’s now ex-husband.

Walker’s birthday party made headlines in newspapers all over the world. “The upside?” She writes, “There’s nothing like having your fiftieth become your fifteen minutes of fame…The downside? I can never lie about my age.”

When Larry King “hangs up his nightly suspenders” in December, Walker will produce his four live specials each year, while also developing new shows for CNN. While she will miss Larry King Live, Walker looks forward to this next chapter in her life. No doubt it will be filled with fascinating people and “extraordinary things [that] happen when you least expect them.”    ANDREANAVERSEN


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