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Heartbreaking reasons behind Barbara Walters’ tenacious ambition

Barbara Walters’ legendary work ethic and unstoppable drive were forged by two heartbreaking events in her life.

The trailblazing news anchor — who died at age 93 on Friday — had an older mentally disabled sister named Jacqueline, who she says changed her life, both personally and professionally.

“Her condition also altered my life,” Walters wrote in her 2008 memoir, “Audition.” “I think I knew from a very early age that at some point Jackie would become my responsibility. That awareness was one of the main reasons I was driven to work so hard.”

“The View” co-creator explained that Jacqueline, three years older, was “only mildly” disabled but “just enough to prevent her from attending regular school, from having friends, from getting a job, from marrying. Just enough to stop her from having a real life.”

Walters confessed that for many years she was “embarrassed,” “ashamed” and felt “guilty that I had so much and she had so little.”

Childhood photo of Barbara Walters and her sister, Jacqueline.
Barbara was three years younger than her sister, Jacqueline.
Courtesy Barbara Walters

The “20/20” alum wrote that because her mother was saddened by Jacqueline’s loneliness and isolation, she would ask Barbara to take her sister along on dates or outings with her friends.

“I loved my sister. She was sweet and affectionate and she was, after all, my sister. But there were times I hated her, too. For being different. For making me feel different. For the restraints she put on my life,” Walters bravely shared. “I didn’t like that hatred, but there’s no denying that I felt it.”

Barbara Walters with her parents, sister and then husband, Lee Guber.
Walters’ father, Lou, was a Broadway impresario.
Courtesy Barbara Walters

Despite her complicated feelings while growing up, Walters realized what a tremendous presence her sister held.

Walters confessed that she even toyed with naming her memoir “Sister” because “it was my older and only sister, Jacqueline, who was unwittingly the strongest influence in my life.”

Jacqueline also influenced Walters’ legendary interviewing style, which managed to coax surprising admissions from celebs and more often than not, some tears.

“Until Jackie died from ovarian cancer in 1988, I worried about her, supported her, made decisions for her that my parents couldn’t make, and agonized over the fact that although I couldn’t always love her, she always loved me,” Walters wrote.

“She taught me compassion and understanding. (In later years these feelings would be important to me in interviews.) Often frustrated herself, often cranky and prone to tantrums, she never expressed resentment or jealousy of me.”

Walters revealed in her memoir that she felt the pressure to take care of her sister.

Barbara Walters on the "Today" show.
Walters revealed in her memoir that she felt the pressure to take care of her sister.


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Cole of California gold lame bathing suits are modelled on the CBS television program "The Morning Show," on January 5, 1956, in New York, New York. (Administrative staffer to the program, Barbara Walters, is shown seated, front row left.
Walters revealed in her memoir that she felt the pressure to take care of her sister.


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Walters even named her daughter — adopted in 1968 with second husband Lee Guber — after her sister because she “wanted the grown Jackie to feel that she, too, had a child, because I knew by this time she never would.”

Walters’ tenacity and ambition can also be traced back to her father’s career as a Broadway producer and nightclub manager.

His finances wildly fluctuated over the years with the family living in both penthouses and rent-controlled apartments.

Barbara Walters, Lee Guber and their baby daughter.
Walters and second husband, Lee Guber, adopted a baby girl in 1968.
Courtesy Barbara Walters

In 1937, Walters opened his first nightclub, Latin Quarter, with partner E.M. Loew. The venture took his entire savings; on opening night he had only 63 cents to his name.

The club turned out to be a huge hit and he opened a Latin Quarter nightclub in Times Square. This too was tremendously successful.

He later opened up a nightclub called Cafe de Paris, which was a failure. Facing bankruptcy, Lou attempted suicide in June 1958, which his family covered up by telling the press that he had suffered a heart attack.

Barbara Walters and daughter, Jackie.
Walters named her daughter Jackie, after her sister.
Ron Galella Collection via Getty

After his release from the hospital, Lou moved the family down to Miami and all of his assets in New York were seized to pay creditors. He was sued by the city for failure to pay income taxes and began missing court dates because he didn’t have the funds to pay for airfare from Miami to New York.

A judge even issued a warrant for his arrest but as Walters revealed in her memoir, she contacted an old pal — infamous New York lawyer Roy Cohn — who got the charges dropped and the case settled within a week.

Barbara Walter speaking with a mic.
Walter died on Friday at age 93.
Getty Images

Lou died of a heart attack in 1977.

“Much of the need I had to prove myself, to achieve, to provide, to protect, can be traced to my feelings about Jackie,” Walters wrote. “But there must be something more, the “something” that makes one need to excel.

“Some may call it ambition. I can live with that. Some may call it insecurity, although that is such a boring, common label, like being called shy, that means little. But as I look back, it feels to me that my life has been one long audition—an attempt to make a difference and to be accepted.”

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