Local gay man pens memoirs

Walter R. Newkirk has spent almost 40 years promoting celebrities and their books. Now he finds himself in the unaccustomed position of promoting his own book.

He recently wrote “The Secret Life of Walter Newkirk,” a 232-page memoir that celebrates his victory over personal challenges, including addiction, mental illness, destitution and near-homelessness.

“It’s a page-turner,” Newkirk told PGN. “I’ve had a crazy life. I guarantee, you won’t be bored.”

He said the theme of his book is survival.

“The book is ultimately about survival, being bullied as a youth, coming out as a gay man,” he said. “After my family abandoned me, I had to find a family among my friends.”

Newkirk was born in Philadelphia on Aug. 8, 1954, at Temple University Hospital. He lived in Elkins Park until the age of 7, when his family moved to Mt. Laurel, N.J.

He currently lives in Chatham, N.J.

Interspersed in Newkirk’s narrative are vignettes of his numerous encounters with the rich and famous, beginning when he was a teenager.

“The first star I met was Rex Reed on ‘The Mike Douglas Show.’ To meet him in person was a thrill for me,” Newkirk said.

He also has a clear memory of watching Gene London, host of the long-running Philadelphia children’s show “Cartoon Corner’s General Store.”

Newkirk considers himself very fortunate to have met London in 2002.

“I grew up with him [on TV],” Newkirk explained. “In Philly, the people I escaped to were Gene London, Pixanne and Sally Starr. For me to meet Gene London and have lunch with him in Atlantic City in a casino in 2002 was memorable.”

Other stars with whom Newkirk became captivated as a youth include Julie Andrews and Barbra Streisand. So far, he hasn’t had the good fortune to meet either woman.

“There’s still time,” he quipped.

Newkirk fondly recalls watching musicals as a youth, including “The Sound of Music,” “Funny Girl,” “Mary Poppins,” “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” and “Hello Dolly.”

“They were at the Midtown Theater in Philadelphia. Our family had reserved seats. I still have all the souvenir programs. That’s where I discovered Barbra.”

He added: “I lost myself in movie musicals. I guess it was my way of dealing with being bullied as a child.”

A large part of Newkirk’s book spotlights his decades-long friendship with Pat Loud, the star of television’s first reality show, “An American Family.”

Loud’s family, including her openly gay son Lance, became well-known in 1973 as a result of the PBS series.

Newkirk met Pat Loud in 1974, while he was a student at Rutgers University, majoring in human and mass communications.

“The reason I came out was because of ‘An American Family,’” Newkirk said. “I found it astonishing that there was a gay person on TV and the family accepted it. That was unheard of on TV.”

In 1976, Newkirk began another life-altering friendship — with “Little Edie” Beale, a first cousin of Jacqueline Onassis, who gained prominence via the documentary “Grey Gardens.”

“I did an interview with Edie shortly before I graduated from Rutgers, and we became fast friends for the rest of her life,” he recalled. “I loved Edie, and my many fond memories of her are an important part of the book.”

As a publicist, he’s promoted a wide variety of celebrities, and the books they wrote. “I primarily earned my money by booking satellite TV tours for authors like Jane Fonda, Martha Stewart and Sandra Bullock.”

Other celebrities featured in his book include Eartha Kitt, Cher, Lena Horne, Sarah Jessica Parker, Arlene Dahl, Divine, Connie Francis, Jessica Lange, Jon Voight and Bette Midler.

“The most pleasant and professional person I worked with was Sarah Jessica Parker. She has great breeding and manners.”

Newkirk’s book contains only kind and supportive words about the celebrities he’s encountered.

“I never met a star that was really nasty and mean,” he noted. “To meet Pat Loud, Divine and Edie Beale was major for me. And Jon Voight. What a great guy.”

Newkirk knew Olympia Dukakis before she became famous, and writes about that friendship as well.

“She was the artistic director of a regional theater company in Montclair, N.J., where I worked as a publicist. I worked there from 1978 to 1980, and was thrilled to eventually see her become a major star.”

On a sad note, Newkirk was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1997. Over the years, he’s struggled with amphetamine and alcohol addiction, depression and suicide attempts.

“The doctors put me on all different kinds of medications: Wellbutrin, Zoloft, Xanax,” he said. “They put me on so many meds, I tried to commit suicide twice.”

Still, he managed to survive 17 years of being misdiagnosed and overmedicated, he said.

“I’m finally free of all antidepressants. I’ve been off them for almost a year, and feel great. I’ve never been more focused and organized. If they work for other people, that’s fine. But they didn’t work for me.”

Newkirk hopes his book will inspire other people to get off antidepressants, if appropriate.

“I would suggest that people do it with the assistance of a doctor. I did it on my own. Thank God there were no withdrawal symptoms for me.”

Additionally, he survived two long-term relationships that took a toll.

“I was not good in relationships,” he said. “Twenty years of my life I spent living with other men. Guess what? I like being single. It took me 10 years to realize being single is OK. I’m happier than I’ve ever been.”

Newkirk’s book is self-published.

“A company in Los Angeles printed the book, and I’m selling it myself. It will be on Amazon in a month or two. But it will cost more money.”

The price of the book is $25, and Newkirk will autograph copies upon request.

To order a copy, contact Newkirk at [email protected] or call 973-635-2986.

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Tim Cwiek has been writing for PGN since the 1970s. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from West Chester State University. In 2013, he received a Sigma Delta Chi Investigative Reporting Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his reporting on the Nizah Morris case. Cwiek was the first reporter for an LGBT media outlet to win an award from that national organization. He's also received awards from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, the National Newspaper Association, and the Keystone Press.