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- November 07, 1983
- Vol. 20
- No. 19
The Two Faces of a Newswoman
In the Wake of Her Death, Everything People Thought Jessica Savitch Was, She Wasn't
Almost seven hours later the bodies of Jessica Savitch and Martin Fischbein were pulled from the Delaware Canal. According to the county coroner's office, in the rain, fog and darkness Fischbein mistook a dirt road for the exit and followed along the canal. The car flipped and plunged upside down into the water only 200 yards from Chez Odette. Cause of death: asphyxiation by drowning.
It was a sudden, shocking end to a celebrated newscaster whose life consisted of public triumphs and personal tragedies. In the last three years Savitch had suffered a divorce from her first husband, the suicide of her second and the crushing disappointment of a miscarriage. Says Mort Crim, who co-anchored a local Philadelphia TV newscast with Savitch in her pre-network days, "She attracted tragedy like a magnet."
Increasingly, those misfortunes clouded her career and well-being. What mattered most to Savitch was not her private world but the public arena of television. "She was, more than anyone I have ever met, somebody who lived to be on TV," says a Washington colleague. Jessica was seen as a pioneer with class, sass and savvy; on-camera she projected poise and privilege. But offscreen Savitch was far less tranquil. Says writer Barbara King, who worked on Savitch's 1982 autobiography, Anchor-woman (but who later quit the project), "She was none of what people thought she was."
As a master of image, Savitch often managed to keep her troubles from even her closest friends. But when those problems infringed upon her very visible job, she could not hide them. Despite her rise since joining the network in 1977, the NBC star-maker machinery had stalled on Jessica recently. Last August she was replaced by Connie Chung as the Saturday anchor of the weekend news. At the time of her death, her nightly exposure had been limited to about 45 seconds as anchor of the prime-time news capsule.
In that role, too, Savitch came under fire. On Oct. 3, in an episode that drew wide press attention, Savitch slurred words on the air and ad-libbed her report, which then ran long. When a network exec conferred with Savitch, she blamed a malfunctioning TelePrompTer. Her agent, Ed Hookstratten, offers a different explanation. He claims that Jessica had suffered a deviated septum when a sailboat boom struck her in the face during her vacation last summer. Shortly thereafter Dr. Jack Sheen of Los Angeles performed reconstructive surgery on her nose. "She was still in pain and had a considerable reaction to the accident and surgery," says Dr. Sheen, who noted that "the usual pain medication would be codeine" for this operation. "She probably had returned two weeks too soon," Hookstratten says. "The lights were hot, she hadn't eaten, and she was weak." Jessica got through the second update without incident that evening.
Nevertheless, that episode started speculation about drug use, specifically cocaine. After the on-air foul-up, one staffer at NBC headquarters in New York defaced a photograph of Savitch by taping a straw to her nose. "It was a common rumor," says an NBC producer. Barbara King believes it. Although Savitch claimed during their nine months' work together that she never used drugs, King says, "I saw the cocaine. I saw pipes and other drug paraphernalia. I saw her at times when I thought she was so doped up that I was scared to be in her presence."
Some of those closest to Savitch have no knowledge of drug use—her close friend Rita Rappaport, for one, Hookstratten for another. "If she had a glass of wine a week, that was a lot for her," he says. Even NBC Sports producer Ron Kershaw, who had an on-again, off-again, live-in relationship with Savitch, discounts the cocaine charge. "Cocaine was not her problem," he says. "Ambition was her problem. And that's much worse than any drug."
Ambition is what made Savitch run. The eldest of three daughters born to David and Florence Savitch, Jessica grew up in Kennett Square, Pa. David, a clothing merchant, kept close track of current events. In Anchorwoman, she declares, "It was to win his approval that I began to follow news events." His death when Jessica was 12 had a profound impact on her, and friend Rappaport traces Savitch's ambition to her father's encouragement. "She often said, 'My father said I could do it.' "
When she was a high school sophomore, she got a career boost from another man. She visited a classmate who was working as a disc jockey on a show called Teenville at a Pleasantville, N.J. radio station. Soon she landed a job on the same show. At Ithaca College in Upstate New York, Savitch first encountered male chauvinism in her profession; as a communications major, she was told by a male faculty adviser, "There's no place for broads in broadcasting."
Jessica proved otherwise. She worked as a researcher for CBS-Radio, then was hired in 1970 by KHOU-TV in Houston. Three months later she became the first anchorwoman in the South, winning the vacant weekend slot. But whatever the milestone, Jessica relentlessly sought a higher profile, a wider audience, a bigger market. "I never knew anybody who worked as hard," says Judy Girard, Savitch's college roommate and now a TV program director in Pittsburgh. "From the beginning, from college on, she never had a personal life." During this apprentice period, Savitch also received a continuing education in sexism: As she once recalled, "One TV executive told me you couldn't put a woman on the 11 o'clock news because that's when wives look their worst, so they would be jealous. Those were really the dark ages."
In 1972 Savitch segued from Houston to Philadelphia, where she eventually co-anchored the local evening news and helped raise the program's ratings from third to first. Then came the most prized stepping-stone: a 1977 offer from NBC to cover the U.S. Senate and anchor the Sunday network news.
Despite Savitch's meteoric rise at the network, her behind-the-scenes performance was not stellar. Her reports from Capitol Hill were considered thorough but not exceptional. "She is not an oracle," admitted one NBC exec at the time. Some colleagues felt that she hadn't earned anchor status by training in the correspondent trenches. Savitch was later reassigned "to broaden her experience," as then NBC bureau chief Don Meaney diplomatically put it. But whatever reservations the honchos had about her reporting skills, no one denied her popularity with the affiliates. Jessica courted them, and their approval secured her place at the network. In fact, says an insider, "One reason NBC got the okay from affiliates to do the updates was that Jessica would do them."
As Savitch's fortunes rose, so did her fears and demands. She sparred frequently and vocally with writers, producers and crews. "She was so uptight," says one producer in Savitch's defense, "that she was perceived as being bitchy but she wanted the presentation to be perfect." And even her most severe critics saw that Savitch had a special communion with the camera, which was why the network asked her to sub for John Chancellor and Tom Brokaw on occasion.
In a sense, Savitch was both a creation and a casualty of the medium. "She felt she had to live out the mythology of TV and be all-wise, all-knowing, as her audiences wanted her to be," says David Fanning, executive producer of PBS's Frontline series, which Savitch hosted earlier this year. Savitch herself once complained that the timing of her rise put her in a no-win situation. "First I got hit with 'You can't have the job because you're a woman.' Then I got hit with 'You only got the job because you're a woman.' "
Trailblazing took a toll, particularly on Savitch's personal life. Three years ago her close friend, newscaster Sue Simmons, observed, "Socially, Jessica is probably age 25." In 1980 Savitch surprised her pals by marrying Melvin Korn, a Philadelphia advertising man 17 years her senior. "They lived in two separate worlds, not to mention different cities," says TV producer Helene Swertlow, a friend who also once dated Korn. "Frankly, she had more on the ball than he did." Rita Rappaport concurs: "I guess she figured it all out by herself very shortly." Savitch divorced Korn 14 months after the wedding.
In March 1981 she went down the aisle again, with Dr. Donald Payne, who was her gynecologist. About four months after their marriage, Savitch suffered a miscarriage. Savitch later told friends that Payne blamed the miscarriage on her hectic schedule. On Aug. 2, 1981 Payne hanged himself in the basement of their Embassy Park Drive house in Washington. Savitch found him on returning home.
That tragedy sent Jessica into a tailspin. "After that, she was never quite the same," says one close friend. Agrees Barbara King: "She wanted it to work and I think she loved him as much as she could love someone." Following the funeral, Savitch retreated to the home of her former co-anchor Mort Crim in Grosse Pointe, Mich. But she stayed only a week before returning to work. Her sleep was ruined by nightmares; the studio was her sanctuary. "It was as if she had no other existence outside of when the red light was on," says a New York colleague.
Last summer Savitch's presence in front of that light seemed threatened by the arrival of Connie Chung and the expiration of Jessica's three-year contract at a reported $500,000 annually. Colleagues noted that on-screen she was beginning to look far older than her 36 years. "She's aged 10 years in the last five," said one. In fact, her contract had been renewed and was being typed for her signature last week. Next January she was to reclaim an anchor spot subbing for Chris Wallace on Sundays. According to Today show producer Steve Friedman, "Savitch was high on the list" of replacements for Jane Pauley, who is taking a maternity leave later this month. She had been promised a visible spot during the upcoming election coverage. She was set for another season of Frontline on PBS.
And apparently she had made personal satisfaction a priority again. "Jessica was just starting to enjoy herself," says an NBC producer. And enjoy the company of Fischbein, a vice-president of the New York Post. Although they only had dated a few weeks, "he had a settling effect on her," says a colleague. According to Fischbein's former girlfriend Stephani Cook, "He didn't do drugs and he wouldn't tolerate them."
According to Jessica's confidants, she still held out hope for a lasting marriage and children. "I talked to her last week," says Crim, who, as a friend of long standing, gave the eulogy at her funeral in Margate, N.J. "She sounded better. She was almost bubbling with optimism about her career and her life. She was dating a very nice guy, and the career was looking good, she said."
To her close friend Ron Kershaw, Jessica's passing was particularly painful and poignant. "She was a well-principled person," he said. "She wished Edward R. Murrow was still alive. She believed in that myth—and it's not true—that you can do right and it's enough." But if Savitch ever felt compromised by her ideals, ambition or all-consuming career, she did not show it. The most she would ever admit to was ambivalence. As she put it, "There has not been a single moment in my career when I didn't say, 'Is this all there is?' Yep, this is all there is. Nothing is all you think it will be. But it really ain't so bad, is it?"
- Richard K. Rein,
- Margie Bonnett Sellinger,
- Leah Rozen,
- Jane Hall,
- Lee Wohlfert-Wihlborg,
- Susan Deutsch,
- Greg Walter.
March 30, 2015
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