Sitting at the anchor desk of his new $30 million studio overlooking Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, Bryant Gumbel was about to segue into a commercial. "Varying definitions of art are next. We'll take a break here. This is Today—" he announced, then burst into laughter. "I'm sorry," corrected the normally unflappable Gumbel, "this is The Early Show on CBS!"

The man could be forgiven his inevitable slip. After all, he spent 15 years as the hard-charging host of NBC's Today show before departing in 1997, and this was only his fifth day on his new job. Getting by on four hours' sleep a night ("Sleep is terribly overrated," he says), Gumbel, 51, has been rising at 4:10 a.m. in the Manhattan luxury high-rise he shares with his girlfriend, Hilary Quinlan, 39, and reporting to the studio by 6. There, teamed with cohost Jane Clayson, 32, a former ABC News correspondent hand-picked by Gumbel from 500 candidates, CBS's $5 million man has been trying to breathe fresh life into the network's morning program, a perennial ratings cadaver. News legends Walter Cronkite and Mike Wallace couldn't, but Gumbel is willing to try. "I enjoy a challenge," he says.

That's a helpful coincidence, because this challenge is the size of Trump Tower. By most accounts he's off to a promising start. Never mind the bumpy Nov. 1 debut, in which Mariah Carey, The Early Show's highly touted opening-day guest, defected to top-rated Today ("I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed," says Gumbel). Or the off-camera distractions of a reported feud between Gumbel and his former Today cohost Katie Couric. TV critics, at least, liked Bryant just fine. "I find his prickliness appealing," wrote USA Today's Robert Bianco, evoking Gumbel's reputation as a hard-nosed-interviewer. And The Washington Post's Tom Shales raved that he brings to the show "instant credibility, class and clout."

But so far, not colossal ratings. Despite a 20 percent jump in viewership over its previous incarnation, CBS This Morning, Early still trails Today and Good Morning America by 3.47 million and 1.34 million souls, respectively. "I know that this is going to be a long haul," Gumbel says. "We're still finding our way."

If the smooth anchorman once known as No-Stumble Gumbel is proceeding with caution, it may be because of the failure of his last big TV venture, CBS's Public Eye. The little-watched newsmagazine—his first foray into prime time—got axed after one season (1997-98), and Gumbel accepts part of the blame. "I'm not a guy who enjoys taped TV," he says. "By the time I put it on the air, I didn't feel anything for it. So the work may have been as flat as my emotions."

"He doesn't dwell on that stuff," says a friend, Today weatherman Al Roker. "With him it was, 'Okay, I did it, it didn't work, next.' " Still, the black eye Gumbel received from Public Eye seems to have tempered his cockiness. "I don't want to prove I'm the toughest kid in the neighborhood," he says. "I used to try to fight everybody in the bar. But..."—his voice trails off—"I'm not interested in doing that anymore."

Nevertheless, Gumbel appeared to be in battle mode last month when, in a New York Times profile, he took potshots at old partner Couric, noting the failure of her own newsmagazine Now in 1997 and the high turnover rate among her personal assistants. "Somebody who shall remain nameless went through five in five years," he said in the interview.

Couric remained mum after the Times piece ran, and Gumbel now sounds conciliatory. "I understand that some people would think we ought to do a pay-per-view steel-cage match here," he says. "Katie and I had a good professional relationship, and anything beyond that is just so much bunk."

"The truth is, he didn't care about her at all," says one insider. "That drove her crazy. When the host-cohost thing happened with them"—Couric, who succeeded Deborah Norville in 1991, found herself designated as cohost to Gumbel's host—"she fought it like mad."

Matt Lauer, her current cohost, once sized up his golfing buddy this way: "If Bryant is your friend, then you have a friend for the rest of your life. If Bryant is your enemy, you probably should join the Witness Protection Program. And it's that [quality] in Bryant that I think people either love or hate."

Love abounded at a prelaunch cocktail party for The Early Show at New York City's Plaza Hotel on Oct. 26. Lauer showed up, along with GMA's Diane Sawyer. They and CBS demigods Mike Wallace and Dan Rather hugged the beaming Gumbel and did the same to the willowy blonde at his side. Lest there be any doubt about her importance to him, Gumbel spelled it out Nov. 4 to PBS talk show host Charlie Rose. "I've a woman in my life by the name of Hilary Quinlan, who I'm nuts about," he said, "who is good for me and who I'm very, very happy with."

The two struck up a friendship in Chicago during one of Gumbel's trips to his hometown. Quinlan was a research assistant in the equity sales department of Goldman Sachs. They corresponded for a year before even dating, says a friend. Gumbel began introducing her around in 1997, after he was separated from his wife, June. They were an established couple by Oct. 3,1998, when she accompanied him to Matt Lauer's wedding, where Gumbel was best man. Earlier this year, Quinlan quit her job of six years to join him in New York.

"It looks really serious," says Pamela Fiori, editor-in-chief of Town & Country and a friend of Gumbel's since 1983. The relationship, however, does not sit well with June Gumbel, 51, a onetime flight attendant who married him in 1973. "People just accept infidelity from celebrities like it's okay or fashionable—I think it's disgusting," she says, speaking out for the first time since she and Gumbel separated in 1997. "I don't think you can have happiness with someone else on the pain you've caused your family."

"I've never said an unkind word about June," Gumbel told Charlie Rose. "But I'm very happy now. I'm at a different place in my life."

Though a source close to Gumbel says he has been seeking a divorce for the past two years, his wife does not appear ready to give him one. "I'm a very devout Catholic—I find it difficult to dissolve a marriage. I am just as married as I was 26 years ago," says June, who is not dating and who shares the couple's Westchester County, N.Y., home and Manhattan townhouse with son Bradley, 20, a junior at New York's Manhattanville College, and daughter Jillian, 16, a high school junior. "We're doing fine," says June.

"I know [the separation] must have hurt them, but he is still very close to his children," says Gumbel's mother, Rhea, 79, a retired city clerk in Chicago. (His father, Richard, a probate judge, died of a heart attack in 1972.) And Bryant remains close to his mother, despite a reported past estrangement. In a 1988 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED profile of her son, Rhea complained, "He's distanced himself not only from me but from the whole family"—including brother Greg, 53, a CBS sportscaster, and kid sisters Renee, a homemaker, and Rhonda, a speech therapist. "I'm just trying to forget I have him."

True enough at the time, the family feud is apparently ancient history. "We all get along fine now," says Rhea. "Bryant comes at least once a month to see me, and we go to dinner." Gumbel also sees his siblings now and then. "When I'm in New York, I go to dinner with him whenever I can," says Greg, who lives in Orlando. "We each have better friends than we are to each other, but I love him. We get along fine."

Gumbel also gets along with his former Today family, Couric notwithstanding. To Jane Pauley, who preceded Deborah Norville and Couric as Gumbel's cohost from 1982 to 1989, working with him was "like having the brother you're close to and you want to do well but maybe not better than you," says Pauley with a laugh. "I would tease him wickedly. The thing I liked best about Bryant was how vulnerable he would allow himself to be for a man who is such a control freak. I always felt flattered that he felt safe around me. We don't get together much, but when we do, we have deep lunches."

"We talk about serious stuff," says Gumbel of their lengthy restaurant sojourns, "about aging, about feelings, about fears, about failings."

"He thinks about mortality," says Tom Brokaw, the NBC Nightly News anchor. "He'll say, 'Hey, T, did you ever think about how we only have about 16 good summers left?' "

If so, Gumbel seems to be making the most of the time remaining. "He's a serious foodie and into wine," says Martha Stewart, a former Today regular who now appears on The Early Show. Agrees ABC's Elizabeth Vargas, a Today news reader in the Gumbel era: "I was Bryant's guest at Thanksgiving last year, and he cooked the entire meal." When he's not dining in, Gumbel, a member of two suburban New York country clubs, is usually out golfing with friends like Lauer, who also shares Gumbel's taste in fashion. "They love to go shoe shopping together," says Brokaw.

Lauer was there for his friend last winter when Gumbel, who had been mulling over whether to take the Early Show job, "kind of looked at me and said, 'Well, what should I do?' " recalls Lauer. Over the next hour, he says, "we talked about our friendship and how it might be impacted" by going head-to-head as rivals. They finally agreed to say only nice things about each other's shows.

Might this be a sign of what friends have called a new, mellower Bryant? "I don't know," says Gumbel in his office. "Maybe. When you're a young guy and somebody cuts you off on the highway, you chase them down and give them the finger. As you get older, you kind of smile and go . .." He shrugs and grins. "In that respect I'm not that much different than anyone else. I'm just a happy person in who I am and what I have accomplished."

Michael A. Lipton
Diane Clehane in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Diane Clehane.