Peter Jennings Had a Lot of Miles on Him Before Wife Kati Made Him a Stay-at-Home
02/13/1984 at 01:00 AM EST
When Kati Marton arrived in London in 1977 en route to her job in Germany as an ABC reporter, she was already wary of Peter Jennings, then the network's dashing chief foreign correspondent. With his well-tailored trench coat and manicured, movie-star looks, the newsman had a solid reputation as a globe-trotting heartbreaker. "Everywhere I went for ABC, I met women with terrible Peter Jennings stories to tell," says Marton, 35. "I didn't want to be one of them."
Despite such intentions, Marton grew attracted to Jennings, now the anchorman on ABC's World News Tonight. Accepting his "innocent" (so he claims) invitation to a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, she discovered a man wholly unlike the brash womanizer she had expected. Underneath his formal speech and elegant attire "he was not at all like James Bond." Recalls Kati: "He was a rural-born Canadian with incredible energy and a childlike curiosity about the world."
Jennings was similarly smitten with the cosmopolitan Marton. "I was impressed by her brisk stride and her rich mind," he says of that night. "She could talk intelligently about every subject from politics to literature." After a two-year, long-distance romance (he flew to Bonn from London nearly every weekend to be with her), they married in London. Jennings, 45, once wed to childhood sweetheart Valerie Godsoe and later to photographer Annie Malouf, seems to have met his permanent match. "I regret my mistakes in my previous marriages," he says, "but now I can't imagine being married to anyone but Kati." Observes CBS newsman Tom Fenton, a longtime friend of Jennings: 'They're both sincere people, there's no 'side' to them, as the British say. And they have a very romantic relationship."
After 15½ years as a roving correspondent (he was London-based for seven-and-a-half years), Jennings was summoned home last summer to fill in for ailing anchorman Frank Reynolds. Three weeks after Reynolds died, Jennings officially won the job. This was his second chance at one of the most glamorous desk jobs in TV journalism and, at $900,000 a year, certainly one of the most lucrative. Once criticized for being too erudite to play in Peoria, Jennings' on-air style now is strictly no-nonsense as he wages his beautiful-head-to-beautiful-head ratings race with CBS's aggressive Dan Rather and NBC's folksy Tom Brokaw.
Jennings downplays the "unnecessary hoopla" surrounding the anchorman's job but concedes that viewers' allegiances can mean millions in advertising revenues. "This is a personality-oriented medium," he says. "Whatever my qualifications as a journalist, I can't control how people will respond to me on TV." So far they seem to be responding well. Historically mired in last place, ABC has been slugging it out with NBC for second place since 1981, and Jennings is credited with beefing up the network's foreign coverage. "I'd like to beat the competition," he says. "But if ABC decides after a year and a half that this isn't working, I can always go back to reporting."
Kati, an accomplished writer, gave up a promising career as an on-camera reporter when they married, and bridles when labeled Mrs. Peter Jennings. Her first book, Wallenberg, published in 1982, was a highly praised account of the Swedish diplomat who rescued thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazis before mysteriously disappearing at the end of World War II. Her next book, a political novel set in Eastern Europe, is due out at the end of this year, and she contributes a regular column to the London Sunday Times. "It's sort of a New York journal," she explains.
While writing remains her professional passion, raising their children, Elizabeth, 4, and Christopher, 1, is her private one. "This may date me as a feminist," she says, "but I think that at this stage, somebody should be home with the children."
The Jennings are clearly enjoying their status as one of New York's most sought-after couples, but Kati is more at ease in the social swirl. "I'm self-conscious at parties," admits Jennings. "My idea of a great time is dinner alone with Kati." Once reluctant to move to New York, he rides the bus to work and finds the city "friendlier and more neighborly" than he expected. The couple lives in an East Side five-story brownstone, which they rent from Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin. "I'm a street-corner talker," Jennings observes. "It's rather nice to have someone yell, 'Hi, Pete.' " Still, Kati misses the anonymity of London, where American TV journalists can roam unnoticed. "In New York every outing is a public one," she says. "I get impatient sometimes with Peter because he doesn't know how to be friendly but cut it short." To escape from the pressures of his high-stakes job, the family retreats each weekend to a sprawling rented house on Long Island. "That's where we really relax," says Kati. Peter's week-night sartorial splendor gives way to his "total slob" look of an old pair of khaki shorts, work socks and a sweater.
Like many modern fathers, Peter is taking an intense interest in raising his offspring. Elizabeth is a "regular fixture" in his Manhattan newsroom, and Christopher blurts out "Daddy!" when he sees Jennings' image on TV. But Peter is conscious of not letting his professional standing go to their heads. When Elizabeth pasted a newspaper ad featuring her father's picture onto the refrigerator, Peter replaced it with the children's drawings. "That's what belongs there," he says.
"This is an arrogant thing to say, but I'm terrific with children," Jennings continues. "Diapering came naturally to me." Friends say family life has mellowed him. "At 40, he had a tremendous desire to be a father," says Tom Fenton. Indeed, Jennings becomes an old softy when he talks about his children. "I used to be a guy who took the office home with me," he says. "One day I remember coming home and seeing Elizabeth's tiny hand reaching out to me through the bars of her crib. The office was forgotten."
The son of Charles Jennings, a prominent Canadian broadcaster, Peter was to the anchor born, in Toronto. At age 10, he had his own radio show, Peter's Program. A dismal student, he dropped out of high school to become a radio reporter in Brockville, Ont., and in 1962 he became a co-anchor of a Canadian TV news show. In 1964, with little reporting experience, he was hired by youth-crazed ABC and months later became, at 26, the youngest person ever to anchor a network newscast. "I was the youngest one around who had all his adult teeth," wisecracks Jennings. His ego inflated, and he became the object of sniping from TV critics and his more seasoned colleagues. But after three years Jennings, to his credit, asked for a new assignment. He spent the next 15½ years earning his broadcasting pinstripes as a correspondent and the foreign-desk anchorman for ABC. His deft coverage of world hot spots, including the Iranian hostage crisis and the terrorist takeover of the 1972 Munich Olympics, helped build his reputation among his peers. "In a job that is 90 percent showbiz, Peter is 80 percent journalist," says one colleague. Observes Kati: "Peter's looks were almost like a hunchback to him. He tried twice as hard as his colleagues, just to overcome his image. Now he knows that he's the anchor because he has the experience and skills for the job." Besides, she adds, "He's gotten bags under his eyes, and he's lost a little hair, which I find very appealing."
Kati, daughter of Hungarian journalists Endre and Ilona Nyilas Marton, was born in Budapest and "grew up to the music of typewriters." Her father was the Hungarian correspondent for the Associated Press, her mother for United Press. In 1955 Kati's parents were convicted on trumped-up charges of being CIA spies and imprisoned. Kati, then 7, and her sister Julia, 9, now deputy director of the International Council of Scientific Unions in Paris, were placed in a home for children of political prisoners. "I'm pretty conservative on the Soviets," she says. "There's nothing more graphic than seeing your parents taken away."
Shortly before the Hungarian revolt in 1956, her parents were released during a political thaw, and in 1957 the family fled to Austria before emigrating to Washington, D.C. "As an 11-year-old who didn't know English and didn't look like other children, I felt I had to work very hard to succeed," says Kati, whose clothes and mannerisms gave her the "aura of a refugee." She graduated from George Washington University in 1971 with a master's degree in international affairs and worked for National Public Radio in Washington before becoming a TV reporter for the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia. "People ask if I have yearnings to go back to TV," she says, "but I think I've gotten it out of my system. For me, writing is much riskier—and more rewarding." Jennings is very much a fan of his wife's work: "She could write three stories in a taxi between the airport and the news bureau."
For the moment the family is adjusting well to a frantic life-style. "We're living our lives on fast forward," says Kati. That's partly because when a network beckons, it's awfully hard to say no. "However much people may denigrate the anchor slot, the truth is it's a big job—and there are only three of them," she observes. "The only drawback is that you lose little pieces of yourself to it." Jennings, however, has not yet lost the romantic flourishes that punctuated their courtship. When a recent out-of-town assignment forced him to miss the weekend family get-together, he sent Kati a large bouquet of lilies, irises and roses. The gesture did not go unappreciated. "I was so touched," she says, laughing, "that I went out and took his dirty shirts to the laundry."