Change of Venue

updated 01/17/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/17/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

OH, DOGGIES!" THAT'S COURT TV ANCHOR-producer Cynthia McFadden's favorite expression, uttered with a surprising burst of girlish enthusiasm. Granted, it's not quite the same as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg's concluding an opinion with, "Wow, neat!"—but it's close. Consider the swift ascent of this bright, articulate, 37-year-old journalist. After only two years providing trial commentary—and a mere six months in Prime Time Justice's anchor seat, where she recaps the day's gavel-to-gavel coverage—McFadden is hot enough that ABC has stolen her away. She becomes the network's law-and-justice correspondent in February. This Sunday (Jan. 16), she is up for two ACE cable awards, one for her newscaster duties and the other for a Jean Harris documentary on which she was both host and producer. "Oh, doggies!" is right.

Two other words figure in McFadden's sudden rise: Erik and Lyle. Court TV's coverage of the sensational trials of the Menendez brothers has put the young cable network on the map. McFadden, at home in her Manhattan apartment, has had a beeper attached to her L.L. Bean jeans, awaiting a verdict.

"It'll probably be a hung jury," was her prediction last week. McFadden is wary of gelling more specific than that. "I really am trying to be impartial," she says. But cautious isn't the same as dull. Says her close pal and Court TV junkie, writer-director Nora Ephron: "Cynthia can provide hours of brilliant analysis on not just one trial but maybe three or four at the same lime." McFadden's own lake on her skills is homespun: "I'm talking to my parents back home in Maine."

There, in Cundys Harbor, Warren McFadden, 72, a retired supervisor for New England Telephone and Telegraph, and his wife, Arlene, 69, can't gel cable—they've had to install a satellite dish to watch their daughter, whom they adopted when she was 3 days old. "They made me feel I could do anything," says Cynthia. Reading and skiing were encouraged, and television thoroughly discouraged, except for the evening news. "I watched Waller Cronkite, and when he talked about L.A., I thought he meant Lewiston-Auburn [Maine's twin cities]," says McFadden, whose dream was to follow in Uncle Walter's footsteps. At Bowdoin College in Brunswick, she was news editor of both the student newspaper and radio station and host of a local talk show on cable.

In her sophomore year at college, though, she was first felled by "George"—her nickname for Crohn's disease, a chronic inflammatory disorder that attacks the intestines. The pain, she remembers, was so searing "I grew my fingernails really long so I could dig them into myself while I was in class." The nickname came from friends. "They weren't going to say, 'Did you have 15 diarrhea attacks today?' So instead they'd ask me, 'How's George?' " He was at his brutal worst in 1979, a year after she graduated. She began bleeding internally and had to have 15 feet of intestine surgically removed. The disease has been in remission since then. Says McFadden: "I decided a long lime ago I wasn't going to live my life around George."

Regaining her stride, in 1981 she enrolled at Columbia University School of Law in Manhattan and took journalism courses as well. Regarding law school, she says, "I hated it with unbounded passion." Her love for journalism, though, carried her forward professionally, as she went on to produce current-events programs, mostly for PBS. The law degree, of course, has proved invaluable at Mew York City-based Court TV, a low-key operation where the anchor doesn't wear shoes on the set. "I talk more conversationally when I don't wear them," she says.

Ironically, McFadden's competition for the ACE includes her close friend Katharine Hepburn, nominated for All About Me, an autobiographical documentary. McFadden first met Hepburn in Connecticut 20 years ago while visiting a Bowdoin classmate. They became so chummy that Hepburn took to jokingly referring to McFadden as her illegitimate daughter and was host at her 1989 wedding to newspaperman Michael Davies. (The couple has been separated since last summer. "I'll always be devoted to him," she says. "It just didn't work.") But McFadden isn't remotely worried about competing with her friend; she has more pressing concerns. Like, for example, how to dress for the ceremony. "I'm in trouble," she says. "L.L. Bean doesn't sell formal wear."

TOM GLIATTO
SUE CARSWELL in New York City

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