In Love and War
09/30/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT
THEY MET AT SERIAL KILLER TED Bundy's execution, renewed acquaintance in war-torn Panama and got serious during Iraqi Scud attacks. So when CNN correspondents Charles Jaco and Patricia Neal got married, it didn't figure to be a quiet news day. "The second Russian revolution really blew a hole in the guest list," says Jaco, bemoaning the absence of CNN colleagues Wolf Blitzer and Bernard Shaw, who were busy covering the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Still, with the drumbeat of the new world order in the background, the nuptials went on. Following a campy rehearsal dinner for 120 at Graceland—it rents to parties for about $50 a person—Jaco, 41, and Neal, 35, were wed last week in the bride's hometown of Memphis. Neal, CNN's Cairo bureau chief until last July, wore a hand-beaded gown with gold and silver threads, custom-made in Egypt. Jaco, who gained renown and bushels of female fan mail for his Gulf war reports from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, traded his flak jacket for a tuxedo. (It was Neal's first and Jaco's second marriage. His first ended in divorce.) After the ceremony, the pair headed for a Smoky Mountain honeymoon. "It had to be American," explained Neal. "I didn't want any exotica."
Small wonder. The two have known little but hard news in hard places since first meeting as CNN correspondents covering Bundy's 1989 execution in Florida. "I thought, 'She's a knockout!' " recalls Jaco. Still, it wasn't until June of 1990 that he got the courage to ask her out. "We went for a beer with about 15 other people," remembers Neal. "Later he told me he had a crush on me." Within two months, however, Iraq had invaded Kuwait and Neal was transferred to Cairo. Aside from the occasional between-assignments visit, the two were left with "old-fashioned courting," jokes Jaco, "by letter, phone and fax."
When Neal visited Jaco in Miami during the Christmas holidays last year, he was ready to take the plunge. "He started this whole long spiel about how much I meant to him and how much he enjoyed our time together, and then he pulled out this diamond," Neal remembers. She declined. "It was too soon," she says. Jaco tried again when he passed through Cairo on the way to his new assignment in Saudi Arabia, but Neal still wasn't ready.
Soon after the war began—with Iraqi missiles hurtling toward Saudi Arabia—Neal, in Cairo, turned on the TV to hear that Jaco's live report had suddenly been cut off during a Scud attack. No one knew what had happened to him. "All I kept telling myself was, 'You stupid fool, why didn't you say yes before?' " she recalls. Jaco came back on the air 40 minutes later (his hotel's electricity had been shut down, and he'd taken cover in the basement), but Neal remained chastened. "When you live through a crisis like that," she says, "it tells you real quick what's important." For Valentine's Day, Jaco sent her a Scud fragment. After the liberation of Kuwait in February, he asked the big question one more time. This time she accepted.
Now stationed together in Miami, Neal and Jaco are prepared for further separations. "The day she came back in the country after a year in Cairo, I shipped out to Havana," says Jaco, who reported a CNN series on Cuba. Nonetheless, they're determined to keep their careers in perspective. "Celebrity comes and goes," says Jaco. "Family and love go on long after people will have forgotten what CNN is."
CINDY DAMPIER in Miami