Out of the Abyss
07/01/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT
PAMELA CONSTABLE, A REPORTER for The Washington Post, was sitting in a cafe in the capital's largely Latino Adams-Morgan district when a street person approached, gaunt, gamy and peddling cast-off jewelry. Normally, Constable, now 44, might have looked away, but on this May morning in 1995, she was moved to meet the man eye to eye. "I did a double take," she recalls. "It took me a while to realize who he was." After a moment, it came to her: "Guillermo?"
Astonishingly, the derelict was once a distinguished newsman—Peruvian-born Guillermo Descalzi, perhaps the nation's most popular Latino broadcaster. From 1980 until 1994, seen widely in the United States and Latin America on the Spanish-language networks Univision and Telemundo, the multilingual Descalzi, now 49, cut an elegant figure in his Italian suits, traveling with the Pope, interviewing some 50 heads of state, reporting from the Persian Gulf.
But in 1994, Descalzi suddenly gave it all up. "Money, power, fame, position.... All of those are meaningless," he says now. "What I needed was to...find myself." He abandoned his career, his Chevy Chase, Md., penthouse, two Mercedes and his third marriage, for a homeless life in Adams-Morgan, pan-handling, drinking cheap liquor and smoking crack. Though Descalzi had used drugs to excess for years, he claims his was no slide into oblivion but a willful act. "I jumped into it," he says.
To hear Descalzi tell it, in his grandly elliptical way, he was a tortured soul, grappling to reconcile his glamorous public persona with "the basic common denominator" of his life. "After I had apparently succeeded beyond my wildest imaginings," he says of his career, "...I was becoming so dissociated from my real self that I had to stop.... It was very hard for me to just show myself as who I am."
Constable finds his explanation half true, half rationalization. "He was out there trying to do something," she says, "but the means became more powerful than the ends, which always happens with addiction." Last October she described Descalzi's shocking fall in the Post, and her piece seems to have brought about his resurrection: Miami-based ex-colleagues at Telemundo read it, persuaded him to enter rehab and, this spring, hired him as roving interviewer for a live TV newsmagazine.
His three ex-wives and five children remain largely unimpressed by Descalzi's strange odyssey. "He's been doing stupid things for a long time," complains son Javier, 26, of San Mateo, Calif., who says he often tried to get his father to seek help. "He knows very well how to...keep the attention on him. He's got an amazing gift."
Whoever he is now—struggling ex-addict or spiritual wanderer—Descalzi began life as a bookish youth in Lima, one of three children of schoolteacher parents. He attended the British Embassy school, where his father taught, then came to the U.S., earning a degree in anthropology and education from Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1966 and learning to enjoy marijuana.
Returning to Peru, Descalzi taught highland Indians and soon married his first wife, Elsa, now 48, a teacher, with whom he had Javier, daughter Nina, 25, now working at the Gap in San Mateo, and Patricia, 23, a homemaker in Hawaii. After a stormy relationship, Descalzi and Elsa separated in the mid-1970s—and divorced several years later. "He abandoned his kids," says Elsa. "He leaves a hole everywhere he goes."
Meanwhile, says Descalzi, he "fell in love with the camera" while kibitzing with a visiting BBC news crew. Having found a calling, Descalzi headed for San Francisco, where in 1975 he hooked on as a cameraman with KDTV, a new Spanish-language TV station. An interview with President Jimmy Carter led to a job as Washington correspondent with Univision, where Descalzi won fame as anchor of Temas y Debates (Themes and Debates), an interview show, and as a fixture in the White House press corps.
He was also, at various times, a heavy drinker and pot smoker. "After work he could become very wild," says Francisco Ginesta, ex-producer of Temas y Debates. "Then again he always got himself together...the next day."
Still, there were cracks in the veneer. Descalzi began making gaffes on the air. Once, while covering a Presidential debate, he embarrassed Virginia Sen. John Warner by introducing him as the ex-husband of Elizabeth Taylor. In the late 1980s, Descalzi began experiencing wild mood swings. "Family life began getting just near impossible," says Nancy Descalzi, whom the newsman had married in 1982 and with whom he has two daughters, Natalie, 13, and Vanessa, 10. The couple divorced in 1992, and the next year, Descalzi married his third wife, Cecilia.
By then his work had become erratic, and his drug problems were obvious even to Descalzi, who checked himself into a rehab center. But, according'to Cecilia, he quit his job in a huff when the network insisted he take drug tests. Descalzi claims that he just didn't get along with his boss. He moved to Telemundo, then to a Spanish-language division of NBC. In Mexico City, in the summer of 1994, Descalzi, apparently drunk, flew into a tirade in front of NBC executives. "He never went to work again," recalls Cecilia. Instead, says Descalzi, who soon left the marriage as well, "I really came to discover...in the streets, how God really loves you."
In Descalzi's case the Lord moved in strange ways. "I was perpetually hungry and perpetually cold or hot," he says. "I was assaulted five times with a knife, twice with pistols. I was knocked out twice, once with an iron bar." He spent most nights in a burned-out mansion, which he dubbed the Palace of the Philosophers. There he would quote Nietzsche and the Bible while homeless admirers sat rapt at his grimy feet. "He fancied himself as a godfather to them," says reporter Constable.
Her Post article on Descalzi was read by two of his ex-colleagues, Pedro Sevcec, host of a Telemundo talk show, and Malule Gonzalez, Sevcec's executive producer, who decided to help their old friend. After first filming Descalzi in Adams-Morgan, they sent him for four weeks of treatment at the National Recovery Institute in Boca Raton, Fla. Last Feb. 1 they aired their film, then brought Descalzi on live, clean and sober. Hired by Frank Stein-hart, executive producer of Telemundo's OcurrioAsi (It Happened Thus), Descalzi is now both reporter and motivational speaker, covering not presidents and pontiffs but addicts and prostitutes. "They are looking at me as a symbol of what they can achieve," he says of his viewers—and of his friends in Adams-Morgan, where he was greeted like a hero on a recent visit. "I'm their higher power... can't f—k up."
Those who know him best are hoping he doesn't. "We're watching him carefully," says Javier. "He is getting better, but...we're not out of the woods yet."
D0N SIDER in Miami and MARGIE BONNETT SELLINGER and ALICIA BROOKS in Washington