Smart. Tenacious. Seductive. Jessica Savitch, who died 31 years ago today in a freak accident, was poised to be network-TV news's first female solo anchor. What went wrong?
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Thirty-one years ago today, broadcast journalist Jessica Savitch died in a freak drowning accident in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. She was 36. Her death was tragic, and in the first reports, the circumstances seemed mystifying and unfathomable. But the most astute of Savitch’s many fans weren’t totally surprised that she was gone, and people who knew her well had been dreading such news for years—it was just the way she died that caught her grieving friends off guard. More than her death, Savitch’s life was a casualty of a whole host of demons—herself being among them. But perhaps the greatest one was the brutal business that sucks in ambitious women and often bleeds them dry.
An early contender for the crown as the first female network solo anchor, Savitch came to NBC in 1977 at age 30 as a weekend anchor and Senate reporter. In contrast to the dour-faced men who previously occupied such positions, the blonde, fine-boned Savitch looked through the lens and seduced the nation. She was, as journalist Michael Mallowe observed, “a goddess for the McLuhan age … Edward R. Murrow had told it like it was—lyrical words from a leathery mug. But Savitch fed our fantasies of how it should be: Brie and Beaujolais in a penthouse on Central Park.”
Within a year of her arrival, Savitch was pitted against CBS’s similarly blonde, luminous, and ambitious beauty, Diane Sawyer, who eventually rose to become one of the most powerful and respected women in the television history. Late last month, Penguin Press published Sheila Weller’s The News Sorority: Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour—and the (Ongoing, Imperfect, Complicated) Triumph of Women in TV News, which gives Savitch’s story short-shrift, but shows the genteel, Southern-born Sawyer to be as fiercely driven as she is elegant and savvy.
So why didn’t Savitch distinguish herself like Sawyer before her untimely death? There was a time it seemed plausible. Both were true TV news pioneers, Diane becoming, in 1968, the first full-time female reporter in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, and Jessica the first anchorwoman in the South, Houston’s KHOU advancing its first female reporter to the weekend desk in 1971. In the late ’70s, when the networks came calling, it was largely because the Big Three needed women—the Federal Communications Commission had enacted new anti-discrimination regulations. But by virtue of their gender, Sawyer and Savitch had to be better than the best, and when they weren’t chasing stories, expected to deftly deflect the predictable sexual politics—and harassment—in the newsroom.
An enormous star in local news in Philadelphia, Savitch had grown up in nearby Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, and in Atlantic City, New Jersey. In her five years (1972 to 1977) in the Philly area, where she became the city’s first female prime-time news anchor, she was such a celebrity that she was often mobbed just walking down the street, and men conjured elaborate schemes to meet her. Suburban women loved her, too, copying her hairstyle, a blonde bob that parted on the left, swooped down and then dived under (“The Jessica”).
She loved the attention, but she also took her journalism seriously, and in the early days of the women’s movement, insisted on doing investigative features on rape and natural childbirth, and a documentary (“Lady Law”) about the struggle of a Philadelphia policewoman who sued the city for the opportunity to become a detective.
“She was a palatable presence,” remembers Paul Gluck, who worked closely with Savitch as a KYW-TV production assistant during her Philly reign. “Over my 38 years in broadcast journalism, as a producer, manager, news director and station manager,” says Gluck, now a professor at Temple University’s School of Media and Communication, “I cannot recall working with a professional who evidenced the unrelenting tenacity, unconditional commitment, or unequivocal talent of Jessica Savitch.”
When NBC plucked her for the big time, the network brass gave Savitch the political beat to beef up her hard-news chops and justify the anchor slot. But they hired her for her personal style, especially on the anchor desk. “It struck me immediately,” recalled Don Meaney, an NBC News executive who had a big hand in her hiring. “She just demanded your attention. You got the feeling she was telling the news to you.” Her dazzling blend of sex appeal, confidence, mystery, and smarts was so magnetic that it still holds allure today. Not only do her newscasts get respectable hits on YouTube, but ardent fans still have her picture in a frame.
“I still think about her a lot,” says auto-parts salesman Steve Myers, of Portsmouth, Virginia, who figures that since 1999, he has made “about two dozen” trips to the New Hope, Pennsylvania, site of Savitch’s death, often on the anniversary. “I know it sounds crazy,” he admits with a laugh, “but it’s like her story just takes you over. There were so many things about her that you thought she was, and she wasn’t, and everybody was so fooled by her. On television, she seemed like this glamour girl that had it all, and really, she had more problems than the average person.”
Sawyer’s career was not without hurdles, as well. She arrived at CBS as something of a pariah—she had worked as part of Richard Nixon’s White House staff and accompanied the disgraced president to California to help him write his memoirs. But she quickly won over everyone who worked with her (including CBS’s legendary president, William Paley) with her vast knowledge of back-room politics and her dogged work ethic, preparing massively for stories.
Savitch, on the other hand, captured the hearts of viewers, but her NBC bosses, capitalizing on her star power and trotting her around to affiliates in the hinterlands, never gave her time to learn her Washington beat, and out of her depth, she faltered as a serious political reporter. The feeling around NBC was that she was a narcissistic, prickly prima donna who yearned for Champagne and limos and saw the news business as the East Coast version of Hollywood.
“She wanted to be the anchorwoman,” Don Farmer, an early CNN hire who knew her, says in The News Sorority. “Jessica’s was a hollow ambition.” But Mort Crim, Savitch’s co-anchor in Philadelphia who remained a confidant during her network years, would argue with him. “She took a lot of unfair criticism,” he maintains. “She was talented, and she was dedicated. And she had to fight the fact that she was a very good-looking person. That tended to make some people not take her as seriously as if she had been a man.”
As her confidence slipped (colleagues despised her for her plum assignments and her tantrums on the set, where Sawyer’s co-workers saw Diane as a real team player), Savitch’s once-enthralling delivery turned brittle. Privately, she wrote herself tortuous notes on yellow legal pads about the dichotomy of the mesmerizing star on TV and the scared and self-conscious woman who appeared when the red tally light went out. “What it all means,” she scrawled, “is that I’m most valued and valuable when viewed through a TV screen. Up close, I’m not mysterious and devious enough to be captivating, nor gifted with womanly endowments enough to make up for it.”
Soon, she lost herself in myriad personal problems—a quickie first marriage, the suicide of her second husband five months after the wedding, and a cocaine habit so severe—her works were in her belongings the night she died—that she destroyed the cartilage in her nose.
She also lost the glamorous reporting jobs, and then in early October 1983, she slurred her words in a disastrous flub while anchoring a news capsule. Viewers sat stunned, wondering if she was drunk or high. Her career, many believed, was over.
“Toward the end,” former NBC newswoman Linda Ellerbee once told interviewer Bob Costas, “we could all see she was in trouble. At one point, I went to NBC management and I said, ‘You have to do something.’ And an NBC vice-president said to me, ‘We’re afraid to do anything. We’re afraid she’ll kill herself on our time.’”
Three weeks after the famous meltdown, as Savitch and a date exited the parking lot of a leafy restaurant in Pennsylvania, their car took a wrong turn in the rainy dark and tumbled into the muddy Delaware Canal, flipping upside down and trapping Savitch, New York Post executive Martin Fischbein (who was driving), and Jessica’s beloved Siberian husky, Chewy, inside. Fischbein was killed instantly, but Jessica made a frantic and fruitless attempt to escape. The police report hit the NBC newsroom, where the dog had often been more welcome than Jessica, in the middle of the night. “I have the worst news,” one of Savitch’s co-workers told another. “Chewy’s dead.”
But would Savitch’s career have stayed dead? The answer is yes. And no.
If she had taken some time off, gone to rehab, and reevaluated her skills, she would have been back. “Knowing her love of the business and her love of performing,” says Crim, “it’s hard to imagine that she would have stepped aside willingly.” Surely she would have found another job in news, though perhaps not at the networks. Her Q rating would have likely made her a contender at CNN or PBS (where she already moonlighted), and Philly would have been delirious at the prospect of welcoming her back. Today, in a time when infotainment passes for real news, and the news business really isn’t that indistinguishable from Hollywood after all, Savitch would have been admired for her years in the trenches. At 67, her age had she lived, she might have been a natural host of The View.
As for the brainy Sawyer, who signed off from ABC World News on September 2, the network replacing her with the anti-egghead David Muir, she hasn’t exactly gone away. It’s a non-retirement retirement. Her perfectly poised presence will return in special projects for ABC, just at the time when Barbara Walters and Katie Couric have closed the door on broadcast television, and Christiane Amanpour has lost much of her clout at CNN. And so it goes, to quote the tart-tongued Ellerbee.
As to the next heiress to the throne, well, there isn’t one. Men are in what seats remain, and the anchor job holds only a pale fraction of the sway it did in the age of Walter Cronkite. Is TV news dead? Did men kill it, or is the media itself just irrelevant because of the internet? Whatever the answer, the whole model has morphed to a lighter, viewer-friendly ratings grab.
“I just don’t know why we have to tell the people what they need to hear,” Will Ferrell’s cinematic blowhard newsman, Ron Burgundy, declares in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. “Why can’t we just tell them what they want to hear?”
If Burgundy seems prescient (the Anchorman movies are set in the ‘70s and early ‘80s), Ferrell also has a fervid appreciation for the past. His inspiration for the character of Veronica Corningstone, an ethereal blonde whose ambition is to helm the network anchor desk and achieve parity in the male-dominated newsroom? One Jessica Savitch. Whose own legend, it seems, continues.
Alanna Nash is the author of GOLDEN GIRL: THE STORY OF JESSICA SAVITCH, the basis for the 1996 film UP CLOSE & PERSONAL. She collaborated with Jessica’s sister, Lori Savitch, on the website dedicated to Jessica’s career. For copies of GOLDEN GIRL, contact the author at [email protected].
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