Jessica Savitch, The Girl Who Was Almost Golden


by JOHN N. DAVENPORT

SUN 05/08/1988 – HOUSTON CHRONICLE

ALMOST GOLDEN – Jessica Savitch and the Selling of Television News. By Gwenda Blair. Simon and Schuster.

“She played it as a star, Marilyn Monroe. More than that, she was Marilyn Monroe and a serious journalist, which ws a very tough combination to pull off. And when she didn’t deliver, she felt everyone’s sense of betrayal.” … – Producer Mike Kirk

TO her supporters, Jessica Savitch was totally dedicated to TV news, to the point of fanaticism; to others she was consumed by a “Marilyn Monroe, I-want-to-be-a-star” complex and used news as the way to be one.

There was some of each in her, but there is no doubt she did want to be a news star and she almost made it. Her problem was that she did not always want to pay her dues in the trenches and when she did have a chance at the brass ring with the network, NBC served her badly. The network executives ballyhooed her as their newest news star, then blamed her when she couldn’t cut it as a journalist.

Added to this tangled web was her hubris, insecurity, disastrous love affairs and drugs. “To Reuven Frank, NBC News president, Savitch was anathema. He saw her as ersatz news, bubblehead news, non-journalism, a chatty sex object who was emblematic of the growing trivialization of the great tradition of Edward R. Murrow,” writes author Gwenda Blair.

New Yorker Savitch cut a wide swath in Houston where she got her first TV job. KHOU News director Dick John saw some potential in her screen presence and aggressiveness. Eventually she became Houston’s and the Southwest’s first female anchor. It soon became evident when doing field reports, she had a habit of becoming the news instead of covering it.

During an air hijacking standoff at a private airport in Lake Jackson in July of 1972, deputy sheriffs began blocking entry to late comers. A Channel 13 crew that included her boyfriend, Ron Kershaw, rammed their way through the deputies and a struggle ensued. Even though Savitch worked for rival Channel 11, she went to the defense of Kershaw and fists and feet flew. The altercation made almost as much copy as did the hijacking. These antics were frowned on by many of her colleagues, but her station management loved them.

Savitch moved to the bigger market of Philadelphia and in time made her mark there as a top TV news personality. It was the mid-’70s and the sound of the TV news consultant was heard in the land. Sales departments discovered that news was not a loss leader to be tolerated under the protection of the Federal Communications Commission, but that news could be sold as a product.

The anchorpeople and reporters were the salespeople. Savitch shined at involving herself in human interest stories. She became a star in Philly and to the dismay of some of her newsroom colleagues she became infected with a star complex; she was given to tantrums and moodiness.

It was just a question of time when Philly would be too small to hold her and she began courting network brass for the big step. She learned quickly and bitterly about contracts. Her KYW, Westinghouse employers would not release her. She became uncooperative and difficult to deal with.

When she did make it to the network, NBC touted her as a star, acceded to her demands of limos, plush apartments, hair dressers, clothing allowances and other perks. These privileges for a rookie did not go over well with her colleagues who had paid their reportorial dues.

To give her credibility as a reporter, NBC assigned her as Senate correspondent. It soon became apparent that she was over her head. This was not local TV sensationalism about prostitution in the streets of Philly or Houston. Reporters didn’t ride elephants here.

The Senate is a complex body made of nuances and deals. She was not ready for the assignment.

There was no doubt as to her camera presence, but when she had to produce her own material, she often was found wanting.

Ironically, even as she struggled and eventually failed to be named the networks’ first female anchor on the evening news, she made enough appearances on the air to be regarded as a pioneer and semistar, but she knew she could never convince her supervisors that she was more than an ornamental news reader.

This, plus two failed marriages, one of which ended when her second husband killed himself, plus ongoing love/hate relationship with Kershaw, turned her increasingly to tantrums, seclusions and drugs.

Her self-sabotage climaxed when at 8:58 p.m. EST Oct. 3, 1983, she bumbled her way through a headline evening update sandwiched in between NBC’s prime evening shows. She made a mess of it before millions. The drugs had done their damage.

Here is part of that broadcast:

She survived the gaffe with a variety of excuses and was even offered a new contract, but her hopes for anchor stardom were history. On the evening of Oct. 23, 1983, she finished having dinner at an inn with her new friend, New York Post editor Fischbein. As they drove out of the parking lot, Fischbein somehow took a wrong turn and plunged into a small canal. Both he and Savitch were killed instantly. She was 36. (“killed instantly”?  This is debated below in the Wikipedia article. It seemed she struggled and died of suffocation)

Here is a story of the girl who was almost golden, whose hubris wrecked a promising career.

This is the first of at least three books hurriedly written to make the market – and presumably the movie – on the tragedy that was Savitch. Blair’s book is honest and gripping.

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More on Jessica’s life from Wikipedia

Life and career

Savitch was born in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, about 35 miles from Philadelphia. She was the daughter of Florence (née Goldberger), a navy nurse, and David Savitch, who ran a clothing store. Her father and maternal grandfather were Jewish, and her maternal grandmother was Italian American and Catholic. After her father died in 1959, her family moved to MargateNew Jersey (a suburb of Atlantic City). She attended Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York, where she worked at the campus radio and TV stations and at WOND1400 a newstalk station in Linwood, NJ,WBBF, an AM outlet in Rochester. After graduating in the spring of 1968, Savitch worked at various radio and TV stations, including WCBS in New York and KHOU-TV in Houston. She then became a popular local television newscaster at KYW-TV, the former NBC affiliate (now CBS) in Philadelphia, and a Washington correspondent for NBC News. Thanks to her screen presence and attractive style, she was eventually promoted to the news anchor of the weekend NBC Nightly News, and she also anchored Frontline on PBS. Her autobiography, Anchorwoman, was published in 1982.

As Savitch’s career skyrocketed however, her unstable personal life became increasingly messy. She had a stormy 10-year on-and-off relationship with news director Ron Kershaw, who was allegedly abusive to her. Savitch also suffered through two difficult marriages. Her first marriage to advertising executive Mel Korn took place on January 6, 1980 at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Her husband’s business failed soon afterwards and the couple separated 10 months later. By the time Savitch and Korn separated, she had begun having an affair with her gynecologist. Savitch married Donald Payne on March 21, 1981, weeks after her divorce was finalized. After Payne attempted suicide, and was hospitalized, Savitch had her pregnancy terminated, but told friends that she had suffered a miscarriage. Payne, who had been tormented by physical and mental illness, committed suicide on August 1, 1981 by hanging himself in the basement of their Washington DC townhouse.

On October 3, 1983, Savitch anchored a mid-evening news update called NBC News Digest, during which she slurred some words and skipped others entirely, giving the appearance she was under the influence of drugs. Savitch had been suspected of abusing drugs in the past, and this one-minute performance, broadcast live and seen by millions of viewers across the United States, seemed to confirm those suspicions.

Death

On October 23, 1983, Savitch had dinner with Martin Fischbein, vice-president of the New York Post, in New HopePennsylvania. After the meal at Odette’s Restaurant, they began to drive home about 7:15 pm, with Fischbein behind the wheel and Savitch in the back seat with her dog, Chewy.

Fischbein may have missed posted warning signs in a heavy rainfall, and he drove out of the wrong exit from the restaurant and up the towpath of the old Pennsylvania Canal’s Delaware Division on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. The car veered too far to the left and went over the edge into the shallow water of the canal. After falling approximately fifteen feet and landing upside down, the station wagon sank into deep mud that sealed the doors shut.

Savitch and Fischbein were trapped inside as water poured in. A local resident found the wreck at about 11:30 that night. Fischbein’s body was still strapped behind the wheel, with Savitch and her dog in the rear. After the autopsies, the Bucks County coroner ruled that both had died from asphyxiation by drowning. He noted that Fischbein was apparently knocked unconscious in the wreck but Savitch had struggled to escape. There was no finding that drugs or alcohol had played any part in the crash.

Legacy

Savitch’s estate was awarded more than $8 million in a wrongful death action. Some of the money was used to set up college scholarships. The Jessica Savitch Distinguished Journalism lecture series is held at her alma mater, Ithaca College. In addition, the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College named a television studio on campus in her honor.

Savitch was inducted into “The Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia’s Hall of Fame” on November 17, 2006.

Her life was the subject of a Lifetime Television made-for-TV movie, starring Sela Ward called Almost Golden: The Jessica Savitch Story. A theatrical movie starring Michelle PfeifferUp Close & Personal, was originally intended as a biographical film about Savitch. However, the movie became an A Star Is Born-style entertainment instead, possibly because of a belief that Savitch’s life was too downbeat to be popular at the box office.

Further reading

  • Blair, Gwenda. Almost Golden: Jessica Savitch and the Selling of Television News, Avon Books, 1988.
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