Savitch, Jessica (1947–1983)
Savitch, Jessica (1947–1983)
American reporter and television newscaster who was one of the first female television anchors. Born Jessica Beth Savitch in Wilmington, Delaware, on February 1, 1947; died in New Hope, Pennsylvania, on October 23, 1983; eldest of three daughters of David (Buddy) Savitch (a clothing merchant) and Florence (Spadoni) Savitch (a nurse); graduated from Atlantic City High School, Margate, New Jersey, in 1964; Ithaca College, New York, degree in communications, 1968; married Melvin Korn (an advertising executive), in January 1980 (divorced November 1980); married DonaldRollie Payne (a gynecologist), on March 21, 1981 (committed suicide August 1981); no children.
One of the first women to break into the male bastion of television news, Jessica Savitch lived her short life intensely focused on her career. She was born in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1947, the eldest of three daughters of David Savitch and Florence Spadoni Savitch , and spent her early years in a small town in Pennsylvania. Although she dreamed of becoming a reporter, there were few role models in journalism for girls in the 1950s aside from those women assigned to cover "women's issues," such as homemaking and fashion. When Jessica was 12, David Savitch died of kidney disease at age 33; she never fully recovered. The family moved to Margate, New Jersey, and she switched from a provincial school to the tough, inner-city environment of Atlantic City High School. This was an intimidating experience for Savitch, and she felt lonely and unsettled until, in her sophomore year, she found a niche at radio station WOND in nearby Pleasantville. Soon, she was hanging around the station, reading the news and making announcements. Together with a friend, Savitch created her own show, "Teensville," broadcast on Saturdays; this led to another broadcasting job on Sundays. At age 14, Savitch had become the first regularly scheduled female radio announcer in Atlantic City. She continued at WOND until graduation.
Determined to be a broadcast journalist, despite her family's reservations, Savitch looked for schools that offered degrees in communications and decided on Ithaca College in New York, primarily because it was the cheapest. There, she soon had her first bout with sexism. Denied an on-air position at the college's AM-FM radio station, she protested to the station's male faculty advisor and was told, "There is no place for broads in broadcasting." Her furious appeal to college administrators forced the station to give her the late-night Saturday slot, but the station manager purposely neglected to tell her to shut down the transmitter after her shift, and she was fired after her first night for not doing so.
Frustrated, Savitch began commuting two hours to Rochester, where she found production work, did voice-overs for commercials, and worked as an on-camera model. In 1966, she landed a job with WBBF-AM in Rochester as the weekend disc jockey, the first female Top 40 disc jockey in the area. She was a tremendous success in Rochester, but because of the broadcast range of the station, no one at Ithaca knew of it. She had no close friends in either place, and at college was generally thought to be a cold, snobbish prima donna. It was during these years that she first began suffering from bulimia and anorexia.
After graduating in 1968, Savitch continued to work part-time for WBBF while looking for a job as a broadcast journalist. Confident that her degree would help, she began sending out her résumé, which was rejected for reasons as varied as her lack of experience—despite that fact that she had been working in broadcasting since the age of 14—to the fear that she was too pretty and would "cause dissension in the news room." Undaunted, she moved to New York City and supported herself by making commercials and modeling while she made the rounds.
In 1969, Joan Showalter , personnel director for CBS, hired her as a floating administrative assistant, though she could neither type nor take dictation. Savitch worked for Marvin Friedman, the news director of WCBS radio, an all-news AM station. He thought her background irrelevant since it was not in news, but Charles Osgood and Ed Bradley became mentors, encouraging and teaching her. Although Savitch was starting at the bottom, she never admitted it to her family and friends. Letters always implied that she was already at the top and that her success was assured.
After a year at WCBS, Savitch decided that she was getting nowhere in New York City, so she began seeking work with CBS affiliates in other cities. She received only one offer, from KHOU-TV in Houston, Texas. Because television news had become so persona-driven in the past years, Dick John, manager of the station, was looking for a new personality to embellish the nightly news. He was impressed with her audition tape and, when he met her, with her gumption, for she told him she wanted to be a network anchor by the time she was 30. John hired her as a general assignment reporter in 1971, but Savitch had oversold herself, and initially she was overwhelmed by the work. Cameraman John Shaw took her under his wing, teaching her tricks of the trade and helping her adjust. He also suggested that she pre-record her broadcasts and then play them back through a hidden earphone, repeating what she heard. This became a device that she used for the rest of her career. It allowed her to look directly into the camera while reading the news, a characteristic that was to become her trademark.
For the next two years, Savitch covered every conceivable story, from murder investigations, a skyjacking, and a robbery-in-progress to political scandals, elections, and strikes. She realized early that she was not an investigative journalist, so she covered stories that were already breaking. Savitch never had trouble gathering a story; trouble came from the men with whom she had to work. They saw her as a star and a pretty girl, not as a serious professional. Three months after her arrival in Houston, the news director suggested that Savitch audition for the position of weekend anchor. She pulled her hair back, dressed in an unfussy dark suit, and used her "best male imitation" during the audition. The ploy worked, and she became the first woman television anchor in the South.
While she was in Houston, Savitch also met Ron Kershaw, a reporter from the rival ABC network. Their relationship was probably the closest Savitch had with a man. Both enjoyed the competition of covering the same story, spending their evenings together watching news shows, criticizing them and taking notes. Savitch, however, was more ambitious, working toward the highest position with the greatest possible exposure. Kershaw gave her an engagement and wedding ring, but they never married.
Savitch continued to file up to three stories a day during the week, submitting many of them through the CBS news bureau in Atlanta, Georgia. She competed with other reporters for breaking stories and often tried for an unusual angle. One of her stories about a fire caused by a train derailment gained national exposure when Walter Cronkite broadcast it on the evening news. She was temperamental and egocentric with her colleagues, but the public loved her. On screen, she came across as vivid and dynamic, and she was featured in articles in TV Guide and in newspapers. Her popularity helped KHOU capture the #1 slot in the ratings. "She had a real knack for the personal approach, for making herself the center of the story," said a news director. "She understood TV news for what it is—show business. She didn't worry about what journalists with a capital 'J' worry about—she was concerned with putting on a show." Less than a year after she began working in Houston, broadcast executives around the country were trying to woo her.
One admirer was Jim Topping, who had been scouting for talent in local markets. When he became news director of KYW-TV, the NBC affiliate in Philadelphia, he solicited Savitch for samples of her work, and during their interview talked to her about the possibility of becoming an anchor. In November 1972, Savitch signed a five-year contract to be a general assignment reporter with KYW. It marked the beginning of the end of her relationship with Kershaw. Although he quit his job in Houston and looked for work in Philadelphia, he was repeatedly turned down because of his relationship with Savitch, and she was too involved in her own career to spend time with him.
Savitch's new job in Philadelphia started out badly. She was viewed as a country bumpkin, and although the hostility she faced was not as open as it had been in Houston, it was still there. She was fortunate to find as a mentor David Neal, the assignment editor whose office was next to Topping's. He saw Savitch's potential and helped her to change her image and acquire a more professional outlook. His advice ranged from makeup and hairstyle to speech lessons and relations with management. Savitch's voice coach, Lilyan Wilder , helped her eliminate a lisp.
Kershaw found a job in Baltimore, but Savitch began returning from her visits to him with bruises on her body, wearing sunglasses to cover her face. When she discovered that she was pregnant, she went to New York, without Kershaw, for an abortion. She claimed that she had made the only possible decision, but she was visibly upset for some time afterward.
Four months after beginning her job in Philadelphia, Savitch was chosen to anchor the weekend newscast. Despite her popularity with the public, she was never offered the traditional prerogative of substituting for the weeknight anchors, only one of many actions she interpreted as slights. Tired of the station's attitude toward her during her first year there, Savitch sought and was offered a job with CBS in New York City, but KYW refused to allow her to break her five-year contract. Savitch tried to hold her ground, claiming that she had understood that she could leave if she chose, but the courts ruled against her and upheld the contract. Her response was to stage a one-woman sick-out until the station agreed to raise her salary and help her develop her career. They reached an agreement, but her feelings about KYW were soured forever.
As a way of focusing on a single issue using a single reporter, the station assigned Savitch to do a five-part series on natural childbirth. At first, she was annoyed at being asked to cover "women's news"—a fluff piece—but as she worked on the documentary, she warmed to her subject. The resulting series was a sensation, the first time a live birth had been shown on television, and Savitch received rave reviews. This piece was followed by another series, "Rape … the Ultimate Violation," for which she acted as a decoy with an undercover police unit. It won the 1974 Clarion Award from Women in Communications. When shown to legislators in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, it helped the passage of revisions to laws on the treatment of rape victims and the prosecution of rapists. These series and others, on divorce, dieting, and the training of women police officers, were such popular successes that they became a regular feature of the news.
With the success of the documentaries and Savitch's rising popularity (there was even a fan club), she had become too important for periodic reports and weekend news. She was given the job of weeknight co-anchor for "Eyewitness News," with Mort Crim, at 5:30 pm, beginning August 1974, and the ratings immediately soared. Two years later, she became part of a tri-anchor team on the nightly news at 11:00 pm. She also co-hosted "Meetinghouse," a live one-hour weekly prime-time public issue forum. By spring 1975, "Eyewitness News" was holding first place in the ratings. Savitch received both vindication and recognition of her accomplishments when she was invited by Ithaca College to be a visiting professor. She accepted and taught a fall course in 1976, and again in 1978. (She did not, however, meet another goal, that of becoming the first woman anchor on a national network. In 1976, Barbara Walters began co-anchoring the ABC nightly news.)
However, Savitch's relationships with the station directors, her co-workers, and with Kershaw, continued to disintegrate. When her contract expired in 1977, Savitch received offers from all three major networks. After much thought, many interviews, and consultation with Melvin Korn, an advertising executive whom Savitch found both attentive and stable, she chose NBC as offering the best opportunities, including the possibility of becoming a national anchorwoman. The FCC had prohibited discrimination against women in hiring and promotion in broadcasting in 1971, and NBC had just suffered a humiliating defeat in a sex-discrimination suit brought by its female employees. Savitch, a popular woman broadcaster, came along at a time when the network was trying to change its hiring practices and increase the number of women and African-Americans on-screen. Aware of her own draw and potential, Savitch negotiated a contract that gave her both a good salary and a long list of perks, but caused her to begin her NBC career with the reputation of a spoiled star.
Savitch was attached to the Washington news bureau covering the U.S. Senate (taking over from Catherine Mackin ) and anchored the Sunday edition of the "NBC Nightly News." Two months later, she teamed up with news giants David Brinkley and John Chancellor in a three-way broadcast. Network executives were sufficiently impressed to assign her periodically as a substitute on the weekday "Nightly News"—a position never before held by a woman. She disliked being a reporter again when she had already graduated to anchor status, but NBC insisted. She soon found that she was in over her head, for reporting on the Senate is very different from reporting on fires. At NBC, she was on her own for the first time, without a mentor; she had no local guidance and no one to explain to her how things were done in Washington. In addition, she was constantly ill. As a result, her reports were a disappointment to her bosses, but they had invested so much in her that they kept her going.
Savitch was moved off the Senate beat and onto general assignment. The network still tried to keep up her image, but disappointment was in the
air. In May 1979, she went to Canada to cover an important election which long-time Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was expected to lose. The assignment was intended to give her exposure, but she knew nothing about Canadian politics. Although she tried to prepare, her report on the "Nightly News" was considered awful, and a subsequent piece was rejected. Her complaints to the president of NBC News did nothing to enhance her reputation, and the producers banned her from reporting for the "Nightly News."
In April 1979, Savitch was assigned to the "Segment Three" unit, putting together documentaries for the "Nightly News." That same month, she asked Korn to marry her. When Kershaw found out, he was so distraught that his friends put him into a private hospital. The wedding was a grand, formal affair at the Plaza Hotel in New York City in January 1980, but afterwards the couple would continue to live in separate apartments. Savitch would also continue to see Kershaw, apparently incapable of breaking up with him. By February 1980, unable to manage both marriage and her career and beset by drug problems, Savitch asked Korn for a divorce. By November, he agreed. Their marriage would last ten months. Meanwhile, between October 1979 and June 1980, Savitch had been a principal reporter for "Prime Time Sunday" (later "Prime Time Saturday"), a weekly news magazine. She had fit her reporting assignments around her hectic schedule of talks, public appearances, interviews, and her wedding, leaving little time for preparation. On return from her honeymoon with Korn, she had discovered she'd been cut back to one Sunday night broadcast.
In the early days of her marriage, Savitch had suffered a miscarriage and felt ill for several months. The gynecologist she consulted, Donald Rollie Payne, recommended minor surgery, and she found herself attracted to his stability, authority, and competence. Soon they were a couple, and he followed her when she went on assignment. By the time her divorce from Korn became final, she was pregnant by Payne and wanted to marry him. Already divorced and a bisexual, Payne was not inclined toward marriage or fatherhood, but apparently felt he had no choice. The nuptials seemed doomed from the beginning. Savitch suffered another miscarriage, and Payne became abusive. She discovered that he was addicted to the amphetamines he had been supplying to her and insisted he get medical help, but on his return from the hospital he was despondent over the loss of his reputation and possibly his career. One night, Savitch returned home to Washington from her weekly broadcast in New York and found Payne hanging by her dog's leash from a pipe in the basement. They had been married five months.
Savitch was back on the job less than a month later. With her contract coming up for renewal, she tried to polish up her credentials and went over the news division's heads, lowering her popularity with her boss considerably. In 1980, she got another chance to boost her career when she was assigned to the highly visible job of podium correspondent for the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Savitch, however, had not been told what to say or do, and she knew she was ill-prepared and that her performance would be mercilessly scrutinized. She interviewed everyone she could, took key players to lunch, and studied reports on past conventions, but her performance was not a success.
Extremely popular with the public and the press nevertheless, Savitch scored high in popularity polls and was in constant demand on the lecture circuit. She won four Emmy awards during her career, was featured in countless magazines and newspaper articles, and in 1980, she was one of the 12 most popular speakers in the country. With a charismatic presence on camera, Savitch made impressive inroads in a male-dominated field, providing a role model and inspiration where none had been before. However, she was under constant pressure to prove herself, and the strain began to take its toll. She spent her career fighting health problems and abusing amphetamines and cocaine. Her personal relationships with men were tumultuous, unconventional, and unhappy. Her career was her only positive focus, and all her energies were concentrated on it.
By 1982, no longer able to tolerate her ups and downs, the network was losing interest in Savitch. She occasionally substituted for Jane Pauley on "Today," and in the fall of 1981, when Tom Brokaw left the program, she co-anchored with Pauley for several weeks. She did news updates and weekend anchoring and occasionally appeared on "Meet the Press." In 1982, she moved to New York City, where she worked on documentaries and served as principal correspondent for A-News Capsules to NBC affiliates. When she was invited to work on "Frontline" for PBS, she went on partial leave from NBC and moved to Boston. Shortly after, her autobiography, Anchorwoman (1982), was published. For a time it seemed that "Frontline" might revive her career, but she could no longer sustain the energy that had brought her so far, and she was soon reduced to doing one-minute live bits for NBC.
Concerned about her future, Savitch passed up a new NBC show only to find in 1983 that Connie Chung was replacing her as Saturday anchor of "Nightly News." Her problems with drugs were catching up with her; she was frighteningly thin, her skin looked bad, and her nails were bitten to the quick. She checked into a celebrity health spa in an effort to detoxify, but came away as tense and disoriented as when she had gone in. She received a blow in her last contract negotiations when NBC implied, by signing her for only one year rather than three, that it was quietly pushing her out. At the same time, the producers of "Frontline" had decided to decrease her role even further in the coming season. The woman whom Newsweek had named "NBC's Golden Girl" had lost her edge. The final blow came in early October 1983, during a 60-second, live spot for "News Digest," when she lost control of herself on the air, slurring her speech in what has been described as a mini-nervous breakdown, with a stricken look on her face. The spot was seen by some 8 to 10 million people.
Twenty days later, a car in which Savitch was riding took a wrong turn in dense fog and went over an embankment into a muddy canal in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Savitch and her companion in the car, New York Post executive Martin Fischbein, drowned in shallow water, as did her dog. Her sudden death put to rest all speculation about her career. Despite the downhill rush of her final days, Jessica Savitch was an important part of the changing face of television news and an icon of her time.
Blair, Gwenda. Almost Golden: Jessica Savitch and the Selling of Television News. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1988.
Devine, Elizabeth, ed. The Annual Obituary 1983. Detroit, MI: St. James Press, 1984.
"Jessica Savitch of NBC-TV Killed in Car Accident," in The New York Times Biographical Service. October 1983.
Lawrence, Sue. "Jessica Savitch (1947–1983)," in Women in Communication: A Biographical Sourcebook. Edited by Nancy Signorielli. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.
Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography Yearbook 1983. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1983.
Taft, William H. Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Journalists. NY: Garland, 1986.
Malinda Mayer , writer and editor, Falmouth, Massachusetts