Monday, August 31, 2009

Jessica's Savage Update

It took over a decade for Jessica Savitch to make a name for herself in television journalism, and about sixty seconds to ruin it. Three weeks later, she was dead and never got a chance to redeem herself.

Time again to recall another gone too soon, as I thought of TV people from the past while watching all of the coverage of Ted Kennedy's death over the weekend.

Savitch was a Philadelphia girl who made good in local TV news in Philly. In fact, she was, for a time, a co-anchor in the City of Brotherly Love with Mort Crim , who would eventually co-own Detroit news, along with Bill Bonds.

Savitch was, as is the case of most females on the tube, an attractive blonde. But she combined brains with that cheesecake, and was much more of a cerebral on-air personality than a bubblehead.

Eventually, her career outgrew Philadelphia and Savitch ended up on NBC News. This was in the late-1970s. Her star power was such that she became anchor of the weekend version of the NBC Nightly News by the early-1980s.

Savitch published an autobiography, "Anchorwoman," in 1982.


An old publicity photo of Jessica Savitch. Note the different (wrong?) spelling of her last name


But there was trouble in her life, far beyond what we could see while watching her on our TVs.

She had a stormy 10-year relationship with a man who wasn't her husband---a news director named Ron Kershaw. Savitch's first marriage ended after just 10 months. Next, Jessica had an affair with a man who turned out to be a closet homosexual.

It gets worse.

Her next marriage, to Donald Payne in early-1981, was tumultuous and during it, she suffered a miscarriage. As if that wasn't enough, Payne hanged himself on August 1, 1981 in the couple's basement.

Rumors swirled that Savitch was taking drugs to help her through life, which wouldn't have been surprising, given her personal soap opera.

On October 3, 1983, those rumors appeared to have a great deal of truth to them.

While doing a sixty-second between-shows update on NBC called the NBC News Digest, Savitch was a mess. She slurred her speech, seemed to have difficulty reading the script, and her eyes started to droop by the end of the update. It was, at once, shocking, creepy, and sad.

You can view her horrific performance by clicking HERE.

The Digest debacle, had it happened during the age of the Internet, would have been explosive and one of the most virulent pieces of video ever. As it was, it was still notorious, despite it occurring in 1983. NBC didn't put Jessica on the air after that, even though she tried to explain away her performance as being a result of mixing (legal) medications and being fatigued.

As it was, those gruesome sixty seconds would be her last turn in front of a camera, and that's too bad, because Jessica Savitch was a damn good newswoman.

Less than three weeks after the Digest appearance, Jessica had dinner in New Hope, Pennsylvania with Martin Fischbein, the vice president of The New York Post.

The weather was inclement---rainy and windy---and Fischbein may have missed posted warning signs as he drove out of the wrong exit from the restaurant and up the towpath of a canal 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 which sealed the doors shut.

Savitch and Fischbein both perished, having drowned in the vehicle, unable to exit it.

Jessica Savitch was 36 years old.

Savitch's estate was awarded over $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 a stroke of cruel irony, Savitch once said the following.

"A press card does not provide you with an invisible shield. You're flesh and blood."

How right she was---in more ways than one.

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