Jessica Beth Savitch
February 1, 1947
Wilmington, Delaware, U.S.
|Died||October 23, 1983 (aged 36)|
New Hope, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Jessica Beth Savitch (February 1, 1947 – October 23, 1983) was an American television journalist who was the weekend anchor of NBC Nightly News and daily newsreader for NBC News during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Savitch was one of the first women to anchor an evening network newscast alone, following in the footsteps of Marlene Sanders of ABC News and Catherine Mackin of NBC News. She also hosted PBS's public affairs program Frontline from its January 1983 debut until her death the following October.
Savitch was known for her audience appeal and her skill as an on-camera news reader, although she drew criticism for her relative lack of journalism experience. Prior to joining NBC News, she was a popular local anchorwoman in Philadelphia and before that, while working at a Houston television station, she was the first female news anchor in the South.
Jessica Savitch was born February 1, 1947, in Wilmington, Delaware. She was the eldest daughter of Florence (née Goldberger), a navy nurse, and David “Buddy” Savitch, who ran a clothing store. Her father was of Slavic Jewish heritage and her maternal grandfather was of German and Russian Jewish heritage. Her maternal grandmother was of Italian American heritage and was Catholic.
Buddy Savitch suffered from nephritis, an incurable kidney disease. He died on May 11, 1959, when he was 33 and Jessica was 12. Her family then moved from Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, to Margate City, New Jersey. While attending Atlantic City High School, Savitch got a job co-hosting a rock show for teenagers on radio station WOND in Pleasantville; she soon became a newsreader and disc jockey for WOND as well. She was the first female disc jockey in the Pleasantville area. Following high school, Savitch attended Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York, as a communications major. She was an announcer for the college’s television station, WICB, and worked in radio at nearby Rochester's WBBF (now WROC-AM). There, she did voice-over commercial work, and became a popular top 40 disc jockey known as "Honeybee". She graduated from Ithaca College in 1968, but remained connected to the college, returning periodically to teach a mini-course on television news.
Local news career
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New York City
In 1969, Savitch was hired as an administrative assistant at WCBS, the CBS Radio flagship news station in New York City, where she also did freelance production work. WCBS refused to hire her as a reporter because she had no professional experience. With the permission of News Director Ed Joyce and the help of a three-person crew, Savitch used the WCBS-TV facilities to make a television audition tape and sent copies to hundreds of television stations around the country seeking an on-air position. This included all cities big enough to have all three networks. She received fewer than a dozen responses and only one job interview.
Despite her lack of broadcast news experience, Savitch was hired by KHOU-TV in Houston as the station's first female reporter. Dick John, the manager who hired her, said he did so because he was impressed with her ambition as well as her copywriting and speaking skills. When Savitch arrived at KHOU, she was the only female working in the news department other than one secretary; colleagues helped her learn the basics of her job. Because KHOU was non-union, she participated in many aspects of production as well as reporting on camera. A few months after joining KHOU, Savitch auditioned for and won a weekend anchor shift, becoming the first female news anchor in the South and beginning to develop the formal, mannered style of news delivery for which she later became known. Her report on a train derailment and fire received national exposure on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.
In 1972, Savitch joined KYW-TV, then the NBC affiliate (now CBS O&O) in Philadelphia, as a general assignment reporter and weekend anchor under a five-year contract. Unlike the Houston station, this station was unionized, so Savitch was not permitted to do work other than on-camera newsreading and reporting. At the time KYW hired Savitch, it was under pressure from the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) to place more women in then-non-traditional roles on the local news or else face a possible legal challenge to its broadcast license. When she was initially unable to obtain a weeknight anchor shift, Savitch attempted to break her KYW contract and take a job offered by CBS in New York. KYW refused to release her from her contract but agreed to raise her salary and (partly to satisfy NOW) make her a weeknight anchor. Savitch soon began to anchor noon news broadcasts as well, and eventually became part of a popular team of three anchors with Mort Crim and Vince Leonard on the 11:00pm news. Philadelphia viewers responded enthusiastically to her on-camera presence, which was perceived as "magical" and triggering an "almost emotional bond" with the audience.
As a result of her KYW work, Savitch became a local celebrity in Philadelphia and was sometimes mobbed walking down the street. Male viewers schemed to meet her, and female viewers copied her hairstyle. Despite her local acclaim, Savitch aspired to leave local news and become a network correspondent.
Savitch got along well with some members of the KYW staff, including her regular location shooting crew and her co-anchor Mort Crim. Crim later admitted that he was initially "not nice to her" due to his own male chauvinism, but the two later became good friends. (Crim delivered the eulogy at her memorial service after her death.)
Savitch won recognition for multi-part feature stories on unusual (for that time) topics. For example, Philadelphia KYW news director Jim Topping, inspired by his and his wife’s experience attending Lamaze classes, assigned Savitch to cover a five-part series on natural childbirth. Savitch and her camera crew covered a local family who were expecting a second child. When it appeared this baby might not be born in time for the heavily-advertised series, the crew even compiled a list of other expectant mothers in the area as back-up, although luckily the baby was born four days before the start date.
This series on childbirth began as scheduled on Monday and on Thursday, November 22, 1973 — Thanksgiving Day — showed much of the actual birth. Almost Golden states, “when KYW brought the scene into the audience’s living rooms on a warm holiday evening, it made for powerful television.” In addition, Topping told Savitch, “You’ve made your career.”
Savitch often personalized her stories by becoming part of the story herself, such as serving as an undercover decoy [with police posted unobtrusively along the route] for two weeks as part of her series on rape. This series, entitled "Rape . . . the Ultimate Violation", won a Clarion Award for excellence from Women in Communications, Inc. In addition, KYW Philly received many requests for rebroadcast which it met. The series was also screened by community groups and state legislatures in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, helping to bring about legislative changes, and motivating several state and local governments to open rape crisis centers.
For the series entitled “Lady Law,” Savitch primarily interviewed female law enforcement professionals from other cities. However, she also completed the Philadelphia Police Academy training, and engaged in activities such as shooting a handgun, jumping over oil barrels, squeezing under a barrier, and climbing a six-foot wall. This series won Savitch two awards, but also left her with sore muscles and a “wrenched back” for some weeks afterwards.
Other multi-part series starring Savitch included: single adults, marriage mills of Las Vegas, impact of divorce on American society, issue of when life begins and ends, Pennsylvania snow skiing in the Pocono Mountains, the “New Philadelphia Sound” in music, and traveling to Hollywood to interview Joey Bishop, Peter Boyle, Eddie Fisher and other Philadelphians who had made it big in show business.
Filling airtime during technical problem in 1976 Presidential debate
In 1976, she came to the attention of NBC executives while reporting from a presidential campaign debate between President Gerald Ford and Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter held at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre. An audio line failed, delaying the debate and leaving three KYW reporters, including Savitch, to fill the 27 minutes of air time before the audio could be restored. KYW producer Cliff Abromats stated, “She [Savitch] was very good on her feet. She could think fast and ask the right questions, and she had the ability so many lack, to actually listen to the answer. Jessica would never miss it when someone said something unexpected.”
National news career
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Savitch joined NBC News in 1977 as a weekend anchor for NBC Nightly News. In order to counter criticism that she had been hired for her looks and promoted ahead of skilled journalists, NBC also assigned her to do reporting work, including a brief stint as U.S. Senate correspondent.
Savitch was the network's second woman to anchor a weekend national newscast; Catherine Mackin had previously anchored NBC's Sunday evening newscast beginning in December 1976, before she left for ABC News the following year. Savitch later became the first woman to anchor the weeknight edition of NBC Nightly News, periodically substituting for the regular anchors John Chancellor and David Brinkley. She was also assigned to anchor short NBC News updates (initially called NBC News Update, later called NBC News Capsule and NBC News Digest) that ran approximately one minute and aired between regular prime time programs each evening, drawing a high number of viewers. She began to fill more roles in NBC's news programming, serving as a regular panel member on Meet The Press, contributing to the news magazine programs Prime Time Saturday and Prime Time Sunday, and contributing commentary to the NBC Radio Network. She substituted as anchor on the Today and Tomorrow shows. She was offered the anchor position for an early-morning news program Early Today but turned it down.
As a network anchor, Savitch had a charismatic presence and became popular with network affiliates and viewers. A 1982 TV Guide poll named her the fourth most trusted news anchor in the country, above many of the most established male anchors of the period. Another 1982 poll named her the "sexiest" female anchor in the country. Affiliates agreed to run the NBC News Update segments largely because she would be presenting them. Her success influenced numerous aspiring female newscasters to model themselves after her look and delivery. In 1980, she was one of the twelve most popular speakers in the United States.
Savitch constantly worked on improving her news reading delivery, using a voice coach and other techniques. NBC executives and colleagues praised her skillful narration of film showing the murders of Congressman Leo Ryan and several others in a mass shooting by members of the Peoples Temple at Jonestown. There had not been time to view the film prior to its broadcast, and Savitch had to improvise her narration while viewing the graphic film for the first time.
In January 1983, in addition to her work for NBC, Savitch began hosting a new public affairs documentary program on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), Frontline. She continued as host until her death later that year, at which time Judy Woodruff took over as host.
October 3, 1983 live broadcast incident
Despite Savitch's competence and success as an anchor, by 1983 NBC was beginning to shift its focus to other female anchors, particularly Connie Chung. In June 1983, NBC removed Savitch from her regular Saturday evening anchor slot and replaced her with Chung, who also accepted the Early Today position that Savitch had rejected. From then until her death in October 1983, Savitch's only regular appearances on NBC were on the NBC News Digest segments. Savitch began feeling anxious about her job and showed signs of emotional instability.
On October 3, 1983, during an NBC News Digest segment, Savitch was largely incoherent on the air, slurring her speech, deviating from her script and ad-libbing her report. She performed a later segment the same evening without issues. Savitch's flawed delivery fueled speculation that she was using drugs, specifically cocaine. However, she blamed the problems on a teleprompter malfunction, while her agent said it was due to the effects of pain medication in relation to recent facial reconstructive surgery following a boating accident.
While some of Savitch's colleagues said they had seen evidence of drug use, other friends and associates expressed skepticism that she had a drug problem. NBC correspondent Linda Ellerbee later said that she had asked network management to intervene, telling them, "You have to do something. This woman [Savitch] is in trouble." Ellerbee said that a network vice president responded, "We're afraid to do anything. We're afraid she'll kill herself on our time." When management failed to act, Ellerbee and other correspondents had tried to reach out to Savitch, who died before anything could be done.
Although Gwenda Blair wrote that Savitch's poor performance on the October 3 segment effectively ended her network career, a People magazine article published after her death said that her NBC contract had actually been renewed (although the renewal was for just one year rather than her previous three-year contracts), that she would have reclaimed a spot as a substitute Sunday anchor for NBC Nightly News in January 1984, and that she was set to appear on another season of Frontline.
Savitch was married twice and had no children. Her first marriage in 1980 to Philadelphia advertising executive Melvin "Mel" Korn ended in divorce after eleven months. Korn reportedly divorced Savitch after learning that she had a significant drug problem.
Savitch's second marriage in March 1981 to Dr. Donald Payne, her gynecologist, lasted only a few months. It ended when Payne, who had substance abuse problems of his own and suffered from depression, committed suicide by hanging in their Washington, D.C. townhouse. Savitch, who was in New York at the time, found his body when she returned; she returned to her work at NBC three weeks later.
Savitch had a long-term intermittent relationship with TV news executive Ron Kershaw, who had substance abuse problems and physically abused Savitch during their relationship. In the early 1970s, while she was working for CBS in New York City, Savitch also had a romantic relationship with CBS News journalist Ed Bradley, who was then a WCBS radio reporter. According to Bradley, after the relationship ended they continued to have a "non-romantic, social, and professional relationship" until her death.
According to her biographers Blair and Nash, Savitch was a driven perfectionist who constantly battled insecurities about her appearance and ability, suffered from social anxiety, and tended to isolate herself from network colleagues. Both biographers also write that Savitch had a problem with cocaine that eventually affected her career. Biographers have also asserted that Savitch was bisexual and had romantic relationships with women as well as men. These assertions were disputed by Savitch's family and some of her friends after her death.
Savitch's friend, WNBC anchor Sue Simmons, said in a 2013 retrospective article marking the 30th anniversary of Savitch's death, "When the books and the movie came out [after her death], they made her out to be this troubled character. Nobody ever talked about her big heart, her loyalty, her sense of humor, and her fabulousness as a person."
On October 23, 1983, Savitch had dinner with Martin Fischbein, vice president of the New York Post, at the Chez Odette restaurant in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Savitch and Fischbein had been dating for a few weeks. They began to drive home about 7:15 p.m., with Fischbein driving and Savitch in the back seat with her dog, Chewy. It was raining heavily; Fischbein may have missed posted warning signs. 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 Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser station wagon 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 in four to five feet of water, the car 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 back seat.
After autopsies, the Bucks County coroner ruled that both Savitch and Fischbein had died of asphyxiation by drowning. Neither Savitch nor Fischbein had any drugs other than alcohol in their systems, and they had consumed only small amounts of alcohol—about half a glass of wine each.
Savitch's family and a group of her friends later sued the New York Post (whose insurance covered the leased car Fischbein was driving), Fischbein's estate, Chez Odette, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for damages in Savitch's death. The suit was settled for $8 million, most of which was paid by the Post. Some of the money was used to establish scholarships for women studying for careers in broadcasting or journalism at Ithaca College and other institutions.
Awards and honors
Savitch gave the main address at Ithaca College's 1979 commencement, at which she was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters. In 1980, she was elected to the Ithaca College Board of Trustees. The school’s television Studio A is named in honor of Savitch, and the college's Jessica Savitch Communications Scholarship was established to support students in the Roy H. Park School of Communications who demonstrate excellence, achievement, and promise in the field of broadcast journalism.
In popular culture
Jessica Savitch published her own autobiography, Anchorwoman, in 1981. After her death, two posthumous biographies were written about her. According to The Washington Post, each of her biographers interviewed over 300 people in order to write their respective books. Although both biographies contain similar material, Savitch's family and friends have challenged as untrue portions of the books regarding her reporting skills and controversial aspects of her personal life (see Personal life).
The first biography, Almost Golden: Jessica Savitch and the Selling of Television News (Simon & Schuster, 1988) by Gwenda Blair, told Savitch's story within the broader context of the history of network news. It was later made into a Lifetime Network made-for-TV movie starring Sela Ward, called Almost Golden: The Jessica Savitch Story. When first aired, Almost Golden earned the second-highest rating ever for a cable television film up to that point. The television film was criticized for omitting or downplaying controversial aspects of Savitch's life and career that were discussed at length in Blair's book.
The second, Golden Girl: The Story of Jessica Savitch (Dutton, 1988) by Alanna Nash, became the basis of the 1996 theatrical film Up Close & Personal starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford. Up Close and Personal was originally intended as a biographical film about Savitch. However, the plot of the movie was substantially changed to become a love story quite different from Savitch's life. According to Nash and John Gregory Dunne (who worked on the screenplay and wrote the book Monster: Living Off the Big Screen about the making of the film), this was because the filmmakers, including The Walt Disney Company that was financing the film, considered Savitch's life story too downbeat to be popular at the box office. Many reviews of the movie discuss how the film departed, probably for commercial reasons, from Savitch's actual biography.
The 1996 feature film Up Close & Personal starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford was loosely based on Savitch's life. The A&E series Biography featured an episode about Savitch, which inspired Will Ferrell to make the 2004 comedy Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, basing the Ron Burgundy character on Savitch's friend Mort Crim). Lifetime also aired a documentary entitled Intimate Portrait: Jessica Savitch that was based on the perspectives of Savitch biographer Alanna Nash. 
- Kerr, Peter (October 25, 1983). "Jessica Savitch of NBC-TV Killed in Car Accident". The New York Times. Retrieved March 6, 2016.
- Alanna Nash; Arlene Nusbaum (March 22, 1989). Golden Girl: the story of Jessica Savitch. Canada: Penguin Group. ISBN 9780451161215. Retrieved April 24, 2015.
- "About Jessica Savitch". ithaca.edu. Ithaca College. Retrieved September 18, 2023.
- Almost Golden, Blair, page 108.
- Blair, Gwenda. "Golden Exterior". chicagotribune.com. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved September 18, 2023.
- Jessica’s shooting crew in Philadelphia included sound editor Paul Dowie, camera operator Joe Vandergast, and film editor Al Kohler, from Almost Golden, last paragraph of page 148 - 151.
- Almost Golden, Blair, pages 143-45.
- Almost Golden, Blair, pages 145-46.
- Almost Golden, Blair, page 177.
- Almost Golden, Blair, page 146. For the series on the “New Philadelphia Sound,” see page 177.
- Almost Golden, Blair, pages 210-11.
- "Jessica Savitch Official Biography". Retrieved December 10, 2013.
- Haller, Scot (November 7, 1983). "The Two Faces of a Newswoman". People. p. 48. Archived from the original on November 14, 2008. Retrieved March 6, 2016.
- Bykofsky, Stu (April 19, 1988). "The Savitch Story: Confirmation & Denial: '60 Minutes' Correspondent Ed Bradley Confirms Affair With NBC Anchorwoman". Philadelphia Daily News. Archived from the original on November 15, 2013. Retrieved March 6, 2016.
- Blair, p. 322. "In a single Digest, forty-three seconds of live television, she destroyed what was left of her career."
- Sims, Gayle Ronan (March 12, 2005). "Melvin R. Korn, 75, Advertising Executive". The Philadelphia Inquirer. Archived from the original on March 7, 2016. Retrieved March 7, 2016.
- "Liver Disease Linked to Death Of a TV Journalist's Husband". The New York Times. United Press International. August 5, 1981. Retrieved March 6, 2016.
- via Knight-Ridder News Service. "Jessica Savitch Returns to Work", The Lexington Herald, September 3, 1981. Accessed June 6, 2023, via Newspapers.com. "Jessica Savitch has resumed her NBC news chores three weeks after the suicide of her husband, Dr. Donald Payne."
- Blair, Gwenda (1988). Almost Golden: Jessica Savitch and the Selling of Television News. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 246. ISBN 978-0671632854.
- Dunne, John Gregory (1997). Monster: Living Off the Big Screen. New York: Vintage Books. p. 20. ISBN 0679455795.
- Blair, p. 107.
- "Two Views of Doomed Newscaster Jessica Savitch". The Telegraph. Nashua, New Hampshire. Associated Press. October 1, 1988. p. H7. Retrieved March 7, 2016.
However, both books argue that Savitch had a cocaine problem that had crippled her career....Both books delve into...alleged lesbian liaisons.
- Meers, Erik Ashok (April 16, 1996). "Jessica Savaged: How Hollywood Heterosexualized Up Close & Personal". The Advocate. Los Angeles, California: Liberation Publications Inc. pp. 45–47. Retrieved March 7, 2016.
While the lesbian rumor has never been proved, Savitch was part of a lesbian clique in both New York City and Washington, D.C. Friends recount that she made comments that suggested she had had lesbian relationships.
- Lawler, Sylvia (June 25, 1988). "Inside Television: Jessica Savitch Biography Stirs Emotions And Charges: 'Almost Golden - Jessica Savitch And The Selling Of Television News,' By Gwenda Blair". The Morning Call. Allentown, Pennsylvania. Archived from the original on March 7, 2016. Retrieved March 7, 2016.
- "Remembering Jessica Savitch, 30 Years After Her Death". Adweek. October 18, 2013.
- Almost Golden, Blair; The fatal accident is described from the last paragraph of page 343 to 345.
- "Exam Finds Little Alcohol". Spokane Chronicle. Associated Press. November 2, 1983. p. A6. Retrieved March 7, 2016.
- Konolige, Kit (January 28, 1988). "$8m Paid In Savitch Death". Philadelphia Daily News. Archived from the original on November 18, 2013. Retrieved March 7, 2016.
- "About Jessica Savitch". ithaca.edu. Ithaca College. Retrieved September 18, 2023.
- me. "The Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia". broadcastpioneers.com. Retrieved April 24, 2015.
- "Almost Golden: Jessica Savitch and the Selling of Television News by Gwenda Blair". Kirkus Reviews. August 29, 1977. Archived from the original on November 21, 2015. Retrieved March 6, 2016.
- Rosenberg, Howard (September 4, 1995). "TV Review: 'Savitch': An Anchorwoman's Tragic Fast-Track Life, Career". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on March 7, 2016. Retrieved March 7, 2016.
- Zurawik, David (September 4, 1995). "'Almost Golden' Loses Its Glitter and Integrity As Soon As the Lies Begin". The Baltimore Sun. Archived from the original on March 7, 2016. Retrieved March 7, 2016.
- Pierce, Scott D. (September 4, 1995). "Ward Is 'Almost Golden', But Movie Is Not". Deseret News. Salt Lake City, Utah. Archived from the original on March 7, 2016. Retrieved March 6, 2016.
- Gelbart, Larry (March 2, 1997). "A Beginning, a Muddle and an End". The New York Times. Archived from the original on February 3, 2002. Retrieved March 6, 2016.
- Ebert, Roger (March 1, 1996). "Up Close And Personal". RogerEbert.com. Archived from the original on September 12, 2012. Retrieved March 27, 2007.
- "Up Close & Personal (1996)". TopTenReviews.com. Archived from the original on May 14, 2007.
- Heigl, Alex (December 17, 2013). "Read the Angry Letter the Real-Life Ron Burgundy Sent PEOPLE in 1983". People. Retrieved March 17, 2016.
Ferrell told The New York Times that he was inspired to create Ron Burgundy while watching a documentary about Savitch. Crim was speaking about his experience with Savitch and as Ferrell recalls, 'He literally said the line: "You have to remember, back then I was a real male chauvinist pig. I was not nice to her."'
- "IGN Visits the Set of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy". IGN. September 12, 2003.
- Blair, Gwenda. Almost Golden: Jessica Savitch and the Selling of Television News. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988. ISBN 978-0671632854.
- Nash, Alanna. Golden Girl: The Story of Jessica Savitch. New York: Dutton, 1988. ISBN 978-0525246671.
- Savitch, Jessica. Anchorwoman. New York: Putnam, 1982. ISBN 978-0399127359.