The word "golden" jumps from the title of two new books about Jessica Savitch, the broadcaster who rocketed to network stardom in the 1970s and then died tragically five years ago at the age of 35. It has become the watchword of her lingering mystique.
The viewers who watched her on NBC, and the Savitch clones who flooded local newsrooms to emulate her success, saw "gold" in Savitch's blond facade and in the lightning popularity that brought her all the dizzying trappings of fame.
But for biographer Gwenda Blair, author of "Almost Golden: Jessica Savitch and the Selling of Television News," "gold" was what Savitch wanted desperately and never really achieved: the grand prizes of her profession. Memorable stories, distinguished performances, good ratings and peer respect were all there in bits and pieces, but more often than not they slipped from her grasp. In a superbly detailed book just published by Simon and Schuster, Blair catalogues the very human flaws of a woman she describes as an archetype of ambition and vulnerability, desperately needing approval from her coworkers, rarely able to trust, defensively jealous and abusive and ultimately self-destructive.
In a second biography, "Golden Girl: The Story of Jessica Savitch," to be published by E.P. Dutton this fall, Alanna Nash calls Savitch "a commercial for the American Dream."
"She seemed to have so much promise," says Nash. "She had everything in front of her, had she not bought into the star system, and had she knuckled down and become the journalist she wanted to be. When you think of gold, you think of something pure and perfect. In her story it became an irony."
Both authors, each of whom says she interviewed more than 300 people, paint Savitch as a relentlessly ambitious woman who created a persona to fit the times and the profession of broadcast news in the 1970s. At the same time, behind the facade, they discovered, she inflicted terrible pain upon herself through unhealthy personal relationships and drug abuse.
Her family, appearing on television recently, said she wasn't the person depicted in Blair's book. In an interview on Fox Broadcasting's "A Current Affair," Savitch's mother and two sisters said Blair's portrait of a bisexual drug abuser, more performer than journalist, is totally wrong. "My sister was not a drug abuser. It is a lie," said Lori Savitch, a newscaster in Philadelphia. "This woman printed this book, got hold of some rumors, dug up some bones and took them in her teeth to the bank. This woman is making a buck off my sister's corpse."
Jessica Savitch grew up in the prototypically American small town of Kennett Square, Pa., 35 miles from Philadelphia, the daughter of a clothing merchant. She started her broadcasting career in high school, working at the local radio station, WOND. She later became the first female newscaster on Ithaca College's WICB, and in 1968 landed her first postcollege job at CBS in New York as an administrative assistant. Three years later she was promoted to street reporter in Houston and within weeks had become the first woman anchor in a major Southern market. For five years she was a pioneering anchor in Philadelphia at KYW, and there made her mark as a journalist with an eye for the human interest story.
When Savitch became a network correspondent on NBC in September 1977 and later an anchor at age 31, she became, as well, a symbol of the upheavals then underway in network news. One of those was the growing competition between the news reporters -- many of them trained first on newspapers, wire services or magazines -- who were viewed by many as the real professionals, and the news readers, who often had little or no reporting background and were viewed as performers.
"For better or worse," Blair said in an interview, Savitch "became the model for an enormous number of female newscasters. Talent scouts and agents I talked to said in the years after she came to the network, they were flooded with Jessica Savitch clones, and that cool authority she projected, that look of being attractive and at the same time being very in charge, that package that she put together was what young women modeled themselves after."
And she reached for perfection, taping her ankles together for a newscast that would show her legs and then forgetting they were taped and falling flat on her face. On occasions, Blair writes, Savitch was so pressured by her job that she bit her nails until they bled. And, according to both authors, she apparently fabricated stories about her early jobs and life style. Nash writes, "There would come to be as many versions of Jessica Savitch as there were people to listen to them."
When she was first hired by NBC, she covered the U.S. Senate, anchored one edition of the weekend news and did the "NBC News Digests," the prime-time 90-second newscasts. By both authors' accounts she failed miserably at the reporting assignments and shone during the anchoring duties. Occasionally, however, she would soar impressively beyond her news reading duties, as on the night in 1979 when she narrated uncoached the raw film footage of the Jonestown massacre.
Eventually Savitch became the first woman to anchor the weeknight "NBC News," the seat once occupied by such veteran, classically trained reporters as David Brinkley, Chet Huntley and John Chancellor. Even though she was a substitute anchor, and for fewer than two dozen times, that still was media news and part of her evolving legend. When TV Guide surveyed the public for something called a television anchor's "trust factor," Savitch ranked fourth. But she also continued to be more starlet than anchor, having her name linked in gossip columns with Warren Beatty, and her contract included such personal services as a limousine, hairdresser and secretary, which one colleague pointed out were more the Warner Bros. of the 1940s than NBC of the 1980s.
Yet in television news the mantle of stardom rotates rapidly, and by 1983 Savitch was doing only the weekend updates, though still earning $6,000 a week. Her story survives her because it had two tragic endings.
Blair's book opens with the moment on Oct. 3, 1983, when Savitch, then handling the "NBC News Digest," stumbled through the broadcast, losing her signature presence of authority and appearing, according to Blair, to be experiencing "the beginnings of a nervous breakdown." To the network insiders interviewed by Blair, this was Savitch's professional demise.
Nash's book opens with the scenethree weeks later when Savitch's car, driven by an apparently disoriented male companion, plunged off a bridge in the fog and into the Delaware Canal. Both were killed. A couple of days later, Reuven Frank, then president of NBC News, said Savitch "played a uniquely important role ... as a symbol of the gradual disappearance of the obstacles to women in broadcast journalism."
For Blair, who was raised in the Belle Haven area of Fairfax County and now writes an ethics column for Mademoiselle magazine, "the selling" of network news was an essential element of the Savitch phenomenon. When she first started looking into the Savitch story, Blair said, "I was lukewarm about putting two years into it. Then I found not only did she have a compelling story but she also represented the first generation to grow up with television and television news. She was a symbol of the changes in television in the late 1960s and early 1970s from news as public service to news as a profit center."
It was a time when local news programs were expanding from the old 15-minute formats, building slick promotional campaigns and seeking out female correspondents who radiated beauty and authority, though not necessarily with journalistic acumen. "She was one of the first TV newswomen who really grasped how important her appearance was, how important performance is in a visual medium. She put a whole new spin on it," said Blair.
For Nash, a resident of Louisville and author of a Dolly Parton biography and an upcoming collection of interviews with country music legends, Savitch's personal story alone proved the magnet. "I watched her rather closely," Nash said. "I thought she was rather attractive. You couldn't quit looking at her. Then I saw her deteriorating both physically and professionally and I wondered why.
"I knew basically how screwed up she was at the end. And I was looking for psychological clues ... I think she was very ill, not only with a drug problem but with a severe personality disorder. Hers is the story of how people seek fame to cover up for ills and misplaced ambition. It is more a psychological profile than a story of television news," said Nash. "Jessica Savitch could have been in any profession and ended up the same."
According to both authors, Savitch's life was haunted by her father's death in 1959, when she was 12. "She said she never got over that sense of abandonment," Blair said, "and the rest of her life certainly can be seen as an attempt to compensate for that ... to get approval she never really found."
When Savitch was 15, Nash reports, she once said, "What I lack in talent I make up for in ambition and drive." When she didn't get the job she wanted at the Ithaca College radio station, she drove every day to a job as a rock deejay in Rochester and was known as "Honeybee." She worked occasionally for a cable outfit and made commercials where her coworkers noticed her "golden" transformation from an insecure, ordinary person into an attractive, projecting personality.
Besides NBC's viewers her audience included the viewers of public broadcasting's "Frontline," the readers of "Anchorwoman," her autobiography published in the fall of 1982, and the audience of the "Today" show, where she was a frequent and successful substitute anchor.
But in the end, she didn't blend with even the rest of the anointed "golden" correspondents. Blair includes a story about a Life magazine photography session in 1981 in which Lesley Stahl, Jane Pauley, Sylvia Chase, Lynn Sherr, Judy Woodruff, Betsy Aaron, Diane Sawyer and Savitch were invited to line up for Annie Leibovitz's camera. Savitch was concerned, according to Blair, with looking the best and felt uncomfortable with the small talk of the occasion.
"I found it so sad, because another similar incident happened when she was on Phil Donahue in 1982 with Lesley Stahl, Ann Compton and others. When the others were taking a rare opportunity to visit with each other, Jessica was there with her hairdresser, her wardrobe person, her whole retinue. Nobody else came with that kind of setup. Jessica was again separated ... She was never one of the gang," says Blair.
The story of how a woman was packaged fascinates Blair. "We have to remember this was someone who was not bound and gagged. She was an adult. She was very involved in this process. She wanted to be a star and she knew what she was getting into," says Blair.
As her professional life soared, Savitch projected the "golden" exterior to her viewers. But her personal life was a tarnished quest for stability.
While she lived in Houston, she met Ronald Kershaw, a rival television reporter, and they had a long, torturous relationship that lasted the rest of her life. In Philadelphia she found interim protection in a marriage with Mel Korn, an advertising executive. The union lasted 10 months. When he realized the extent of her drug problem, he said the marriage could continue only if she stopped. But she didn't.
In the spring of 1981 she married Dr. Donald Rollie Payne, a Washington gynecologist. He was found hanged less than six months later. She discovered his body in the basement of their town house near American University, suspended by the leash of her dog. Both Savitch and Payne were thought by friends and associates to be bisexual, according to both authors.
"It seems to me that the most important thing is that Jessica Savitch never seems to have had a satisfying long-term relationship with anybody," says Blair. "The fact that she had relationships with women is something that I tried to be very careful in talking about. The rumors and stories that were around her were an invisible cloud. She had relations with women. I was not in the room, but it would be odd indeed if they didn't have some sexual component. I think she was a desperately lonely, insecure woman and when other women who happened to be lesbians reached out to her, she responded."
Her drug use apparently started in college when she began to take diet pills to lose weight and other pills to stay awake to study. By the end of Savitch's life, says Blair, she was a daily user of cocaine.
Though Blair says she sympathizes with the distress of the Savitch family ("Finding out someone you love has had a tormented life is hard"), she stands by her story. "I interviewed people who loved her, people who hated her and the stories were consistent," the author says.
Since she has begun appearing on television to publicize her book, Blair says, "I have even more admiration for Savitch's ability to perform." But her research has changed forever the way she looks at the medium. Nash has been similarly changed.
At times, Nash says, she was shaken to tears by the facts of Savitch's life. "I went into this thinking she had been a victim and then found out she was her own victim. Here is somebody who worked so hard to carve out her success she carved out her failure ... I would be so sad I couldn't go on for a while. I had a picture of her from the true 'golden' period next to my word processor and I would cry."