The rise and tragic end of Anchor Woman Jessica Savitch.
The controlled manner in which Jessica Savitch brought us the news every night was a far cry from the emotional instability that lurked internally. After all, she was one of the first woman to anchor a news desk and was a pioneer with bringing attention to woman and equal pay with her male counterparts. Heavy burdens to carry while making sure she was flawless in her physical appearance and with every move on and off camera. Unfortunately, one evening (October 3, 1983) during a slurred and confused delivery of NBC’s one-minute prime-time News Digest, began speculation that all was not right in her life damaging her professional reputation she worked so hard to uphold. Those who saw her infamous public meltdown on prime-time television, assumed she was either drunk or high on drugs. It was claimed that she was on medication, the result of an injury to her nose that had required surgery several weeks earlier. This misstep was a chance for her critics to pounce on her reputation and they did. Twenty days later she would be gone.
Savitch offered the only excuse she could for her sudden meltdown on air, stating she was healing after recent plastic surgery, was tired, faint, and had a glass of wine on an empty stomach . NBC didn’t know what to do. The powers that be were convinced Jessica was going insane and would kill herself if confronted. Friend and colleague, Linda Ellerbee, grew so concerned that she gathered a group of friends and family to stage an intervention. It was to happen on a Monday, October 24th. However, on Sunday, October 23rd, Jessica had a date with the New York Post’s Martin Fischbein. He signed out a 1982 Oldsmobile station wagon from the Post’s fleet, and they headed toward Bucks County, PA with her dog Chewy along side.
On a cold and misty dreary evening after a day of shopping in New Hope Pennsylvania, Jessica Savitch lost her life. The “Ellerbee” intervention was too late. Fischbein, known as a careful driver, was confused about which way to go after leaving the restaurant “Chez Odette’s”. Instead of the correct way out, he drove up a towpath. Investigators say he may have swerved to avoid a parked car. The big wagon went over the side of the canal (which was usually dry). Due to a heavy rain storm the canal was filled with water.
A budding journalist junkie myself I was devastated that a member of the media had died so tragically. Growing up in the 1980’s the print and television media were revered. Walter Cronkite set the standard that everyone tried to emulate (male or female) and he was a hero among young journalists. Woodward and Bernestein were rock stars in investigative journalism circles and who didn’t want to bang on an old typewriter with a cigarette hanging out of their mouth while itching to blow open the next political scandal? Just about every journalism student at that time.
Jessica was the height of her popularity when she wrote the book, “Anchorwoman” in 1982. Her promotional interviews were compelling as she was a living example of where women were headed to in the 1980’s. Having a successful career while balancing a family life and having children were being questioned and scrutinized by old school conservatives and her mostly male peers. Jessica was not afraid to reveal her difficulty with surviving personal relationships while trying to climb to the peak of career success. In an interview with Bill Boggs on a show self entitled, he asked Jessica about having both a career and having a family to which she answered;
“I think I can give as much as I can give and get from my career, I do not think it precludes myself from a personal life. I think you must work just as hard at both and then maybe it works out.”
As she explained on the David Letterman show in 1983 the book “Anchorwoman” was not autobiographical or a “how to” book. This book was a bold statement about the media industry;
“it is a job, it is a career it is tough and it doesn’t mean that your personal life is happy just because you do well on the air”.
“Anchorwoman” was also an answer to a few old myths that were known around the news industry regarding women at that time;
“ that no one would watch a woman report the news because their voices were not authoritative and other women didn’t want to watch other woman on t.v. because they were jealous”. Stated Savitch.
Biographer Gwendolyn Blair stated;
“ 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.”
Sunday, October 23, 1983, Jessica had been on a date with Martin Fischbein a New York Post Executive. Leaving a restaurant parking lot of “Chez Oddette’s” in the pouring rain, Fischbein drove out the wrong exit and ended up flipping the car into the Delaware Canal. The Oldsmobile station wagon in which Savitch was riding, sank upside down into several feet of mud, sealing the doors shut, and trapping them inside as the water poured in. Savitch, Fischbein and her beloved dog Chewy, a Siberian husky, all drowned.
New Hope Police Chief Walter Everett said the couple was last seen having dinner at a local restaurant at about 7 p.m. Sunday and apparently drove in the rain from the restaurant’s parking lot onto a towpath along the canal.
He said it was believed they tried to avoid a car parked in the narrow roadway, but veered too far to the left and plunged into the canal. Their station wagon fell 10 feet before hitting the water, police said.
The car was spotted shortly after midnight by a man returning home from a Philadelphia Flyers hockey game, authorities said.
The body of Ms. Savitch was found in the back seat. He said that Miss Savitch had suffered a slight head injury, but it did not contribute to her death. Fischbein was in front and was the driver, police said.
‘’The mud was knee-deep on the bottom,’’ said Mario Lasarro, a member of the Lambertville, N.J., rescue squad that went to the scene on rural River Road. ‘’It looked like they tried to kick the doors open but they couldn’t.’’
The bodies of Ms. Savitch, Fischbein and the dog were found in the car about 1 a.m. in the Delaware Canal in New Hope, a small, affluent community of artists and craftsmen 35 miles northeast of Philadelphia, Bucks County Coroner Dr. Thomas Rosko stated.
Following an autopsy of the bodies, both Ms. Savitch and Fischbein had died of asphyxiation due to drowning. There was no evidence that alcohol contributed to the crash. Neither Savitch nor Fischbein had any drugs in their system at the time of death, and they had consumed only small amounts of alcohol — about half a glass of wine each. According to the New Hope police chief, a similar death had occurred at the same spot some years before. Rosko said he could not determine medically the time of death, but a watch found in Fischbein’s coat pocket stopped at 9:55 p.m. Roughly three hours it was reported when they had left the restaurant.
‘Certainly she (Ms. Savitch) died within a very few minutes of when the car was in the water,’ Rosko said, adding the same was true for Fischbein.
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, the restaurant, Chez Odette, and the state of Pennsylvania for damages in Savitch’s death. The suit was settled for $8 million, most of which was paid by the New York Post. Some of the money was used to establish scholarships for women studying for careers in broadcasting or journalism at Ithaca College and other colleges.
Savitch was survived at the time by her mother and two sisters, Lori and Stephanie Savitch of Margate, N.J. .
Mort Crim, who co-anchored a local Philadelphia TV newscast with Savitch in her pre-network days stated, “She attracted tragedy like a magnet.”
A few years prior to the release of her book “Anchorwoman”, Jessica Savitch lost her second husband, Dr. Donald Rollie Payne, to a suicide. His death came less than five months after their marriage and several months after Ms. Savitch suffered a “miscarriage”. According to the television program in 1995, “Intimate Portrait”, Savitch aborted the baby and it was not a miscarriage because she was concerned that the infant would carry Payne’s genealogy of mental illness. Payne, who had substance abuse problems and suffered from depression, committed suicide by hanging in their Washington, D.C. townhouse. Payne’s suicide was shortly after he had attempted to kill himself the first time and was hospitalized but released into Jessica’s care. Savitch asked the network if she could do her reporting from Washington so not to leave her husband alone but was told “no”. Payne assured her that he was fine and that she could go to New York to complete her assignment. Shortly before she was to arrive home Payne used Jessica’s precious dog “Chewy’s” leash to end his life knowing she would eventually be the one to find him. Although she was upset by his death, she returned to her work at NBC just three weeks later. Savitch also did not feel the need to talk about his death in her book as she explained to Bill Boggs during her promotional tour;
“I drew a line on what is personal. How I dealt with it, what led up to it, what happened, is mine to know, mine to work through, and mine to explain only to when it impacts on my work. I made the decision a long time ago and I have stuck with it.”
Savitch had a long-term intermittent relationship over many years with TV news executive Ron Kershaw. Kershaw 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. Savitch always found her way back to Kershaw even when she married long time friend Mel Korn, 18 years her senior and a super-fan. Korn acted as a confidant providing career advice and propelling her to the level of star treatment she so desperately craved. Korn was always there to whisk her away in his private limousine to and from work and to wherever they wanted to go. Unfortunately, her weekend escapes were to Baltimore where her toxic lover Ron Kershaw was working as an evening anchor. The marriage to Korn lasted 10 months and ended in divorce in 1980.
Ron Kershaw was her relationship “kryptonite”. Savitch met Kershaw while competing to cover a story for the Houston Station, “News Watch 11” (KHOU). According to Biographer, Alanna Nash, Ron Kershaw physically beat Savitch from their first meeting in Houston all they way until her first days with NBC.
Although Kershaw and Savitch vowed to move up together in the News Industry, Philadelphia came calling for Jessica and she signed a contract before asking for Ron’s approval. KYW in Philadelphia was one step away from the New York job she coveted and she was willing to sacrifice any personal relationships, family or not. Therefore, the good news came at a heavy price and this meant unbelievable anger and betrayal that Kershaw felt about Jessica signing a contract behind his back. Kershaw’s jealousy would be the source of his rage throughout Jessica’s adult life. Things only got worse between the two when a competing Philadelphia television station called Kershaw to work for them. However, once they got wind that Kershaw was Savitch’s boyfriend they recanted the offer. This only drove more of wedge between the two fueling the violence to an epic level. After Kershaw was fired from his Baltimore job Jessica never saw him again and then she passed away in 1983. Kershaw died in 1988 at the age of 43 of cancer. When Kershaw found out about Jessica’s accident witnesses stated he went to the scene but they had already removed her body.
Jessica’s Memorial service was conducted at the Roth Memorial Chapel in Atlantic City. Her old broadcast colleague, Mort Crim, read the eulogy to the 25 or so who attended. Jessica and Chewy had been cremated together, and their ashes were scattered in the stormy Atlantic surf.
Savitch suffered from health problems throughout her life and was hospitalized several times for drug use and suicide attempts. She reportedly had anorexia and had several pregnancies that ended early, although sources differ on whether she miscarried or had abortions.
Consistently throughout my research there was mention of a severe cocaine problem. “Toward the end,” former NBC newswoman Linda Ellerbee once told interviewer Bob Costas, “we could all see she was in trouble. At one point, I went to NBC management and I said, ‘You have to do something.’ And an NBC vice-president said to me, ‘We’re afraid to do anything. We’re afraid she’ll kill herself on our time.’ Former NBC Today Show Alumni told “Watch What Happens Live” host Andy Cohen in 2016 that they (Jessica Savitch and Bryant Gumbel) had both shared the same Agent therefore Gumbel confirming that he knew Jessica had a serious drug problem at that time.
The Comeback Cut Short
Her career was on the decline at the time of her death but like every other life cycle there could have been time for Savitch to rebound. If she had taken some time off, gone to rehab, and reevaluated her skills, she would have been back. Her former Co-Anchor at the Philadelphia news station where she once worked (Mort Crim) stated;
“Knowing her love of the business and her love of performing,” says Crim, “it’s hard to imagine that she would have stepped aside willingly.”
Surely she would have found another job in news, though perhaps not at the networks. Savitch would have likely been a contender at CNN or PBS (where she already moonlighted), and Philly would have been delirious at the prospect of welcoming her back. Today, in a time when TMZ is retrieving information faster then the real news stations, and now the news business really isn’t that much different from Hollywood, Savitch would have needed to surrender and follow the entertainment trend of today. At almost 70 years old, her age had she lived, do I dare say that she may have been a great choice as a host of “The View”.
Savitch was born February 1, 1947, in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, about 35 miles west of Philadelphia. She was the eldest daughter of Florence (Spadoni), 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 at the age of 33 in 1959, her family moved to Margate City, New Jersey (a suburb of Atlantic City). Jessica was 12 years old.
According to her two biographers, Gwenda Blair and Alanna Nash, Savitch was haunted throughout her life by her father’s untimely death, and pursued a career partly to compensate for the loss. Ironically, she would suffer a similar early death about the same age as her Father but vastly different circumstances.
Jessica’s Mother had to go to work to support the family after David’s death. She grew up, at times slightly impoverished, and had to fight to go to college and study broadcasting.
Jessica’s grief was explained by her sister Stephanie in a 1995 interview on the program “Jessica Savitch, an Intimate Portrait”;
“Jessie’s grief was really deep. I can’t say that it was any deeper then the rest of ours, but, she was never the same either. She seemed to be so much more intense after his death” .
This “intensity” that Stephanie described in Jessica’s transformation after their Father’s death, could explain her endless pursuit of perfection in her professional life. The gaping hole left in her heart from her Father’s death continuity needed to be filled with a substitute for that love which in most cases came in the form of rage. Placing so much time and energy into achieving a professional goal it requires all your heart and all your soul and leaves little connection to personal relationships. Jessica subconsciously lived her life avenging her Father’s death through self destructive behavior. Reports of behind the scene rants and arguments with her news staff were documented through news reporter out-takes and personal accounts from co-workers.
“Jess could be very hyper, she could be rather emotional, usually related to something in the newsroom. She was a perfectionists. Very demanding. Very hard on people sometimes but mostly hard on herself.”
Mort Crim Co-Anchor Philadelphia Station.
Stephanie Savitch (Jessica’s Sister)explained that as children they were not allowed to go to their Father’s funeral so there was no closure. Stephanie believed that this had an effect on all of them. For Stephanie it became a professional effect where she became a Grief Counselor in West Virginia. For Jessica, she became outrageously driven on personal achievement while torturing her body both physically and spiritually through drugs and bad relationships. After her Father’s death Jessica lost a little bit of her good-nature-laugh that only he was able to bring out in her. During my research while reviewing her interviews with David Letterman, Bill Boggs and Maury Provich, Jessica showed that fun and light side to her personality (especially with Letterman). However, to use a baseball analogy; when a MLB pitcher injures their pitching arm they lose a few miles per hour off the fast ball. That was Jessica. After being deeply injured after her Father’s death she wasn’t quite the same “pitcher”. She lost a few miles per hour off her happiness.
Ode to “Chez Odette’s”
Chez Odette’s closed it’s doors in 2007 after suffering damage from flooding and storms. The restaurant remained vacant for over a decade. However, in 2018 the historic structure on the site that previously accommodated part of the restaurant was donated to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The building was moved to another location to serve as a public-information center.
There will be a 36-guest-room hotel replacing the restaurant at 274 South River Road and it is called “Riverhouse at Odette’s”. The Riverhouse hotel will include accommodations for weddings, a restaurant, and a rooftop bar opening Spring of 2020.
The original stone structure was built in 1784 as an inn and tavern, eventually becoming the River House. In 1960, it was purchased by French vaudeville actress Odette Myrtil, who moved to New Hope after a long musical theater career in New York. After managing The Playhouse Inn next door to “the Bucks County Playhouse”, she moved to the establishment she renamed “Chez Odette’s” and ran it until shortly before she died in 1978. The restaurant continued operation until the flood damage from the nearby Delaware River and Canal shut it down.
According to the book “Dinner and Spirits: A Guide to America’s Most Haunted Restaurants, Taverns, and Inns,” paranormal investigators felt a presence on the third floor and guests had heard their names being called out. A psychic couple identified the ghost as a woman who was murdered in the bar area and gets upset when someone sits in her favorite seat. The ghost of actor George C. Scott may have followed Odette Myrtil from the Bucks County Playhouse he is said to haunt. It’s said that Chewy (Jessica’s Dog)haunts the site of their deaths near the restaurant’s main location before it was moved. However, would ghosts stick with their paranormal residence now that it changed locations? That would seem to make sense if they’re attached to events in the building rather than being buried beneath it. Chewy may decide to roam a drier location.
Savitch, a 1968 graduate of the Roy H. Park School of Communications Television-Radio program, at Ithaca College. Throughout her career, she remained closely involved with her alma mater, returning to Ithaca periodically to teach a minicourse on television news. Jessica gave the main address at the College’s 1979 commencement, at which she was awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters degree. In 1980 she was elected to the Ithaca College Board of Trustees. “The Jessica Savitch Distinguished Journalism Lecture Series” was established by the Savitch family as a continuing recognition of Jessica’s pioneering spirit, professional dedication, and overall influence on broadcast journalism.
“The Jessica Savitch Communications Scholarship” was established through gifts from her family, associates, and friends to support students in the Roy H. Park School of Communications who demonstrate excellence, achievement, and promise in the field of broadcast journalism. In addition, the Park School’s major television studio is named in her honor.
Jessica Savitch was ahead of her time as she fought for woman’s rights while she was still battling the same male dominated war within her profession. Savitch was certain about a woman’s place in the Media industry even though she was never in control of her personal life. Jessica only had the chance to write one book when you know she probably would have written several. There certainly would have been a stint on “60 Minutes” and most likely a host of her own talk show somewhere along the line where she could show more of her fun side like she did with David Letterman in 1982. Her death at age 36 deprived us of so much of her talent and cutting edge reporting but left us with a vast number of Journalism students following in her footsteps.