Jessica Savitch

Jessica Savitch
Jessica Savitch
Born Jessica Beth Savitch
February 1, 1947(1947-02-01)
Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, United States
Died October 23, 1983(1983-10-23) (aged 36)
New Hope, Pennsylvania, United States
Nationality American
Education Ithaca College
Occupation Television journalist
Spouse Mel Korn (m. 1980–1981) «start: (1980)–end+1: (1982)»"Marriage: Mel Korn to Jessica Savitch" Location: (linkback://
Donald Payne (m. 1981–1981) «start: (1981)–end+1: (1982)»"Marriage: Donald Payne to Jessica Savitch" Location: (linkback://

Jessica Beth Savitch (February 1, 1947 – October 23, 1983) was an American television broadcaster and news reporter, host of PBS' Frontline and New York weekend anchor of NBC Nightly News during the short-lived Roger Mudd/Tom Brokaw era.


Life and career

Savitch was born in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, about thirty-five miles from Philadelphia. She was the daughter of Florence (née Goldberger), 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.[1] After her father died in 1959, her family moved to Margate, New Jersey (a suburb of Atlantic City). She attended Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York, where she worked at the campus radio and TV stations and at WBBF, an AM outlet in Rochester. After graduating in the spring of 1968, Savitch worked at various radio and TV stations, including WCBS in New York and KHOU-TV in Houston. She then became a popular local television newscaster at KYW-TV, the former NBC affiliate (now CBS) in Philadelphia, and a Washington correspondent for NBC News. Thanks to her screen presence and attractive style, she was eventually promoted to the news anchor of the weekend NBC Nightly News, and she also anchored Frontline on PBS. Her autobiography, Anchorwoman, was published in 1982.

As Savitch's career skyrocketed however, her unstable personal life became increasingly messy. She had a stormy 10-year on-and-off relationship with news director Ron Kershaw, who was allegedly abusive to her. Savitch also suffered through two difficult marriages. Her first marriage to advertising executive Mel Korn took place on January 6, 1980 at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Her husband's business failed soon afterwards and the couple separated 10 months later. By the time Savitch and Korn separated, she had begun having an affair with her gynecologist, Donald Payne. Payne was a closet homosexual who had recently gone through a bitter divorce of his own.[citation needed] Savitch married Donald Payne on March 21, 1981, weeks after her divorce was finalized. After Payne attempted suicide, and was hospitalized, Savitch had her pregnancy terminated, but told friends that she had suffered a miscarriage.[2] Payne, who had been tormented by physical and mental illness, committed suicide on August 1, 1981 by hanging himself in the basement of their Washington DC townhouse.[3]

On October 3, 1983, Savitch anchored a mid-evening news update called NBC News Digest, during which she slurred some words and skipped others entirely, giving the appearance she was under the influence of drugs. Savitch had been suspected of abusing drugs in the past, and this one-minute performance, broadcast live and seen by millions of viewers across the United States, seemed to confirm those suspicions.[3][4]


On Sunday, October 23, 1983, Savitch had dinner with Martin Fischbein, vice-president of the New York Post, in New Hope, Pennsylvania. After the meal at Odette's Restaurant, they began to drive home about 7:15 pm, with Fischbein behind the wheel and Savitch in the back seat with her dog, Chewy.

Fischbein may have missed posted warning signs in a heavy rainfall, and 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 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 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 rear. After the subsequent autopsies, the Bucks County coroner ruled that both had died from asphyxiation by drowning. He noted that Fischbein was apparently knocked unconscious in the wreck but Savitch had struggled to escape. There was no finding that drugs or alcohol had played any part in the crash.[3][5]


Savitch's estate was awarded more than $8 million in a wrongful death action.[6] 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 addition, the Park School of Communications at Ithaca College named a television studio on campus in her honor.

Savitch was inducted into "The Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia's Hall of Fame" on November 17, 2006.[7]

Savitch's life was the subject of a Lifetime Television made-for-TV movie starring Sela Ward called Almost Golden: The Jessica Savitch Story. A theatrical movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Up Close & Personal, was originally intended as a biographical film about Savitch. However, the movie became an A Star Is Born-style entertainment instead, possibly because of a belief that Savitch's life was too downbeat to be popular at the box office.[8]

Further reading

  • Blair, Gwenda. Almost Golden: Jessica Savitch and the Selling of Television News, Avon Books, 1988. ISBN 0-380-70752-7


  1. ^
  2. ^ Video clip[dead link]
  3. ^ a b c "Jessica Savitch". Internet Accuracy Project.,Jessica.html. Retrieved 2007-03-27.  Also see Almost Golden by Gwenda Blair, listed as a reference, for extensive biographical details on Savitch.
  4. ^ See for a video recording of the newscast. Almost Golden (p. 13–31) treats the incident extensively.
  5. ^ Almost Golden (p.343-47) thoroughly discusses the accident and subsequent events.
  6. ^ Debra Cassens Moss. "Savitch Settlement: $8.125 Million in Newswoman's Death". Raynes McCarty. Retrieved 2007-03-27. [dead link]
  7. ^ Wilkinson, Gerry. "Jessica Beth Savitch". Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia web site. Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia. Archived from the original on 2010-03-13. Retrieved 2010-03-13. 
  8. ^ Ebert, Roger (1996-03-01). "Up Close And Personal". Retrieved 2007-03-27.  Many other reviews of the movie at discuss how the film departed, probably for commercial reasons, from Savitch's actual biography.

External links

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