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Jessica Savage Biography
Jessica Beth Savitch (February 1, 1947 – October 23, 1983) was an American television news presenter and correspondent, best known for being the weekend anchor of NBC Nightly News and daily presenter of NBC News updates during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Savitch was one of the first women to anchor an evening network news broadcast alone, following in the footsteps of Marlene Sanders of ABC News and Catherine Mackin of NBC News. She also hosted PBS’s public affairs documentary program Frontline from its January 1983 debut until her death in an automobile accident later that year.
Shortly before her death in October 1983, Savitch also became known for her live broadcast of a short NBC News update in which her delivery was erratic and she appeared to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The incident caused widespread speculation that she was abusing drugs. She died three weeks later by drowning when a car in which she was a passenger accidentally drove into a canal during a heavy rainstorm. No drugs and very little alcohol were present in her system at the time of her death.
Jessica Savage Career
Savitch was born February 1, 1947, in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, about 35 miles west of Philadelphia. She was the eldest 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. After her father died at age 33 in 1959, her family moved to Margate City, New Jersey (a suburb of Atlantic City), where she attended Atlantic City High School. 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.
While in high school in Atlantic City, Savitch got a job co-hosting a show for teenagers on radio station WOND in Pleasantville, New Jersey. She enjoyed the work and soon became a news reader and disc jockey for WOND as well. She was the first female disc jockey in that area.
Following high school, Savitch attended Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York, as a communications major. According to Savitch, the school’s discriminatory attitudes against women prevented her from getting the experience she wanted on the college-owned radio and television stations, so she sought opportunities in nearby Rochester, New York. There, she did on-camera and voice-over commercial work, and while still attending college became a popular top 40 disc jockey known as “Honeybee” at WBBF (now WROC-AM). She graduated from Ithaca College in 1968.
Jessica Savitch Car Accident
At the height of her fame she was known for Gucci belts, Halston dresses, piles of cocaine, penthouses and pills. Her end came in an Oldsmobile station wagon.
They called her the Golden Girl of TV news, and for good reason. Jessica Savitch seemed to have the world at her fingers. At KHOU she was hailed as the first anchorwoman in the South (although that would be contested). At KYW in Philadelphia, she carved a stylish, hard-hitting niche with flawless looks, tough talk and in depth stories.
But all was not right in Jessica’s world. The only man she every really loved beat her terribly. Drug use led to promiscuity and sometimes threatened her standing at the station. The networks wanted her, but Westinghouse had ironclad contracts – so she acted out and became a general terror to all. The reputation followed her to NBC.
She was made Senate correspondent but she was in over her head. Resentment from coworkers hurt, and led to her eventually being pulled off the Senate beat. Jessica’s time at NBC was filled with uncertainty, and with the uncertainty came drug use. But the public loved her, as it did in Philadelphia.
Jessica had one divorce, then met a doctor with even worse drug troubles than hers, and married him. She had a pet husky named Chewy the doctor hated. She came back to DC after anchoring the weekend news in New York and found her husband hanging from her dog’s leash in the basement. Friends say this started a long, dark spiral that ended with her death. But through all this time, her relationship with the viewing public never faltered – until October 3, 1983:
She said she was healing after recent plastic surgery, was tired, faint, had a glass of wine on an empty stomach – there were lots of excuses. NBC didn’t know what to do. The powers that be were convinced Jessica was going insane and would kill herself. Linda Ellerbee grew concerned and gathered a group to stage an intervention. It was to happen on a Monday.
But on Sunday, 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 Chewy in tow.
1982 was the first year Oldsmobile spun Cutlass off into its own marque. This wagon was officially known as a Cutlass Cruiser, until it morphed into a Ciera a few years later. (Thanks to all who pointed out my earlier error!)
These had some interesting engine options. You could get a diesel, a 3.8 V6 and four different V8s.
These were big sellers for GM. With some cosmetic changes, the Cutlass wagons puttered well into the 90s. They aged well. Jessica’s trauma and drug abuse kept her from doing the same. In this photo she’s roughly 35.
That October night in 1983 was foggy and Fischbein, known as a careful driver, was confused about which way to go after leaving the restaurant. Instead of the correct was 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) and the mud sealed the doors shut. Jessica, Fischbein and Chewy drowned. There were some indications Jessica tried to get out. No matter how many times in life she threatened suicide in the end instinct took over.
Jessica was the daughter of a clothing store owner who died young. Her mother was a nurse and had to go to work to support the family. She grew up, at times slightly impoverished, and had to fight to go to college and study broadcasting.
For all the first class tickets and privilege she projected, the Golden Girl of TV news came from an ordinary, if humble background. Tragic as her death was and still is, it’s nearly fitting she died in such an ordinary, if humble car.