By Maury Z. Levy
Saturday is pink, which is only fitting. She is standing there in the middle of the newsroom, Jessica Savitch, somewhere in between Orien Reid and Al Meltzer, and she is flashing her panties.
Maybe this is not the most professional thing to do. Mort Crim doesn’t go around showing his jockey shorts in public. But then Jessica Savitch is still pretty young, 26, and pretty green—they fix that up with makeup.
The panties are a gift from an admirer in Allentown. There are a lot of them, admirers. There is even a whole Jessica Savitch fan club, people who do nothing but live for weekends at 6:00 and 11:00 on Channel 3 to watch her anchor the local news, people who sit there all week through four newscasts a day hoping to catch a glimpse of her reporting on a fire.
It has become a cult, almost. Jessica Savitch, in about a year and a half here, has probably gained the biggest following of any local female television person since Pixanne left. She did leave, didn’t she? Or maybe she’s doing Gene London’s show.
Anyway, she is holding up the panties, the different-colored ones that came in the plain brown wrapper, she is holding them up, all seven pair of them, and reading off the days of the week embroidered on them, which she already knew by heart. Don’t let that blonde hair fool you.
There is a card, a big one, that came with the gift. The guy from Allentown paid two and a half bucks for it. It’s your basic Hallmark foldout, but he’s written his own messages on it in pencil: “How would you like to spend a weekend at a ski resort with me? I love you much. I am very interested in marrying you.”
The panties were nothing new. They send her gifts all the time, these people. One Christmas, some guy sent her five $100 bills and didn’t bother to sign the card. “I’ve enjoyed you all year,” he wrote, “and I just wanted to thank you. Please buy something nice for yourself.” Jessica Savitch gave the money to charity.
She says she doesn’t understand a lot of this, how she has become the sex symbol of the ’70s to a lot of people in Cherry Hill and Chestnut Hill and at least one guy from Allentown. She appreciates it and she resents it. Jessica Savitch, who has a very pretty face, is not just another pretty face. In fact, she’d even give you an argument on the pretty part.
“I’m a very flawed person,” she says. “I’ve got this lisp. People in television are not supposed to have a lisp. I have a very square jaw and my skin breaks out terribly and my hair just never lies flat and my front tooth is chipped.” She forgot to mention that her legs are skinny, which is why she never wears dresses.
But somehow the way it all falls together is enough to knock you over.
She didn’t always look this good. She used to purposely tone down her act, because if she came on too much like the blonde bombshell, people would only talk. They’d say she got her job by flicking her eyelashes or dating the program director. The raps are nothing new. She’s got a lot of things going against anybody recognizing the real talents she has—the brains, the imagination, the drive, the on-camera presence in a medium that has been dominated by men.
“I had no one to emulate,” she says. “Who did I have to try to be like? Walter Cronkite? John Facenda? I wanted to be an anchorman, or anchorwoman, or anchorperson, or whatever you want to call it. But that just wasn’t the trend. There’s this weird hang-up in the business that most people don’t want to hear their news from a female. That they won’t believe it. That’s stupid. Can you see somebody at home watching the news? ‘A plane crash today killed seven people.’ I don’t believe that, Martha, not from that broad. That plane won’t crash until Vince Leonard tells me it crashed.’
“Well, that’s bullshit, but I bought it, at least for a while. I tried my best to look like a man. I figured people might accept me quicker that way. When I started anchoring, I pulled my hair straight back and I wore dark jackets with plain little collars and no bow and no makeup. I wanted to be accepted for talent and voice, not looks. But then that wasn’t the real me, and that really started to bug me. So I figured to hell with the camouflage. Here I am. Me. Jessica Savitch. Love me or leave me.
“I loosened up a whole lot. I became comfortable with the fact that I’m a woman. It wasn’t until I got to KYW that I really developed personally. Jim Topping spent a lot of time with me. He’s the news director. He’s a super guy. He told me to just be myself. I took some speech lessons and the teacher said that everything that was wrong with me was in my head. So I started getting things together. And now maybe I’m going places.”
THERE IS A CALL from a guy from Newsweek who wants her to verify the fact that she’s going to CBS to take over Sally Quinn’s job. She denies it. The guy says he doesn’t believe her. She tells him to bug off. Before she can leave her desk, there’s a call from Time, checking out the same story.
The story is not true on at least one end. Yes, Jessica Savitch has been offered network jobs. And yes, she has been offered major anchorperson jobs in other cities. And yes, she might like to take a lot of those offers. But she is currently in bondage. The people who run KYW aren’t as dumb as they look. They made her sign a long-term contract when they brought her here from Houston. And now they won’t let her out of it. She’s asked and she’s pleaded, but they won’t let her go. So now she’s stuck with Philadelphia. And we’re stuck with her. Worse things have happened.
She’s learning to live with it. The newsroom at 5th and Market has become her home. She even went out to a dime store and bought the tackiest contact paper she could find and decorated her desk with it. She is nowhere near as straight as she might come off on the tube under all that spray net that keeps her hair from blowing into the chroma-key. A technical problem. She’s really loose, really a jeans person. She only dresses up to go on the air. Actually, she’s a closet freak. Anybody who knows the words to Bruce Springsteen songs can’t be all bad.
She knows a lot about a lot of things, including Philadelphia, maybe because she grew up around here, and she still keeps an apartment in center city, a quick walk away from the station. She started in Kennett Square with the rest of the mushrooms. Then her family moved to Atlantic City, where she went to high school.
She is rather bugged that a lot of people think she had it so easy because this seems to be a good time to be a good woman, especially in journalism, which television news is a cousin of. Ha. Easy, her foot.
When she started, she wanted to stay near home. But back then, ten years ago, there weren’t any colleges in New Jersey that offered broadcasting courses. So she got a scholarship to Ithaca College in upstate New York. When she got there, they told her she couldn’t use the radio and television facilities, that only men could use them. She appealed this to one of the top people in the department. He told her she was wasting her time and her money, because there was just no place for broads in broadcasting.
She ended up getting a job at a radio station 60 miles away. She commuted as a disc jockey. She stayed at Ithaca long enough to graduate and then she went to New York to get a job, to prove them wrong. She applied to CBS for a $69-a-week desk assistant’s job back in the dark ages—in 1968. They tried to talk her out of it. They told her the hours were too long and the pay was too low. But she told them she didn’t care. She still didn’t get the job.
“They couldn’t say they wouldn’t hire me because I was a woman. So they finally said they wouldn’t hire me because my background in journalism wasn’t good enough. Good enough for what? To run for coffee in the CBS newsroom? No one will ever make me believe that was the truth. Especially since the next day they hired a hard-core black who hadn’t finished high school for the same job, which is dumb, because it’s not really that hard to find qualified blacks in broadcasting.
“I guess I had too many things going against me. I wasn’t a man and I was white. The big pressure on TV stations was coming from blacks. Everybody scrambled to find a black somewhere. Black women are great for the broadcasting bosses. They kill two birds with one stone. So who does that leave out? I’m not overly bitter. It’s taught me a lot. I tried harder every time somebody told me I couldn’t have something. I had to believe that this was really such a wonderful thing, anchoring the news, since so many people didn’t want me to have it.”
THIS HASN’T BEEN such a hot town for female anchorpeople. Sure, there’s Marciarose. But she’s not so much a newswoman as she is a personality telling you the news. Marciarose does not cover fires. The people at Nan Duskin would faint.
Then there was Jacqui Mullen. You remember Jacqui Mullen. She did the weekend anchor bit on Channel 6. Well, she’s now working in a boutique somewhere. There arc other female reporters. Six has somebody named Mariellen Gallagher, who does a lot of voice-overs. Few people can ever remember seeing her on the screen. And there’s Diana Robinson who, like Edie Huggins on Channel 10, does a lot of cutesy stuff. Both of them are black. Ten has cornered the market on white females, with Kati Marton and Joan Dinerstein, who do mostly field reports. Back at 3, there’s always Trudy Haynes and Orien Reid, two birds killed by one stone.
It’s been a pretty closed sorority, one that’s been hard to crack. Jessica Savitch got her job in Houston by making a demonstration tape and sending it to every station she could think of. She was in Houston for a year before KYW discovered her. The first three months she was a plain old reporter, the next three months she anchored on weekends. The final six months were spent dropping the weekday anchor.
She’s come to Philadelphia and become a real person. She’s become very believable, which is what the whole thing is all about. When she kids around on the air, you know it’s not written on the cue cards. She’s honest. In fact, with the possible exception of colleague Mort Crim, she’s probably the most honest, believable television newsperson in town.
SHE WAS STANDING on the steps of St. Patrick’s Church on 20th Street with a microphone in her hand and a bride and groom at her back. The bride and groom weren’t real. Well, they were real people, but they weren’t really getting married. This was a dramatization for the opening of a five-part series on divorce that aired a couple of weeks ago, a series she would produce and direct and edit and write.
Jessica Savitch had been traveling around for a couple of weeks with cameraman Joe Vandergast and sound man Paul Dowie filming interviews with lawyers and judges and people who have been divorced and people who wished they were. They film the wedding scene from 17 different angles, and then they do it all over in slow motion. It takes about an hour and a half. On the screen, in finished form, the scene will run less than 20 seconds.
Jessica Savitch is standing there at the bottom of the steps in a corduroy jeans suit. The wind is blowing nicely through her hair and she is freezing her pretty little ass off. This is the last stop. She’s gone to homes in Germantown and Mayfair. She’s covered single parents’ meetings and dances. And she’s gone to law offices and courtrooms.
Because of all the technical stuff that goes on in the filming—the pre-interviews, the lighting and sound tests, the setups, the cutaways—because of all this, probably the best experts you could find on how good a newsperson is are the members of the crew. Vandergast and Dowie, whom a lot of smart people consider the best film crew in town, say that Jessica Savitch is really good, that’s she’s a professional who has a very conversational way of making her subjects feel at ease enough to forget the fact that they’re sitting in the middle of an electronic jungle of lights and wires and cameras.
Most of this naturalness comes across on the air. People like her, so they loosen up. So she’s loose and they’re loose and the whole plastic world of television looks a lot more real. And, in a business that lives off of ratings, an awful lot of people out there in the wasteland evidently like her too. But some of them in a way she could do without.
“I get letters from people who love me,” she says. “They think I’m terrific. Some folks even tell me they can’t stand to listen to the news, but they really like me, so they just turn the sound all the way down and look at my picture. Now that’s sick. And if that’s what I’m attracting, then I’m a failure.”
A failure she’s not. But then how many people turn the sound down to look at Mort Crim? It’s little things like that, she says, that stop a lot of people in the business from taking her as seriously as she would like to be taken.
“It just helps support the whole stupid theory,” she says, “that women are nice to look at, but who wants to see them on at prime time? Every time you see a woman, it’s usually with a co-anchor. And it’s generally at noon. I think they’d like to put a co-anchor on with me on the weekends. And the interesting thing is that in a male-female situation, it never really amounts to a 50-50 co-anchorship. It’s sort of like dancing. Or sex. The male always leads.
“Women are always written off as the ones who do the special women’s interest stories. It’s nice to have a pretty women there. It helps brighten up the set and make people happy. A bunch of flowers could have the same effect. And I like to think I’ve got a little more going for me than a bunch of flowers.”
JESSICA SAVITCH HAS blossomed very nicely at KYW. And she’s here to stay, for a while at least. The company says it won’t let her out of her contract. So CBS is just going to have to go somewhere else to find the next Sally Quinn. She’s pretty bitter about it, just like she’s bitter about the treatment she gets professionally as a woman. But she’s resigned to work within the system, a system that pays males of equal experience and often less talent a lot more money—but she’s working on that.
“I’ll just do my job as well as I can,” she says. “Either things will be resolved to everyone’s mutual satisfaction or they won’t. I can always get a job basketweaving.”
Meanwhile, out there in television-land, the Jessica Savitch fan club continues to grow. She’s very flattered by all of that, but she’s also somewhat embarrassed. She’s basically a shy person. She likes to keep to herself. She likes to keep her personal life personal.
So for you thousands of fans out there who are reading this story hoping to get some vital statistics, here you go. “I’m not married at the moment,” she says. “I’m 5’5″. I weigh over 100 pounds and I wear a size 34-A bra. And that’s all you’re going to get out of me.”
But Jessica Savitch wants you all to know that she is very happy to hear from you. Yes indeed. “Keep those cards and letters coming,” she says. “But please, no more panties. There just aren’t enough days in the week.”