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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

October 23, 1983

The Tuesday Timeline entries are probably some of my all-time favourite entries to write because I learn so much about history, world events, and pop culture. And, I hope that all of you out there get as much enjoyment in reading these entries as much as I enjoy writing them.

Of course, before we get into the main subject of the blog, we will do what we always do on Tuesdays. We'll be taking a look back at the major events of today throughout history as well as some of the celebrity birthdays today.

So, let's get started with the October 23 events through history. On this day in...

1641 – The Outbreak of the Irish Rebellion of 1641 begins

1707 – The first Parliament of Great Britain meets

1812 – Claude Francois de Malet begins his conspiracy to overthrow French leader Napoleon Bonaparte

1850 – The first United States National Women's Rights Convention is held in Worcester, Massachusetts

1861 – American president Abraham Lincoln suspends writ of habeas corpus in Washington D.C for all military-related cases

1867 – A group of seventy-two Senators are summoned by Royal Proclamation to serve as the first members of the newly created Canadian Senate

1911 – An Italian pilot takes off from Libya to observe Turkish army lines during the Turco-Italian War in what is the very first use of aircraft in war

1915 – At least thirty thousand women march on New York City's Fifth Avenue for their right to vote

1917 – Lenin calls for the October Revolution

1925 – Legendary talk show host Johnny Carson is born in Corning, Iowa

1929 – The first transcontinental flight between New York City and Los Angeles takes place on the same day that Wall Street begins worrying about the decline in stock market prices, which would lead into the Great Depression

1935 – The Chophouse Massacre takes place in Newark, New Jersey

1944 – The Soviet Red Army invades Hungary during the second World War

1946 – The United Nations General Assembly convenes for the first time in a Flushing, Queens auditorium

1957 – Fashion designer Christian Dior passes away at the age of 52

1958 – The Smurfs make their very first appearance in the weekly comic magazine, Spirou

1970 – Gary Gabelich sets a land-speed record in the Blue Flame, a rocket-powered automobile fueled with natural gas

1972 – Operation Linebacker concludes after five months

1973 – President Richard Nixon agrees to turn over subpoenaed audio tapes of his Oval Office conversations during the Watergate Scandal

1983 – 241 U.S. Military personnel are killed in Beirut after a truck bomb detonates near a U.S. Marines barracks

1989 – The Phillips Disaster in Pasadena, Texas kills 23 and injures over three hundred

2001 – Apple announces plans to create a new device, the iPod

2002 – Chechen terrorists take control of Moscow's House of Culture theater house, taking 700 people hostage

There are also quite a few celebrity birthdays today. Celebrating today are Chi-Chi Rodriguez, Philip Kaufman, Stanley Anderson, Baby Jane Holzer, Pele, Brian Ross, Michael “Wurzel” Burston (Motorhead), Nick Tosches, Dwight Yoakam, Dianne Reeves, Martin Luther King III, Nancy Grace, Sam Raimi, Weird Al Yankovic, Doug Flutie, Robert Trujillo (Metallica), Al Leiter, Brooke Theiss, Grant Imahara, Zoe Wiseman, Steve Wilder, Jimmy Wayne, Cat Deeley, Ryan Reynolds, Josh Strickland, Meghan McCain, Briana Evigan, and Daphne Blunt.

So, what date in history will we be flashing back to?

We're going back to October 23, 1983, the same day as the terrible attacks on American troops in Beirut. I can only imagine that story made news all over the world, and many news stations covered the events as they unfolded.

It was also the day that a famous (or infamous depending on your preconceived opinion of her) newscaster lost her life. Certainly her life was filled with triumph and personal career victories...but her personal life was so screwed up that it seemed to take center stage. Her life was one gigantic real-life soap opera filled with more twists and turns than an episode of “The Young and the Restless”, and the drama surrounding her personal life overshadowed what should have been a stellar career in broadcast news.

This is the story of Jessica Savitch, who died on this date twenty-nine years ago, at the age of 36.

What made the death even more tragic was the fact that she died when things were finally beginning to work out for her. On October 23, 1983, she went out on a dinner date with her new beau, 34-year-old Martin Fischbein. Together, along with Jessica's beloved dog, Chewy, the couple rented a car and drove out to New Hope, Pennsylvania for a day in the crisp, autumn air. They dined at Chez Odette, a popular restaurant in the area, and left the restaurant at approximately 7:15pm. Less than a few hours later, the couple would be found dead after their car drove into the Delaware Canal and flipped upside down, essentially drowning both Fischbein and Savitch, as well as Chewy.

It was a tragic end for a woman who seemed to, in the words of former news anchor Mort Crim, attract tragedy like a magnet.

And to think that the early life of Jessica Savitch started off so innoculously.

She was born on February 1, 1947 in the town of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, the eldest of three. When she graduated high school, she began attending college in Ithaca, New York. She worked at the radio and television stations on campus, and also landed a job at a newstalk station in Linwood, New Jersey. Graduating from college in 1968, Savitch worked at a variety of television stations during her early career including WCBS in New York, and KHOU-TV in Houston, Texas. From there, she took on a job at KYW-TV in Philadelphia as a local television newscaster, and also worked as a Washington correspondent for NBC News. In addition to this, she anchored the television show Frontline on PBS, and wrote an autobiography in 1982! Her career ambitions were huge, and she was determined to make a name for herself in the world of news.

However, Jessica's quest to become the next Barbara Walters was a challenge almost immediately. Although Savitch made history in the early 1970s by becoming the very first female news anchor in the South, it was clear that sexism was a constant factor that hindered Jessica's early years. Savitch even recalled one television network executive telling her that there was no way that a woman could be the news anchor for the eleven o'clock news, because that was when wives looked their worst and they would be jealous! Another colleague of hers flatly told her that “broads didn't belong in broadcasting”.

Despite the fact that equal rights were fought for during the 1970s, in the world of television news, sexism was still the way that networks ran.

And Jessica Savitch did everything she could to make sure that she had her chance to make it big in the world of broadcasting.

It took her about seven years, but by 1977, she had landed the coveted job of covering the U.S. Senate for NBC News, as well as anchoring the Sunday network news. And even after she landed that job, she was subjected to lots of criticism by network heads. Some believed that while her reporting skills were thorough, they were hardly considered to be professional, and others felt that she lacked the experience that most anchors had by not getting the opportunity to report from the correspondent trenches. However, even though network executives were skeptical about Savitch, she did have one thing in her favour. Audiences loved her, and were drawn to her personality. The fan reaction to Savitch was so positive that Jessica was often asked to fill in for John Chancellor or Tom Brokaw whenever they were out covering a news story overseas. It became rather clear that her professional life was going extremely well.

Her personal life...not so much.

By the time she was thirty-four years old, she had already been married twice, both marriages ending messily. Prior to her marriages, it was reported that she had a decade long relationship with news director Ron Kershaw, who had helped Savitch develop her skills as an anchorwoman. The relationship was a rather stormy one, surrounded by allegations of abuse, but at the time of the 1984 People Magazine article, the article referred to Kershaw as Jessica's close friend. Make of that what you will.

The first of Jessica's two marriages was one union that seemed to shock everybody within Jessica's circle of friends and colleagues. On January 6, 1980, she married advertising executive Mel Korn at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Savitch was one month shy of turning thirty-three. Korn was just entering his fifties. Within months, the marriage was on the fritz. Korn's business failed, and Savitch began having an affair with gynecolegist Donald Payne. The marriage between Korn and Savitch dissolved by the first part of 1981, and in March 1981, Savitch and Payne got married.

Almost immediately after the marriage, Jessica soon discovered that she was pregnant, which should have delighted the young couple, but just four months later, Savitch lost the baby. There have been several theories about how the baby was lost. Some sources state that Savitch miscarried because of the stress that she was going under at her job, while others state that she actually underwent an abortion after her husband attempted suicide. I put both options up here because I honestly don't know what to believe. But this much I know for sure. In July 1981, Jessica Savitch did lose a child...and just a few weeks later on the first of August, her second husband committed suicide by hanging himself in the basement of their home. Savitch discovered the body.

So you can only imagine how devastated Jessica would have been. Colleagues soon noted that weeks after Payne's suicide, Savitch buried herself into her work, ignoring the world around her, and that she suffered nightmares for months. And the pain of losing someone so close to her soon seemed to affect her work as well. Take this clip of one of Jessica's freakouts while a commercial break was airing.

Things seemed to come to a head just a few weeks before her death. In August 1983, Savitch had gotten word that a new female anchor, Connie Chung, was coming to NBC. This would prove to be a bad thing for Savitch, as Chung was hired to replace her as the weekend anchor, her role minimized to about 45 seconds of airtime, anchoring the prime-time news capsule.

On one such incident just three weeks before her death, on October 3, she appeared on camera appearing to be slurring her words and ad-libbing her entire copy. Savitch later got through her second session without incident. She claimed that the poor results of the first report was due to a teleprompter that wasn't working properly, but some speculated that drug use was involved. Another explanation was that Savitch had been hit in the face by a sailboat boom which caused her to have a deviated septum that needed reconstructive surgery, and that she had simply returned to work too soon, as she was on medication to ease the pain.

Whatever the reason was, it seemed that the only thing that really fueled Jessica's drive for success was the ambition and drive to prove herself in a male-dominated world. She was up against so many challenges and was hit hard by several personal tragedies, but she kept going a lot longer than most others would have. It seems ironic that at the time of her death, things were flipped around for her. For once her professional life seemed to be taking a backseat to her personal life, and perhaps had she lived, she may have been able to balance everything out. Sadly, we will never know.

Coincidentally, there have been several books and movies released that touch more upon the life of Jessica Savitch. In 1988, author Alanna Nash penned the book “Golden Girl: The Story of Jessica Savitch”, which was the book that inspired the 1995 film “Up Close And Personal”, starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford. It almost became a complete retelling of the book, but producers changed it at the last minute, stating that Savitch's life was too downbeat for a movie that was supposed to be a romance. But if you really want to watch a film about Jessica's life, there was a television movie made starring Sela Ward entitled “Almost Golden: The Jessica Savitch Story” that aired on cable channel Lifetime.

And that's what happened on October 23, 1983.

1 comment:

  1. I do not recall Jessica Savitch, since I was 4 when she died. However I read "Almost Golden" by Gwenda Blair and after watching YouTube clips of Savitch I admit that she was talented, a trailblazer and a model for female journalists. She was also her own worst enemy-prone to diva behavior, a rumored cocaine addiction and she was in an abusive on/off relationship that lasted a decade. By the end of her life, she was unreliable at work and only had a job because she was popular with the audience. The tragic part is that she was turning her life around when she died in a car accident.

    P.S. When Savitch was a reporter for KHOU-Channel 11 here in Houston, one time she was in the news van going the wrong way down Interstate 45 en route to a story. Her response was to lean out the window and yell at oncoming traffic to get out of the way.