Jessica Beth Savitch (February 1, 1947-October 23, 1983) was an American television news reporter.
Savitch was born in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, the eldest daughter of David Savitch and Florence Goldberger. When her father died in 1959 from kidney disease, her mother moved Jessica and her two sisters to Margate, New Jersey, outside of Atlantic City. As a teenager, Jessica's career in broadcasting began with voice-overs at an Atlantic City radio station. She eventually scored her own program called "Teen Corner" where she played music and discussed current events.
Jessica Savitch majored in communications at Ithaca College. Her local broadcasting work led her into modeling jobs and television commercials. After college, she was employed in a clerical position at CBS in New York, which led to her eventual hiring at KHOU-TV in Houston, Texas.
While working as a reporter in Houston in the early 1970s, she was spotted by a TV news talent scout who recommended her to KYW-TV in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which was looking for a fresh young face to compete with a rival station's news team. She took the job for a small amount of money, but was soon able to leverage an extremely favorable contract, allowing her to move into a Washington Square luxury apartment and make friends in high places.
Jessica got her first national exposure during KYW's nationally televised debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Within a year of that debate, she was covering the US Senate at NBC.
Critics and old-school broadcasters felt that she lacked the experience for national network news; David Brinkley is said to have called her "the dumbest woman I have ever met" in public. But audiences loved her, and she soon became one of the most popular NBC anchors.
As her career skyrocketed however, her unstable personal life became increasingly messy. She continued an on-again, off-again affair with Ron Kershaw, a reporter who reportedly gave her beatings that even NBC's make-up artists couldn't conceal. After breaking up with Kershaw, Jessica was married twice; once to elderly millionaire Mel Korn, then to her gynecologist, Donald Payne, who committed suicide.
Rumors and allegations were spread about her bizarre behavior on and off the set; screaming rants, cocaine binges, and promiscuity have been alleged. By 1983 Connie Chung had replaced her on the Saturday edition of NBC Nightly News, and "Frontline" had nearly eliminated her on-screen appearances.
The most bizarre incident in her career was a one-minute prime-time news update on the night of October 3, 1983. Savitch's delivery of the news report was slurred and incoherent. Savitch told her bosses that her teleprompter had gone out, but her agent claimed that she was on medication for a head injury.
On the evening of Sunday, October 23, 1983, Savitch had a date with Martin Fischbein, Vice President of the New York Post. They drove from her apartment in New York City to the small village of New Hope, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia. They drove home with Fischbein behind the wheel and Jessica in the back seat with her dog, Chewy. Either ignoring or not seeing the "No Vehicles" signs in the pouring rain, Fischbein drove out of the wrong exit and up the towpath of the old Delaware Canal. He veered too far to the left and the car went over the edge into the shallow water. The station wagon fell about 15 feet and landed upside-down, sinking into deep mud which sealed the doors shut, trapping the occupants inside as the water poured in. The wreck was discovered by a local resident at about 11:30 that night. Rescuers found Fischbein's body still strapped behind the wheel, and Jessica's and Chewy's in the rear. The bodies were taken to Doylestown Hospital for autopsies. The Bucks County coroner later ruled that both had died from asphyxiation (by drowning). He noted that Fischbein was apparently knocked unconscious in the wreck but Jessica was not, and had struggled to escape.