Death by Station Wagon: The Fall of Jessica Savitch

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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.

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Jessica had one divorce, then met a doctor with even worse drug troubles than hers, and married him. Β 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.