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.
The armrest on the driver door looks like a GM RWD A-body from the ’78 – mid ’80s era. If the Olds part is correct, and the interior picture is the car in question, I think it is a Cutlass wagon. The passenger side dash vent looks like an A-body Olds, definitely not the rather unusual B/C body Olds dash vent.
It’s always sad to see one who’s light shines so brightly , flame out .
The dashboard is that of a Cutlass, not the full size wagon shown above. If that’s an actual picture of the car involved, then the story is wrong.
Good eyes! I’ll send a note to Paul.
Mary Jo Kopechne was another young woman born in Pennsylvania, who met an infamous end in an Oldsmobile under water. And she wasn’t the driver, either; that honor (?) went to the inimitable Sen. Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy, who was aiming his 1967 Oldsmobile Delmont 88 sedan across a bridge that wasn’t in the direction of the ferry that Kopechne wanted to catch. The car went off the bridge, Kennedy escaped the car and left the scene, and didn’t report the crash until the car, with Kopechne’s body inside, was discovered next morning.
And that kept him from ever getting to the White House. Teddy couldn’t hold a candle to his brothers John and Robert.
That should have been determined murder or man slaughter at the very least he killed her and didn’t report it what if she could have been saved
From the National Lampoon, 1972
Wonderfully tasteless ad. Those of us who grew up with the Kennedys were quietly relieved that Teddy had knocked himself out of the presidential stakes – he was nowhere near the politician John and Bobby were. He wouldn’t have been nearly as good as a President.
And his half-hearted run in 1980 showed just how much the nation didn’t forget.
Not an ad. It was a parody by National Lampoon.
Thanks for pointing this out.
“National Lampoon (magazine), the original humor magazine from 1970 to 1998”-wikipedia
Compared to the man, the “ad” was full of taste.
“Original humor magazine” – that’s a LOL.
It’s not an ad, but a page from “The National Lampoon.”
Unfortunately rust would render them un-watertight and un-liftable in fairly short order.
Cutlass was not “made into its own marque” aka Oldsmobile or Pontiac. It was just applied to some other cars within Olds. Chrysler did the same with LeBaron and New Yorker.
I never understood why getting drunk on wine=totally fine. While getting drunk on beer=you have an alcohol problem.
Sadly, Elizabeth Vargas seems to be suffering similar problems. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
“I never understood why getting drunk on wine=totally fine. While getting drunk on beer=you have an alcohol problem.”
I don’t know that I’ve ever heard such a thing.
There used to be people called ‘winos’, but I guess they’re all extinct now.
“I was walking down the street and saw this wino who was eating grapes. I was like ‘dude, you have to wait!'”
I guess we’re not supposed to call them ” stew bums ” any more either ? .
Growing up, it seemed that both beer and wine were less taboo than hard liquor, and obviously, any of the above will cause intoxication. And to this day, many states and municipalities in the U.S. (particularly in the South) allow easier access to the purchase of beer and wine; liquors must be sold under a harder-to-obtain license, or in a state-owned store, if it’s allowed at all.
And with all due respect, Elizabeth Vargas does NOT “seem to suffering similar problems.” She’s getting help. Jessica Savitch didn’t, or perhaps couldn’t; in that era, such a move would have been a career killer. Thankfully, our attitudes toward substance abuse are becoming more and more enlightened over time.
Good thing GM doesn’t make Oldsmobiles anymore 🙂
They resumed production of the Oldsmobile, but have not manufactured the Pontiac for several years.
This CC catches me a bit off guard. I did not expect such a somber write up on a typically festive, party filled day. This is about Jessica Savitch, not so much about a car. I knew the cars are only “Nebensache” (sideshow) in our lives.
It was posted two days ago but was temporarily withdrawn for revision.
That happened right after the first of the Ted Kennedy comments!
Never heard of her I guess her fame was local but death by drunk driver is still common despite the warnings.
She was pretty important in American news reporting at the time – Barbara Walters was about the only female who pulled better ratings. And back then, it was rare to have a female report who handled the “serious” news. Usually, they were just issued the light stories.
I remember her well, and as an aside her younger sister Lori worked at WPXI TV in Pittsburgh as a local anchor in the early 1990’s.
I am Canadian and I remember watching her on American news programs, so her fame certainly wasn’t “local”, but may have been confined to North American shores. I agree with Wolfgang that this is a very somber, sad story.
Her fame was national and it was huge. For about two years she was the most riveting performer on U.S. television. And, of course, she knew it and let the superstar thing take over her life.
Interesting, chilling account. She was a bit before my time, and although I’ve never heard of her before now, the story of a celebrity’s downward spiral and death in a car accident sounds all too familiar 🙁
Can’t believe it’s been 31 years. Yes this may be about Jessica Savitch but it’s interesting how she met her end…not in a Mercedes or Beemer but a modest-by-comparison G-Body Olds.
As a kid, my Dad had two Cutlass Cruiser wagons that were a twin of the woodless (brown?) one in the photo above. We took them on many family vacations and hauled a lot of things in their cargo areas. The interior trim pieces did not last long but I recall the drivetrain as being very durable, which is why Dad liked them. He had the two Cutlasses and the Pontiac Bonneville version.
That’s very typical of the G-body cars – interior trim was not durable in the slightest, and would quickly age/fall off/disintegrate but the car itself was generally sturdy and rugged, and the drivetrain options would last.
The Bonneville version was kind of a rare bird, actually, only produced for 1982-83. Can’t remember the last time I saw one.
Yep…Dad’s was an 83 Bonneville which he drove into the ground…well into the 90s
Unfortunately the A-body replacements were just the opposite. Trim and upholstery durability was much improved but the bodies were twisty and creaky and mechanically they were rubbish. Sadly as per GM edict of the day they didn’t possess adequate reliability and performance until the last years of the series and by then they were standardized, dulled down and stripped of their personalities.
Seems coincidental that Savitch died the very night immediately preceding the day she was scheduled to have an intervention for her spiraling out-of-control behavior. Makes you wonder what went on in that car before it went into the canal. If she and Fischbein had been arguing, say, about that very intervention, he could have been distracted and Savitch may have directly contributed to her own demise
Such a happy first post in the new year 🙁
A sad story. Her contemporary Diane Sawyer went on to have a much more durable career and homelife.
The G body wagons were nice, but always looked very plain without the woodgrain.
“This wagon was officially known as a Cutlass Cruiser, until it morphed into a Ciera a few years later.”
The wagon in the photo is the rear-wheel-drive A-body introduced for model year 1978; it was never sold as a Ciera or Cutlass Ciera. That was the front-wheel-drive A-platform, which was introduced for the 1982 model year. At that point the former rear-wheel-drive A-body was renamed the G-body.
That line is awkwardly worded. What is being conveyed is that the Cutlass Cruiser name was moved to the A-body Ciera when the wagon bodystyle was introduced for 1984, the G-body wagons having been dropped.
Kind of sad, but still nice to know someone else out there remembers Jessica.
This article was taken down because I misidentified the wagon. In all the articles I’ve read, it just refers to “an Oldsmobile station wagon” and I’m not well-versed on the interiors, especially after they have been upside-down and underwater for a few hours. As I told Paul, I’m on a learning curve.
As for Jessica, I couldn’t even begin to describe how messed up she was toward the end. Both books about her talk about open sores, scratches from “coke roaches” and her paranoia that sometimes manifested in manic rages.
To the criticism this has nothing to do with cars, in a way it does. It’s limo dreams in a station wagon reality.
And make fun of Teddy all you want.
A good automotive story is a good automotive story. This one fits quite nicely within the broad array presented on CC.
The last thing I personally want this site to be is ‘Stepford Carstories’.
Lynne, it does have something to do with cars. In fact I thought the story reminds me of checking my priorities. Life’s struggles are definitely more important than a character line along the side of a car and what someone else might think about it.
There are stories on these pages that have a sadness to them. They are different though in that the authors were personally affected by the sad circumstance. I didn’t see this personal element in this story.
What would the point be for me to write about Jimmy Dean or Clay Regazzoni? I am not personally affected by their accidents.
Please, don’t get me wrong. I appreciate your work and want to encourage you to continue. I want to be constructive with my comments.
I’ll take the opportunity to THANK YOU for your post, which demonstrates the all-encompassing role of the automobile in the everyday lives of all of us from king to pauper…and in the deaths of some.
And, Happy New Year to you and to all CC’ers!
As a side note to a previous posters comments:
I moved from Florida to Tennessee and then back to Florida a few years ago. Both states have laws that make you ask: “what in the heck were they thinking.” In Tennessee, ANYONE, NO MATTER THEIR AGE, must provide proof of legal age when purchasing beer. However, if you are buying “hard liquor” and look older than 21…it’s the seller’s judgement call if he/she cards you the buyer. In Tennessee, liquor stores are NOT allowed to sell any kind of food. No beef jerky, no cocktail peanuts, no onions or olives for martinis.
Finally, I really hate to say this: this kind of story is NOT what I come to Curbside Classics for. The inaccuracies involving the Cutlass give this story the tone of “gruesome celebrity death spirals” about on a par with The National Enquirer.
this kind of story is NOT what I come to Curbside Classics for.
So don’t click on the title link and comment then .?..
its amazing how much time and energy people will spend complaining about what they don’t want to read, isn’t it? When it would have been much simpler to just not read it.
You suppose the reader judge by the cover of the book or title of the article?
It is a car story! it’s akin to the James Dean’s Porsche, the Kennedy SS100X Lincoln and Jayne Mansfield’s Electra 225.
This could be a sub-category for Curb Side. Classic Cars of Infamy. I can think of so many others: Bonnie and Clyde’s Ford, the last car Elizabeth Short was seen in….a Studebaker I think. Isadora Duncan!
It *IS* a ‘ Car Story ‘ ~ a sad one to be sure but also a truthful cautionary tale .
If it upsets you to read it maybe it was written for you .
One more thing-I remember the week she died as being a big week for news; first the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, and then the Great Big Battle of Grenada.
I read this story for at least 2 reasons:
Contributors/editors here are occasionally “playful” with the headlines.
With that in mind, I assumed that “Death By Station Wagon” meant this would be a story about how a woman (albeit a celebrity newscaster) was perhaps bored to death by her life as a station wagon driving drudge. I am old enough to have seen Ms. Savitch’s newscasts but had forgotten the details surrounding her death. OBVIOUSLY, if I had remembered the details I might have skipped this story.
Considering this story was pulled once because a few details about the car Ms. Savitch was killed in, (or was about Oldsmobile Cutlasses?) were in doubt AND this is a website about cars and their owners….
And I apologize if a few folks here think I should praise/love all the features here…or just shut up.
If you want a site tailored only to your specific interests, start your own.
I’m a bit conflicted after reading this article.
Let’s address the worst first. It really doesn’t have the polish I’ve come to expect at CC. It’s a bit rough around the edges. Not terrible, mind you, it just seems like a couple of more cycles of editing could have buffed out the minor defects before it was published. (Okay, enough with the car detailing metaphors.)
I found the story interesting. I remember Jessica Savage. She was on television at a time when TV news correspondents were lauded as celebrities. The TV universe was narrow – three or four national networks and their local affiliates. Today, the choices are so great and the distribution of content so diverse the messenger is not in the spotlight to be idolized or scrutinized like they were back then. Recently, legendary Detroit anchor Bill Bonds passed away. He too battled addiction. It seemed acceptable at the time for news people to personify the stereotype of the hard hitting, hard drinking news reporter that sometimes showed their afflictions on camera. The image drove ratings.
Since we are visiting a place where political correctness really was moot, I’d like to mention it’s refreshing to see a woman’s name on the byline here. I think it adds diversity to Curbside Classics. (Lynne, I hope we see more to come.) 🙂
A common thread has emerged in the comments on this article that leads back to my opening statement. Here’s a new idea for the New Year at CC: Paul, what if articles that are say 90 per cent complete but could use some constructive input and suggestions from the experts here are noted in the opening paragraph a “Curbside Collaboration” ? This would clearly indicate the post is a work in progress. It would be your call when the article would be edited / updated as complete and the “collaboration” statement removed. (The article title should not change; this might cause a disturbance in the permalink universe). Thoughts?
This “Curbside Collaboration” idea sounds pretty good for the given context.
I wonder if she attempted to to get out of the car through the rear windows, only to discover that they don’t roll down.
Probably wouldn’t have made any difference. It sounds like the whole car flipped upside down as it went into the canal. The only chance she might have had would be out the tailgate if it could have been opened from the inside, and even then, it would have to be immediately before the car was completely engulfed in mud. Ironically, if the car had stayed upright, they might have easily escaped.
As to the appropriateness of the article, there are others on stuff like bicycles, trains, buses, etc. which no one seems to mind. Personally, any celebrity that has a strong connection with a vehicle, even if it’s only through death, is worthy of inclusion. Jessica Savitch was a famous, yet tragic figure who met her demise in an Oldsmobile. That’s good enough for me.
Did anyone else notice how radically different her appearance was in her final news broadcast versus the other photos?
It had a two piece tailgate…the glass part was held up by gas struts which failed often and caused the glass to hit folks on the head (ow)..ask me how I know and the tailgate which swung down. There was an optional button in the glove box that released the glass from the inside.
According to Wikipedia, the car flipped over and landed in 4 feet of mud/water. Ms. Savitch (NOT Savage as some have called her) was in the back seat with her dog. Whether the car landed upside down or right side up, the thick mud made opening ANY door/tailgate pretty much impossible. The last few moments of these folks lives must have been a living hell.
The car was found about an hour, hour and a half after the accident.
Wiki and People did a better job reporting this….but they didn’t have to find a way to make the car “a killer”.
I enjoyed the article. CC has very high standards on the automotive details, so that is my only beef with it. I would read more stories on notable figures who died in cars. Maybe call the series Curbside Tragedies.
R.I.P. Jessica, it’s nice to see others besides me remember her. And R.I.P Oldsmobile. All the cars I ever had from Olds were decent and reliable, except the last one.
Lynne, I salute your efforts here and look forward to more pieces from you.
The best articles on this site cast stories of cars in a human context, whether that context is an individual life or, as in the best pieces from Paul and Laurence, the larger culture. I think that is what you aimed to do here. If there is justification for the whining by some commenters, I think it lies in the fact that the car model was incidental to Savitch’s death; i.e., she and her companion would have had the same difficulty opening the doors of an upside-down Mercedes smooshed into a muddy canal bed. Or, I should say, the car model was incidental until your follow-up comment about “limo dreams in a station wagon reality.” This finally tied the car model to the life that ended inside it.
I remember growing up listening to Walter Cronkite. I don’t remember really listening to NBC news much. I do remember this accident being in the news. Generally speaking I don’t think that an intervention is revealed to the person getting one ahead of time, so the speculation that it might have contributed to the accident is unlikely.
Add mine to the thanks for this article. As a kid I remember JS as being prominent in national TV journalism but knew nothing of her personal life or death. She just kind of faded from my periphery. The article prompted my to look her up and read her quite compelling story. Incidentally I found a TV movie of her life based on her book featuring Sela Ward playng Jessica. (As a side note the correct make and model Olds [but not year] was used in the final scenes.)
The only other “death by station wagon” celebrity event I know of is the 1962 death of the actor/comedian Ernie Kovacs in Los Angeles. He was driving a Corvair station wagon.
He was lighting a cigar! What a combination…
A tragic story and one that was probably only slightly less horrifying then the 1989 death of Leslie Ann Pluhar who had her Yugo blown off the Mackinac Bridge.
Tragic story. Always loved these A/G body station wagons and finding a good one that hasn’t been ruined or chopped up is rare today. Dad brought home a 1979 green woody wagon back in 1983 equipped with the 305 4bbl Chevy V8 and loads of equipment and we loved that car. Sadly the dealer trying to sell it to us had a ridiculous price on it at the time and dad passed. Instead he bought the unfortunate 1979 blue Fairmont with butt numbing bench seat, no A/C and few options other than the 200 six and automatic. That pile was handed down to me until I couldn’t take it anymore and soon after I found myself signing the papers for a 1981 blue Cutlass wagon with the 231 V6, limited slip differential, A/C, split bench seat with passenger recliner and most other options these had at the time. Other than a little carburetor trouble and the infamous thin rear backing plates it was a very reliable cruiser that got decent mileage and actually had more than expected power. According to the window sticker mine actually came with a no charge 3.08:1 rear gear or code GU4 as a 2.73 was standard on 231 V6 wagons and sedans came with 2.41 gears.
I had old blue for over 3 years as my daily driver to college and racked up an impossible 151K miles on her (bought with 62k) and traded her for a 2 door Cutlass with bucket seats to better fit a sportier image after college. After all picking up woman was a little tough in a station wagon at least during the 90’s.
The best way outta submerged auto is?
Stay calm, lower a window (if lower-able) float thru.
Next drinks ohn me?
Is that picture in the front seat part of one either Jessica’s or Martin’s dead body?
It was a rental for a day trip to PA. People with money will rent inexpensive cars…the type of car in this instance is entirely irrelevant. EspecIally in NYC…the wealthy are not so much into cars! Some of the richest people I know will go out of their way to rent the least expensive cars on trips (especially for day trips outside of NYC)!
Am I the only one who noticed the Burberry trench coat, muddied and soaked on the passenger seat? RIP Jessica ~ stylish to the end.
So…are you saying 2 adults and a dog died in 4 feet of mud?
Then it is a car story….unless they had head injuries why couldnt they breath long enough lay on the horn if the mud sealed the doors shut ..was this a mud slide…what else is in that mud ..and lets be clear..the only reason she is picked apart is because she wasnt a guy..probably also the reason she wasnt driving…i guess they leave the dog in the car at restaurants seems like the window would have been cracked open ..cracked open! CRACKED .. open..R,I,P,