The mercurial life and career of news anchor Jessica Savitch came to an end 12 years ago

When Jessica Savitch, dubbed NBC’s Golden Girl for her cool, blond professionalism, appeared before the cameras on the evening of Oct. 3, 1983, she seemed as unflappable as ever. But as soon as she began reading her 45-second news capsule to 15 million viewers, Savitch fell apart. Glassy-eyed, slurring her words, the anchorwoman tumbled into a frantic free fall, her voice finally sticking on the syllables in the word constitutional. Three weeks after her collapse — one of the most infamous broadcasts in TV history — Jessica Savitch was dead at 36.

She had been the darling of TV news. Projecting an informed, winning intelligence, she became NBC’s capital-based weekend network anchor in 1977 at age 30. Yet almost everything Savitch appeared to be, she was not. Off the air she was ruled by tantrums, suicide attempts, and drug use. Her colleagues despised her insistence on a limo and a hairdresser and felt her reporting lacked substance. And she was no stranger to tragedy. Her father died when Jessica was 12. A longtime boyfriend beat her. She divorced her first husband after 10 months, and found her second hanging 5 months after they wed.

Ironically, the troubled anchorwoman’s own death was an accident. On Oct. 23, 1983, Savitch, New York Post executive Martin Fischbein, and her dog, Chewy, left an inn by the Delaware Canal in New Hope, Pa., after dinner. Fischbein, apparently disoriented by heavy rain and fog, drove his car off an incline at the back of the parking lot: The car fell 15 feet and landed upside down in the muddy canal. Savitch, Fischbein, and the dog drowned. A cynical coworker told another: ”I have the worst news — Chewy’s dead.”

Yet Savitch left resonances. Her brief, cautionary tale has inspired two biographies (Golden Girl and Almost Golden), and last month, the Lifetime movie Almost Golden: The Jessica Savitch Story drew the second-largest audience in basic-cable history. A feature film based on her life, starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer, is due in March. ”She was a victim,” says Linda Ellerbee, her colleague at NBC. ”The men who run the business wanted someone who looked and acted the part. And she didn’t have the self-confidence to roll with the punches.”

Alanna Nash is the author of Golden Girl.