In an ice-blue studio at NBC News in New York, Jessica Savitch sits in an anchor seat holding a mirror and puckering her lips like a goldfish. It is 8:47 p.m. Expensively adorned, she is preparing to give a live news digest on the hour. Savitch primps, studies her copy, primps. A sound man fits a small microphone in the folds of her silk dress beneath a chained pendant.
Nearby another NBC anchor, Linda Ellerbee, types out her copy. A cigarette juts from her lips. She wears sneakers, old corduroys, owlish eyeglasses. Her desk is littered with wire tear sheets, a regiment of reference books, cartons of soggy Chinese food. At 10:02, updates over, Savitch exits. Ellerbee’s job is just beginning.
Four days a week, beginning at 1:30 a.m. ET (Friday’s Overnight airs at 2 a.m.), Ellerbee and co-anchor Bill Schechner captain NBC News Overnight, a not-quite-ready-for-prime-time broadcast that draws a nightly average of two million news groupies, baby feeders and bookies. With her refreshing blend of stylish prose and wry delivery, Ellerbee, 38, is a bright light in the murky realm of night-owl newscasting.
“Linda is unique in being a warmhearted, human anchor,” says Overnight senior producer Cheryl Gould. “Viewers feel she’s real and not plastic.” Indeed, glamour is not Ellerbee’s trademark. When the Overnight budget allowed for a hairstylist, Linda chose a videocassette recorder instead. “I never had any desire to be an anchor, because of the air-head image for women,” she says in her smoky Texas lilt. “You’ll see a lot of people on air who look like they blow-dry their teeth. I’d prefer being behind the camera just writing, if it paid as well.”
Overnight’s success has surprised even its staff. “This was a little all-volunteer army on a show that had no money and wasn’t supposed to work,” says Linda. “The ambience is so good that in the rest of the building we have been called the Moonies because we smile all the time.”
Smiles aside, Linda admits that “Overnight’s hours have been the toughest thing about this job for me. I go on air at the end of my working day when I’m least fresh. My idea of a good time is to go to bed at 10 and get up at 6.” Instead, Ellerbee drifts off to sleep at 5 a.m. and rises at 7 to get her two teenagers, Vanessa, 14, and Joshua, 13, off to school. Then she collapses again and naps until noon. She rarely leaves for work—by subway—before the children return home. “I’m a spare-time mother,” says Linda. “When we’re together, it’s not ‘Hi, kids. Here’s Mommy, let’s have some productive quality time.’ Instead, the Atari usually goes on or the two of them yell at each other.”
The three share a wobbly Greenwich Village house with Ellerbee’s mother, an actor, a singer, a flight attendant and a scruffy poodle. Previous house-guests have included a Texas crop duster who wrote a novel in the basement and a six-foot British nanny with an eye patch. “When I had very little money, people were kind to me, and it’s nice to have an extra room and say why don’t you all move in,” Linda explains. “Also, it means my children are never in an empty house. As far as lack of privacy,” she adds, “when you have two kids, there is no privacy, so what the hell.” Ellerbee is currently separated from her third husband, New York TV reporter John David Klein.
The only child of a Texas insurance executive, Linda recalls, “I was a tomboy with a badass sense of humor who really wanted to be a newspaper reporter.” She dabbled in history at Vanderbilt University before dropping out at 19 to find radio work in Chicago and later San Francisco. By 1971 she had married, produced two children, and settled on a commune in Juneau, Alaska. “It was not a sex orgy, but a group banding together economically for survival in a big old farmhouse,” she explains. “We wanted to make the world a safe place for flowers, but some people did all the taking.” Disillusionment set in one frosty morn when Linda found herself lying on the ice trying to draw water from a well. “I thought, I want to be one of those inside sitting around saying ‘Oh, far out.’ ”
Her marriage ended and Ellerbee moved to Dallas, where she supported her children as an AP reporter. Shortly after being hired, Linda wrote a personal letter on her computer terminal criticizing the bureau chief’s biased hiring practices. She then punched the wrong key and unwittingly transmitted her flinty opinions to three states. Exit Ellerbee. Notoriety over the incident landed her a job at a CBS-TV affiliate in Houston, which led to crime reporting at WCBS-TV in New York, then to NBC News, which assigned her to Washington in 1975. There she covered the House of Representatives. That experience left her with no fondness for politicians. “I don’t like the idea that the way to get a story is to cozy up to them,” she says. “It’s a very bad practice to be socializing with those people. Besides, they probably have diseases.” In Washington, Ellerbee again made news when, in a flurry of temper, she dumped her TV set out her second-floor window. “I was trying to have an argument with my husband at the time, who was watching Sonny and Cher,” she recalls. “The papers made me sound like a madwoman, but it sure inspired awe in my kids.
“Do all these experiences warp you?” she asks. “Yes, they do. Do they make you wise? I know very few wise reporters. They make you old, but journalism’s the greatest Walter Mitty job in the world. It gives you a front-row seat in places you’d never be.”
Linda’s workday begins between 3 and 6 p.m. After a staff viewing of two network news broadcasts and the Muppet Show (“After the news we need to watch something sane”) and a production meeting, she is ready to write. At 8:30 Ellerbee and Schechner settle in to watch film clips, read wires and thumb through reference books for quotes and bits of oddball arcana to prepare their leads. On a typical night a bowl of popcorn may sit poised between them, while a platter of goodies lurks in a corner. (Since the show debuted last July, Linda has gained 15 pounds). After spending nine minutes writing her first intro, Ellerbee snatches it from her typewriter with a satisfied “Whipped that sucker.” As midnight nears she has fielded her son’s goodnight calls, purring “I love you up to the sky and down again,” and written leads to 11 news items and one essay. At 12:03, as the cameras roll into position, Linda times her copy with a stopwatch. At 12:50 she ambles to makeup for a slathering of rosy blush-tone, smudges of plum around her eyes and a splash of eyedrops. Afterward she spreads a motley menagerie of windup toys and stuffed ducks around the anchor desk. “Last year I was told I might have cancer,” she explains, “and there came a day when I had to go to the hospital to get the news. I didn’t have it, and when I came downstairs a duck was sitting in the gift shop window, so I bought it and brought it on the set, just for luck.”
At 1:27 a.m. Linda rearranges her hair, tosses her brush into an in-box, and greets her viewers without a smile. During a commercial for Topol, “the smoker’s tooth polish,” she lights her 17th cigarette of the night. Later, as the anchors sign off with “And so it goes,” the staff of 25 is mingling outside Linda’s disheveled office, cocktails in hand. “We all decided it was too sleazy to go home and drink alone,” says Linda, who downs a rum-and-Dr-Pepper before the sleepy troop of dedicated newshounds decamps to a fleet of waiting limousines. It is 3:24 a.m. While most of the city slumbers and a misty rain falls on the empty Manhattan streets, Ellerbee eases homeward. And so it goes.