She is a woman on whom the sun never sets—by day, the blunt-spoken host of her own TV talk show, seen in 80 cities, including most major markets; by night, a shoulder to lean on, drawing out the meek and consoling the needy on her nationwide radio phone-in show. What it amounts to for Sally Jessy Raphaël is 17½ hours of airtime per week—more than any other woman in broadcasting. All this is sweet vindication for a talented but too-well-traveled professional whose career has been a patchwork of jobs found and lost.
For anyone who may have stumbled in pursuit of a dream, Raphaël, 44, has a message, a sort of homely sampler for an ineloquent age: “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off; you’re always going to have some shit on your clothes, but you don’t have time for woes.” The sentiment is a sustaining one, as it has had to be. In 30 years of broadcasting, Raphaël has held 24 jobs and been fired from 18 of them. Her résumé is crowded with call letters—WHOA, WTMI, WPIX, KDKA—most of which ended up spelling NOWHERE. She has served time as a rock deejay, sidekick to a TV chef and human interlocutor on a satirical puppet show. She has ripped and read news on some of radio’s most desolate graveyard shifts and chatted from midnight till dawn, while most of the nation slept on obliviously. When she couldn’t make it as Sally Jessy, she added her mother’s maiden name, Raphaël. And all she ever asked was that someday, please God, she would turn out to be rich and famous.
Finally, thanks to strong ratings and more airtime than even that indefatigable chatterer Dr. Ruth, Sally has been catapulted into what her husband, Karl, calls the Big Time Stuff. Among other things, that means never having to live in her car, which Sally did for a time in 1970. It also means that her interior decorating is no longer done by Goodwill, as it was for longer than she would like to remember. If the road ahead still holds occasional potholes, the lady will not be surprised. This is, after all, a woman who grew up expecting life to be a Fred Astaire movie, only to discover that in the real world nobody knew the words or the music. “When you are a child of the Saturday matinees, you develop unrealistic expectations,” she says. “The Hollywood concept is that if you are a good, decent, loyal person you will be rewarded. It took some time for me to learn that life is not fair.”
It may be that knowledge, hard-earned, that is the secret of Sally’s appeal. “Women are not threatened or overwhelmed by her,” says Mike Weinblatt, president of Multimedia Entertainment, which owns both Sally Jessy Raphaël and Donahue. “They say, ‘She’s like me.’ She has the same frailties and imperfections. She’s made mistakes. She’s not the icicle that many stars are.”
To be sure, Raphaël is not one to camouflage her emotions. When a young woman on her television show quietly described her childhood rape, Sally’s eyes filled with tears. When, on another occasion, a woman called her radio show to say she was sticking with her marriage because, although she detested her husband, she was attached to the couple’s furniture, Sally told her bluntly, “I think you’re a damn fool.” Bland she is not, and if women identify with her, she is proud to hear it. “There’s a gap in television,” she says. “There aren’t many women between those who look under 35 and those who look over 65—the age when you’re allowed to be cute. I’m here to say that we will get the jobs we want when we are past 40, and that we will have sex until we die. Life doesn’t end when your flip blond hairdo is cut off.”
Sally’s life began in Easton, Pa. Her mother was a shy beauty and a gifted painter who wanted nothing less for her daughter than stardom. Sally’s father was a natty extrovert who, when Sally was 12, moved his family to Puerto Rico, where he worked for a rum company. “I have no wrong-side-of-the-tracks stories,” she says. “I was privileged and I knew it. My father was very much a dreamer who told me I would never have to work, and my mother thought whatever I did was fabulous, even if I coughed.” It hardly seemed to matter that Sally was a D student; her day was filled with music and dance lessons, and she imagined she was headed for Broadway.
Then came her seduction by broadcasting. “I used to listen to Jean Shepherd weave stories on the radio,” she remembers. “He was always on at night, the voice in the dark. I knew that was something I could do.” At 14 she landed her first on-air job reading the Junior High News on WFAS radio in White Plains, N.Y., where the family was then living. Over the next decade heart problems kept her father from working, and the family finances evaporated. “It was long ago and too painful to recall,” she says, “but things became very black. My father wore Sulka ties and Dunhill suits, and he died in a charity hospital. It must have been awful for him.”
At 18 Sally married a man she describes as “preppy to the max, but a nerd,” moved back to San Juan and found a job broadcasting news for a local radio station above a garage. Between the births of her two daughters, Allison and Andréa, she took an additional job as an island-hopping TV correspondent and thought herself glamorous for owning a trench coat. Then, after five years, her marriage ended. “There was no big blowup,” she says. “One day I just told him, ‘I really don’t want to be married to you,’ and he said, ‘Okay.’ ”
Two years later she married Karl Soderlund, who had hired her for the San Juan radio station he was then managing; six months later Karl was fired. Within five years they landed in Miami, where they rented an abandoned mansion, furnished one room with thrift-shop throwaways and settled in with Sally’s two daughters and the couple’s San Juan paperboy, who was brought up as a sort of foster son by Karl and Sally. Karl booked his wife on a 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. radio talk show for $275 a week. Her only prop was a telephone, and when no one called in, Sally called out—ordering breakfast for an unsuspecting couple at a Miami hotel, answering an ad to buy a gorilla, placing a nightly call, unaccepted, to Fidel Castro. For another $125, Sally did a weekday afternoon broadcast for a Fort Lauderdale radio station. After 11 months and no raises, she and Karl packed their wheezing Mercedes and headed north to New York.
En route they looked for work and slept in the car with three small children, two dogs and a cat. Saving their cash for gas, they survived on crackers and free packets of ketchup. “We always tried to make it an adventure for the children,” Sally explains. “Instead of saying, ‘We can’t afford to live here anymore,’ we’d say, ‘Let’s run away!’ And in every town where I couldn’t get a job we’d say, ‘This place doesn’t feel right. Let’s move on.’ If you make it positive, children don’t feel they’re being deprived.” Daughter Andrea, now 23, agrees. “It was never, ‘Oh goodness, what are we going to do?’ ” she says. “It was always a party. Sometimes I craved a little stability, and there was always the anxiety that my mom wouldn’t get the recognition that meant so much to her, but I most remember the magic she created. She and my stepfather just seemed to make things happen.”
Everything, that is, but a steady job. “Sally is doing today what she did 15 years ago,” says Karl, 49, “but it just wasn’t popular then. If a station wanted soft, she could give it. If they wanted a screaming rock jock, she could wing and ding with the best, but program executives wouldn’t hire a woman. When they did, her salary was so low that if I didn’t go out and sell the show after she was on the air, we couldn’t have scraped by.” Once, in the ’70s, they found themselves in Hartford, Conn., where Karl worked as a waiter. The following year they were back in Miami, where Sally hosted a morning TV show, moonlighted as an FM rock jock and did an AM interview show each afternoon. But none of those jobs lasted either. “Whenever Sally got fired I’d tell her she had three days for a pity party,” says Karl. “She could get drunk, run away and throw herself on the beach, and after that I would have a plan.” It may have been her husband’s faith that kept Sally afloat. “He was so sure that we were going to make it,” she says. “He taught me all along that anyone who rejected us was wrong and we were right, that we were being fired by people who just don’t know.” Unfortunately, they had her outnumbered. Sally’s most frustrating job was anchoring the local news on TV station WPIX in New York. “Night after night they made readjustments,” she remembers grimly. ” ‘Can you gain some weight, Miss Jessy? No, you’ve gained too much; could you let your hair grow? No, we want it short. Could you use a little more force? No, that’s too much—people will think you’re a dyke.’ ” After eight months she was replaced.
Far more painful for Sally was the death of her mother in 1979, five years after she had been assaulted and a short time later suffered a paralyzing stroke. “That’s when I decided life was unfair,” Sally says softly. “Why should such a wonderful woman have to suffer that way?” On her left hand Raphaël wears an ivory cameo ring bearing an image that reminds her of her mother. The ring was pressed into her hand by a fan in Fort Wayne, Ind., and she cherishes it as a talisman.
In 1980 Sally met Burt Dubrow, the producer who launched her career on syndicated TV. “She was totally unlike any woman I’d ever seen on television because she wasn’t afraid to say anything that was on her mind,” says Dubrow. “I thought people were ready for her as she was. I was wrong. The audience didn’t want Dinah Shore, but they didn’t want Janis Joplin either.” In short, Sally came on like a slap in the face. “It was so frustrating in the early days,” says Dubrow, “to turn on the radio at night and hear this warm voice you’d want to cuddle with, then turn on the television and see her shrieking. I’d go home at night and go ‘Eeeuggghhh!’ If she hasn’t been on the tube that much, at least she could have watched it.’ ” Fortunately, after a year of seasoning and some butting of heads, Raphaël muted her shrillness without losing her style. Her show won an Emmy in 1985, and Sally now splits her week between St. Louis, where she tapes five half-hour TV shows in three days, and Manhattan, where her three-bedroom apartment is usually abustle with exotic pets and assorted children, including J.J., her 14-year-old son.
Each weeknight from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. ET, Raphaël clamps on a pair of oversize earphones, sits before a microphone and talks to America. It is a ritual that keeps her attuned to the national psyche. “The second biggest problem in this country after, ‘I’m shy, lonely and insecure’ is, ‘Why isn’t my life like The Brady Bunch?’ ” she says. “People are so influenced by television sitcoms that they can’t understand why they’re not having as much fun as Bill Cosby’s Huxtables. Well, if you had $200,000 writers scripting your Thanksgiving dinner, minus the poopy relatives, your family would be funny too.”
Having waited so long for success, Sally can savor it with no regrets and no guilt. Preeminent among her earthly rewards is a big stone country house north of Manhattan, where Saturdays are spent sleeping past noon. Sally may spend quiet hours sewing or assembling miniature trains, while Karl uncorks champagne and conjures up some haute surprise in his Mongolian hot pot. Dessert is back-to-back rental movies—”anything with Charlie Chan, Sherlock Holmes or trains rushing through the night,” says Sally. Upstairs, the couple’s red-and-white bedroom is awash with dolls, stuffed animals and family snapshots. And there on the mantel, oddly out of place among the beaming relatives, is a shadowy photograph of Judy Garland with a tear sliding down her cheek. It is a portrait of anguish that Sally keeps as a reminder that hers is a business that can take away more than it gives. Not that Sally is complaining. Just last summer Robin Leach of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous came to call—proof that some prayers, after all, may be answered.