February 03, 1992 12:00 PM

ON SUNDAY, JAN. 12, SALLY JESSY RAPHAËL and her husband, Karl Soderlund, were asleep in their Manhattan apartment when the knock on the door came at 1:30 A.M. As soon as Raphaël saw the two police officers waiting outside—even before they spoke—she knew that something terrible had happened. “Is my son alive?” she asked.

The response was not encouraging. “We don’t know,” the officers told her. Indeed it would bean interminable 40 minutes before Raphaël and Soderlund would get an affirmative answer. Their 19-year-old adopted son, J.J., had been rushed by ambulance to Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y. The Soderlunds’ 1988 black Toyota Camry had gone out of control, crashed into a tree and tumbled down a ravine near the family’s home in suburban Montrose, N.Y., somewhere between 8:30 and 10 P.M. the night before. It took a rescue crew 45 minutes to cut through the wreckage and remove J.J. and two passengers, his friend Michelle Kramer, 19, and her boyfriend, Jason Morales, 20. Although they were wearing seatbelts, all three were seriously injured. J.J., who would lie in a coma for six more days, was in the worst shape. “My son looks dead,” Sally thought when she reached his side.

The next day, J.J. underwent a seven-hour operation to put a pin into the more seriously damaged of his two broken legs and to wire his broken jaw. He also suffered broken ribs, and his face required 56 stitches. Raphaël sat beside him day after day, trying to make him laugh—to react. “I’d say to him, ‘J.J., I’m going to read to you from Playboy; 14 ways to achieve a male orgasm,’ ” she recalls. “Anything that I could do to get him to blink. Remember, this is a 19-year-old horny kid.” J.J.’s bags had already been packed for the trip to New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce College, where he was to start classes last week. “Here’s a kid that I really wanted to go to school and not to play the music loud,” says Raphaël. “Now all I wanted was for him to open his eyes.”

Whatever she did, it worked. On Saturday, Jan. 18, J.J. regained consciousness and squeezed his mother’s hand. J.J. suffered no internal injuries, there appears to be no sign of neurological damage, and doctors say that his prognosis is excellent, though his full convalescence may take as long as a year. Raphaël still keeps vigil at her son’s bedside 10 to 12 hours a day, until she can no longer keep open the watchful brown eyes behind her trademark red-frame glasses.

Yet despite her son’s trauma, Raphaël missed only one taping of the syndicated talk show bearing her name. Though admittedly in a daze, she was back on the pink-and-lavender stage in her West 57th Street studio three days after J.J.’s accident, listening to the stars of an episode titled “Stripping Sisters.”

The significance of such a show was not something Sally would ponder for long. Back at her brown-shingled, five-bedroom Montrose house, named Hare Hollow to commemorate her fondness for rabbits. Raphaël uncorks a bottle of 1985 Vino Nobile and lets out a long sigh. “Are big-breasted women really important when I’m facing a life-or-death situation?” she asks. “That’s a judgment call that I have no right to make. I do think the show must go on.”

After some 35 years in a business in which she has been fired 18 times, Sally Jessy Raphaël, who is in her late 50s and now makes more than $1 million a year, has earned a reputation for stubborn resilience. The pluck, the dark humor, the concern, the single-mindedness—during Raphaël’s ordeal, all were on ample display. In fact, they are showcased every weekday on Sally Jessy Raphaël, TV’s fastest rising day-time talk program, with ratings that jumped 24 percent from 1990 to 1991. (At this moment Sally trails only The Oprah Winfrey Show and Donahue in their shared Nielsen category.) Phil Donahue, a competitor and admirer, thinks he knows the secret of Raphaël’s appeal. “She’s a real, live mother who has sustained and enjoyed all the good things about parenthood and, as we now see, the terrors too,” he says. “I think that makes her very, very special. She brings a point of view to her program that I think female viewers identify with.”

Raphaël describes her show as “a town meeting addressing issues that the genuine person is really interested in.” But don’t confuse her offerings with those of Nightline. Leave it to another fan (and occasional guest), Roseanne Arnold, to pinpoint what turns viewers on: “Sally has the best serial killers and the best abnormal-psychology shows of them all. I think it’s great how Sally carved out her own niche alongside all the other ones.” That niche has been broadened by such strike-a-nerve recent topics as “I Don’t Want My Child to Have Black Friends” and “My Teenage Daughter Has No Manners.” Last November, Raphaël earned her highest ratings ever with the topic “My Daughter Dresses Like a Tramp.”

Curiously, Raphaël has seldom been lucky professionally and personally at the same time. “We had been on such a roll,” says Soderlund, 56, who is his wife’s manager. “I think there’s somebody around who says, ‘You’re getting too big for your britches,’ and then, ‘Bong!’ ”

Raphaël’s current setback is only the latest in a life that has fluctuated between fame and famine. Sally and her brother, Steven, 53, a writer for ABC radio network news, were raised by their parents. Jessy Lowenthal, a prosperous broker who dabbled in everything from real estate to rum, and his artist wife, Dede. They grew up comfortably in Scarsdale, N.Y., and made frequent trips to San Juan. But when Sally was in her mid-teens, Lowenthal developed heart I rouble and was no longer able to work. “I have this memory of the furniture being sold from our big house in Scars-dale and the auctioneers coming to take it away before we moved into a small apartment,” says Raphaël, whose father died destitute in 1963. (Her mother died in 1978.) “It’s harder in some ways to have had it and lost it than not to have had it at all.”

Still, Sally Lowenthal, who had dreamed of a radio career since her childhood (when she would recite Arthur Godfrey and Jean Shepherd routines to her stuffed animals), managed to graduate from Columbia University in 1955 with a degree in broadcasting. Immediately she moved to San Juan with her new husband, advertising man Andrew Vladimir, a childhood friend. Soon after, she debuted on English-language San Juan radio station WHOA, doing the 6-9 A.M. shift, and became Sally Jessy Raphaël. She took the Jessy from her father and added the Raphaël, she explains, “because most people in Puerto Rico have three names.”

Sally and Andrew had two daughters, Allison, now 31 and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (she currently is not employed because of back problems), and Andrea, 29, a professional masseuse. But the marriage stopped working in 1963 when Sally met Karl Soderlund, who walked into her life when she switched to another San Juan station, WKYN, where he was the manager. “I thought. “Wow! Look at this redhead,’ ” he remembers. “She had a great body. She was gorgeous.”

Eight months later, Sally left Andrew for Karl, who was divorced with two daughters of his own. The couple married in 1964, and Karl joined Sally on her nomadic career journey. “Of all the men in the world, there is only one Karl. says Raphaël. “Here’s a man who, when he had good jobs and I was broke and out of work, would give up his job and move with me.”

Raphaël did not travel lightly. The couple’s unconventional brood ultimately included their San Juan paper boy, Robbie, now 39, whom they took in as a foster son in 1965, as well as J.J., who joined them in 1972. The Raphaël-Soderlund family moved at least 25 times together, winding their way through radio and occasional television gigs in Miami, Hartford, Conn., and New York City. Sometimes, Sally was fired when stations changed formats. And sometimes she quit. In 1970, for example, she and Karl, her producer, left the 1-6 A.M. shift at Miami’s WIOD after her then 10-year-old daughter, Allison, for whom they could not afford a baby-sitter, called in on the air to say that she heard someone snooping around outside their house.

It got worse before it got better. In 1974, Raphaël hosted a TV show, A.M. Miami. After she was fired in November, the family moved to New York City, where they lived on food stamps for three months until Soderlund found a job developing a broadcasting division for the Ford Modeling Agency. “Did I want to spend 26 years not knowing where our next meal was coming from?” Raphaël asks today. “No. I would have liked to have given my children a great education. But I have no regrets because every bit of it was a learning lesson.”

Raphaël’s big break came in 1981. when she joined NBC’s now defunct Talknet, a syndicated talk-radio network of some 280 stations. She became the Dear Abby of the airwaves, providing a sympathetic ear to the troubled and the lovelorn. One night, while on vacation, Phil Donahue tuned in on an Albuquerque, N.Mex., station. “I was very impressed with the focus she gave to her callers,” he says. “I called my own management company, Multimedia Entertainment, and told them they ought to take a look at her.”

First, Raphaël was booked as a guest on a Multimedia TV interview show, Braun and Company, syndicated out of Cincinnati. The executive producer, Burt Dubrow, latched onto her at once. “I thought, ‘We should reach the ladies at home,’ ” Dubrow remembers. “It would be like doing Mister Rogers for adults.” On Oct. 17, 1983, with Dubrow at the helm, In Touch with Sally Jessy Raphaël began airing out of St. Louis, where Dubrow had moved his operation. Raphaël commuted there each week for four years so that she could stay on the radio in New York City. Renamed Sally Jessy Raphaël in 1984, the TV show slowly added stations as it moved to New Haven in 1987 and Manhattan in 1989. By May 1991, Raphaël, under pressure from Soderlund to slow down, fell secure enough to end her long radio career.

As the program was growing, Dubrow decided to restyle the star. “She was not very feminine,” he says. Hoping to soften her image, Dubrow took her out of the pants that she liked to wear and put her into skirts. Raphaël didn’t protest. “I have kids to feed and school bills to pay, so I will always say OK,” she says. “Madonna can tell everyone to screw. I am not Madonna.” She confines her rebellion to the famous red glasses, which she picked up on a fluke in 1983 when she started having trouble reading the TelePrompTer. Walking into a five-and-dime store, she bought the only pair of reading glasses left, which happened to be red. Studio execs hated them, but Raphaël didn’t give in.

As for reports she has had plastic surgery, which supermarket tabloids claim resulted in a botched face-lift that left her mouth looking strange, Raphaël rolls her eyes. “I had oral surgery because I had a bridge rebuilt in the left side of my mouth,” she says. “Because they had been working on the mouth, they did some work on the lower part of my face. But I have not had a face-lift, and I’ve never had liposuction on any part of my body.”

In any case, glamor is not her attraction: if anything, Dubrow suggests, Raphaël relics on the allure of “the neighbor next door.” Thanks to that soothing presence, appearing on Sally can be a catharsis. Stephie Berezowskyj of Guilford, Conn., had been raped at 15 by an acquaintance and, until she was 29, had blocked out the memory of both the assault and the pregnancy and abortion that followed. She couldn’t even bring herself to tell her therapist what had happened. Then one night in 1985, Berezowskyj called Raphaël’s radio show and soon afterward told her story on TV. “I felt that Sally understood,” says Berezowskyj. “I would never have done this with Geraldo or Donahue. It’s her. She seemed like she really gave a s—-.” Afterward, Berezowskyj, who is married to her high school sweetheart, remained close to Sally and named her the godmother of her 5-year-old son.

Raphaël has befriended not only some of her guests but the occasional fan as well. In the studio audience in St. Louis back in 1986, Jewell Howlett, of Flat River, Mo., handed Raphaël an afghan that she had made for her in the host’s favorite color, red. Moved in the gift, Raphaël told Howlett to keep in touch, and she did. “Three year’s later I got really strapped financially,” Howlett says. “The house I was living in was sold. I called Sally and Karl.” They flew her east, put her up in the Isaac Stover House, the bed-and-breakfast they run as a sideline in Erwinna, Pa., and later bought her a 1985 Oldsmobile Calais. Now a factory worker in central New Jersey, Howlett, who named her cat Jessy, says, “Sally is the most genuine person I have ever known.”

In fact Raphaël says she doesn’t have any celebrity friends. Her best pal of 20 years is Harriet Norris, an executive with New York Telephone. Even some of Raphaël’s everyday travails seem just-folks. She says she still can’t get a credit card from Macy’s because of credit problems that cropped up years ago when she was down on her luck. But that hasn’t stopped her from launching several businesses of her own. Recently she began marketing an adult doll called the Ideal Man. (Pull a string and he says, “You relax. I’ll do the dishes” or “You look good without your makeup on.”) She is also pitching to food companies a diet snack chip that, she claims, has zero calories. And she is forming her own production company, for which she is developing an animated feature based on the unfortunate creatures who didn’t make it onto Noah’s Ark.

With all that they have going, though, Raphaël and Soderlund still take time to collect everything and anything. At Hare Hollow, one room is de-voted to antique toys and another to hats. The couple also collect embroideries, model trains and painted wooden children’s chairs. Raphaël is proudest, perhaps of her 200 quilts, including, she says, “a bar mitzvah quilt and a gay quilt from the turn of the century done by a men’s quilting bee.”

Standing before her fireplace, Raphaël warms her hands. “I always believe even day of my life that it will be over tomorrow,” she says. “I know a good deal about fame. I’ve watched famous people from the sidelines for 30 years. It’s just a moment in time. Every path that goes up also goes down. If you don’t have a hobby or close family and friends, then you are pretty sad.”

Obviously she has no reason to pity herself. Everybody who knows her has been saying prayers for Sally and J.J.—her wardrobe stylist’s father in Atlanta, a fundamentalist group in Harlem, a good friend of Sally’s in Ireland. Finally it seems that those prayers are being answered. “You learn more from 10 days of agony than from 10 years of content,” Raphaël says. “Although J.J. has a long road ahead of him, we are very hopeful.


SUE CARSWELL in New York City and Westchester County

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