August 22, 2005 12:00 PM

While visiting Peter Jennings and his wife, Kayce Freed, at their Manhattan apartment two weeks before the anchorman died of lung cancer on Aug. 7, his ex-wife-turned-friend Kati Marton offered up a toast. “Kayce and Peter and I were sitting around,” says Marton. “I raised a glass of wine and I said, ‘Here’s to you feeling better.’ He was impatient with platitudes. He cut me off and said, ‘Here’s to me being better,’ and that gives you an indication of how he was fighting. He was true to himself through the end. The core of the man was stunningly unchanged by this ravaging disease.”

Ever since April 5, when Jennings—with characteristic aplomb—announced on his final World News Tonight telecast that he had cancer, friends, colleagues, even rivals had been impressed by the urbane newsman’s quiet, steely courage and his unfaltering grace. “I was always stunned when I visited him,” says Ken Auletta, The New Yorker magazine columnist and a close friend of Jennings’s. “He was competitive. He was going to fight it. He was dignified. He would even walk you to the door because he was just a gentleman. One time he was too exhausted by the chemo, so he didn’t do it, but he was still upbeat.” Part of the credit for that unflagging optimism goes to Kayce. “She’s just been fantastic,” says Barbara Walters. “She protected him.”

“Kayce was always there bucking him up, making him smile,” says Auletta of Freed, a former 20/20 producer whom Jennings wed in 1997, two years after his divorce from third wife Marton, ABC’s former Bonn bureau chief and the mother of Jennings’s children—Elizabeth, 25, and Christopher, 23. Both were at their father’s bedside when he died—as they had been since his diagnosis in April. Elizabeth returned from South Africa, where she had been working for an AIDS foundation, and Christopher returned to Manhattan after graduating from Wesleyan in May; Jennings was too ill to attend. “Peter was heartbroken that he couldn’t be there,” says Walters.

Clearly the cancer treatment was taking its toll on Jennings. He underwent a bout of chemo in April, followed by radiation therapy and then one final course of chemo, which ended just before his birthday on July 29. “He was very weak for much of the time,” says Barrie Dunsmore, a former ABC News correspondent and godfather to Christopher. “It was hard to communicate very much on the phone. The loss of voice was a function of the lung cancer, and he was having difficulty breathing.”

On one of Jennings’s rare visits to the ABC offices, colleagues were startled by just how frail he looked. “He was noticeably thinner,” says one staffer; he had lost perhaps 20 lbs. “But incredibly,” notes one staffer, “he didn’t lose any of his hair.”

The afternoon following his death, Jennings’s colleagues at ABC held a 20-minute memorial in the newsroom. The service “was very emotional,” says Bert Rudman, a producer for ABC News. An image of Jennings filled the set’s huge video wall. “Everybody who was in the ABC building gathered there at about 3 o’clock,” recounts Rudman, who estimates that a few hundred people turned out. Dr. Timothy Johnson, ABC News‘s medical editor and a long-time friend of Jennings’s, told the staff that “he had died peacefully with dignity,” according to Rudman. The memorial ended with a standing ovation for Jennings. “The applause lasted about three minutes,” says Walters. Adds Rudman: “No one wanted to leave the room after it was over.”

For many, it was hard to accept that Jennings himself had left. “People compared him to James Bond,” says one ABC News correspondent, “and it’s not just because he had such style and grace. It’s also because he seemed so indestructible. This was a guy who’d been in war zones”—from Vietnam in the ’60s to Bosnia in the ’90s—”and natural disasters, and he just came through looking cool and collected.”

That composure even extended to the way he fought the cancer. As the show’s managing editor, Jennings continued to work behind the camera to make sure WNT remained up to his exacting standards. “He would get on our conference call every morning at 9 in a raspy voice,” says senior broadcast producer Tom Nagorski. “It frustrated him, I think, that he couldn’t be more engaged, but we valued every word.”

“He was treated with so much affection and dignity at a time when he must have known he wasn’t going back to his job,” says friend and colleague Ted Koppel. “He continued to be the living embodiment of ABC News until the day he died.”

Before his illness, Jennings (whom his late boss Roone Arledge dubbed “Prickly Pete”) was renowned for running a tight ship. “Quite honestly, he pushed people hard,” says Jake Tapper, a correspondent in ABC’s Washington bureau, “but it almost always made the work better.”

To his public, he could be utterly charming. At one of his favorite Manhattan restaurants, Café des Artistes, he would occasionally stun other diners by playfully posing as a waiter. “He was very real and not full of himself,” says the restaurant’s manager, Brian Zipin.

Jennings was just as comfortable for the past 15 years feeding hot meals to people living on the streets. “His evening broadcast would end at 7 and he would literally run over from the studio to St. Bart’s church and jump on the food van, and we were off,” says Mary Brosnahan Sullivan, executive director of New York City’s Coalition for the Homeless, one of the many charities Jennings actively supported. “One time when the van broke down, he just got out and pushed to jump-start it. He was just so down-to-earth. It really pulled at him to see people with nothing.”

Not that the Toronto-born Jennings sprang from humble roots. His father, Charles, a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation executive, helped him leap into radio at age 9 as host of a half-hour weekly children’s show. He was considerably less motivated as a student, dropping out of high school after his junior year. The lack of a high school diploma haunted Jennings the rest of his life. He resolved to educate himself, reading voraciously. “I have never spent a day in my adult life where I didn’t learn something,” he told The New York Times. “And if there is a born-again quality to me, that is it.”

Jennings’s encyclopedic brain, poise and good looks helped him rise swiftly through the broadcasting ranks. At 25, as anchor of Canada’s first commercial network news show, he was covering the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City when ABC News recruited the dapper young newsman to anchor its then-15-minute evening newscast. Up against CBS’s Walter Cronkite and NBC’s Huntley and Brinkley, Jennings proved a ratings disaster. Aware of his inexperience, he spent the next 15-plus years gaining street cred as a roving foreign correspondent for ABC. He opened the first U.S. TV news bureau in the Middle East, scoring exclusives with PLO leader Yasir Arafat and Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini (then exiled in Paris) before moving on to head ABC’s London bureau.

By 1983 he was back in New York and in the coveted anchor seat, succeeding the late Frank Reynolds, and over the next 10 years he propelled World News Tonight to No. 1 over rivals Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather.

He pushed himself hard too. For ABC’s Millennium 2000 coverage, Jennings was on the air for 25 hours straight. On 9/11 he stayed with the coverage nonstop into the following day. Yet he remained a globe-trotting correspondent at heart. “I think I’ll never stop traveling the world,” he told Larry King in 2004. “I love it, I love it, I love it.” So his absence from on-location coverage of the tsunami last December surprised viewers and colleagues alike. “He thought he had the flu,” Barbara Walters told Larry King. “He was shocked and amazed he had lung cancer.”

Once the realization had sunk in, “he knew that he had an uphill battle,” says ABC News president David West-in. “There were a series of things that needed to be done in the [radiation and chemotherapy] treatment, but he wasn’t catching a break. He wasn’t getting better, and we knew at some point that it was not good news.”

Still, there were moments of respite. On July 29 Kayce lured Jennings outside their Bridgehampton, N.Y., home, where he could see a plane high above trailing a banner that read: Happy Birthday, Peter—love from all at World News Tonight. “He got on the speakerphone, and we sang “Happy Birthday” and applauded him,” says West-in, “and he said how proud he was of how they’d carried on even when he wasn’t there.” The celebration continued with his children planting a tree for him. “Some jazz musicians from a charity concert he sponsored showed up and played for him,” says Kati Marton, “and he really rallied.”

He was still in good spirits four days before his death, when Marton visited her ex-husband for the last time. As she was about to depart, “I stood in the door as he dozed off and just watched him,” she says, “and had a sense this might be our last visit. He opened his eyes and caught me looking at him. So typical of him, like I got ya—I see you,’ ” says Marton. “Then he blew me a kiss. I think he thought there’d be other visits.” Marton pauses. “There will never be another such man in any of our lives,” she says.

BY Mike Lipton and Jason Lynch. Sharon Cotliar, Diane Clehane, Liza Hamm, K.C. Baker, Joanne Fowler, Courtney Hazlett and Fannie Weinstein in New York and Nicole Weisensee Egan in Philadelphia

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