March 25, 1991 12:00 PM

Little Karl Nikolai “Niki” Wellner weighed into the world at 7 lbs. 5 oz., at 3:24 P.M. on Feb. 27, just as the war with Iraq ended. “Isn’t that something?” says his mom. Today show coanchor Deborah Norville. (Dad is Karl Wellner, 37, a Swedish-born businessman.) “So here Karl and I were, absolutely grinning from ear to ear about what happened to us, and the rest of the world was happy too. I don’t know,” ponders Norville, a first-time mother at 32, “it just seemed like God willed that something wonderful would happen that day.”

Now, if only God would will something extra-wonderful: peace on the set of NBC’s Today, whose ratings have remained consistently behind those of ABC’s Good Morning America in the year since Jane Pauley made her exit. Former newsreader Norville, having rapidly ascended to take Pauley’s place and sporting a five-year, $6 million pact, found herself widely regarded as a usurper, an ice princess rudely enthroned by NBC in a misguided attempt to woo younger viewers. With the Nielsens sluggish, there is persistent speculation that the Peacock Network would like to shed Norville or at least reassign her (she regards a recent TV Guide piece to that effect as “a bunch of baloney”). Even the baby—who will go by Niki, Norville says, “because we just liked the name; it’s not going to be Big Karl and Little Karl”—wasn’t exempt from industry whispering. Was Norville’s pregnancy a way to save her career? (Remember, it was the arrival of twins in 1983 that transformed Jane Pauley into a sort of A.M. Earth Mom.) Or would this be the chance for NBC brass to get rid of Norville and replace her with morning news anchor Faith Daniels or substitute anchor Katie Couric (who now is pregnant herself and expecting in July)? When Norville announced her own pregnancy, NBC News President Michael Gartner observed halfheartedly. “I suspect she will be welcomed back.” Later that was amended to a slightly heartier “I expect [her return], and I welcome it.” Since NBC refuses to comment further, Gartner’s real feelings won’t be apparent until sometime next month, when Norville is scheduled to return from maternity leave. “When you work in TV,” says Norville, who knows how quickly favor can shift, “you really can’t take a long leave.” (And don’t worry: Niki will be looked after by a nurse.)

Of course, maybe, just maybe, this baby will grow up to smite Mommy’s enemies, leveling Good Morning America and the rising CBS This Morning to boot. But this is Deborah’s baby, not Rosemary’s, and at the moment he is napping upstairs in Norville’s Manhattan duplex apartment, which is cozy enough so that she doesn’t use coasters. She and the blond, quietly continental Wellner, who met on a blind date in 1985 and married in 1987, have lived here a year, and it is no more settled than the Today set. “We haven’t even finished the baby’s room,” says Norville. “We didn’t want to know if it was going to be a boy or a girl, so we went with a neutral color. I was doing a cross-stitched embroidered blanket for his bed—that’s not done. The four little squares are finished for Piglet, Eeyore, the honey pot and Tigger, but Pooh hasn’t even been drawn yet.

“I’m used to being this efficient person,” continues the woman who, on-camera, can seem as brisk as a business letter. “There are people who called three days ago, and I said, ‘I’ll call you right back.’ Karl said, ‘You just had a baby a week ago, Deborah, relax. No one expects their thank-you note yet.’ ”

When she does get around to it, the letter writing will be a lengthy chore. Missives are due the Henson family—former interview subjects, now friends—who sent a Kermit doll. Ronald Reagan sent morning-in-America greetings (“Life for your generation should be very exciting and joyous because the world has never offered more opportunities for the young… “). “The Today show sent flowers. Willard Scott sent a beautiful basket of flowers, Joe Garagiola sent a basket filled with baby stuff, [CBS This Morning coanchor] Paula Zahn sent a gift.” (At last word, coanchor Bryant Gumbel and Pauley had not yet weighed in with their offerings—but there’s a yearlong grace period for sending gifts, isn’t there?) “The audience sent booties, blankets—easily over 500 things.” Norville marvels. “And I just got this package from work, all these cards, a whole box, from viewers congratulating us. Karl and I started reading them last night, and we both started crying.”

Norville, by the way, likes to point out that she is prone to crying. “I never saw where they got the ‘Steel Woman’ thing,” she says. Off-camera, “I’m an emotional wreck.” She also concedes that she can be perky (“What’s wrong with perky?”), though not in these first days of motherhood. “Lately I’m wearing mostly sweatpants, bobby socks, oversize shirt, no makeup, hair in a ponytail,” she says. “The baby was fussy this morning, so I didn’t get to wash my hair or shave my legs.” She’s gained a little weight. How much? “I won’t tell until after I lose it,” she says, laughing. “And there is no scale in this house! But at least I have ankles again. And this morning I managed 60 sit-ups.”

She has been able to breast-feed Niki with some of the old efficiency. “I’m accustomed to getting up at 4 in the morning to do Today,” she says, so early feedings aren’t exhausting. Diapering, on the other hand, was an unpleasant surprise: “Karl and I were running around like the Keystone Kops. I accidentally taped the diaper to the baby. I mean, I’ve diapered a lot of kids. Like any girl, I earned a lot of money baby-sitting. But I forgot a lot of it. We got the diaper on, finally, but it was like 10 to 15 minutes.”

But time, Norville well knows, is relative. “The first eight months fly,” she says of pregnancy. “The ninth month crawls like a snail. At least it was that way for me. I was tired. There was a lot going on at work. I didn’t feel like I could slack off—because of the war everyone was working such awful hours, and I didn’t feel like, because I was pregnant, I could say, ‘Be nice to me, let me go home.’ ” She was tired, but exempt from morning sickness during the all-important hours of 7-9 A.M. However, “I did this one taping after the show for an interview with [composer] Henry Mancini. It went well, but in just the last minute, I’m thinking, ‘I feel nauseous. Please, God, don’t let me throw up on this extremely famous person.’ Afterward he left. And I walked out right after him, and I ran right into the ladies room and just blaaaaaaaaaaaaah.”

Norville’s pregnancy did have a serious complication, though. After the eighth month, she developed toxemia—a form of acute hypertension in pregnant woman. “So my blood pressure really shot up,” Norville says. “The doctor said, ‘You can keep working, but you have to promise me that you will stay on your left side [which is the least stressful for Baby] when you’re not on the air.’ So I had this little dressing room right off the studio, and I would go in and do my interview, and then I would go lie down.”

She thought she’d have a nice long lie-down after she went on leave Feb. 22. “My due date had been March 6,” she says. But on Feb. 26, “I went to see my doctor for my regular checkup, and he said, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow. You’re scheduled for 7:30.’ I said, ‘Scheduled for what?’ I think I would have preferred the panic at 2 in the morning. That’s the movie way. I had an induced birth [because of the toxemia]. I went in at 7:20, and by 8:45 I was getting the IV in the labor room. I did it in six hours. The baby had a knot in the umbilical cord. And at a certain time during the pushing the blood flow would stop. There were a couple times during the delivery that they couldn’t pick up the baby’s heartbeat from the monitor. They would roll me over and give me straight oxygen. Karl would just push me over, grab the oxygen and tell me to keep breathing and reassure me, ‘Wait for the heartbeat to go back up.’ Karl was so great.”

Niki, of course, is also great. “They tell me babies don’t smile,” says Norville, “but he does. It is not gas. He is smiling. He is so cute.” And Deborah is feeling great too. “I hope I’m glowing when I go back to work. I do think that people will look at me differently—certainly the mothers out there. I feel like I joined some exclusive sorority. So forgive me if I don’t wax poetic on the subject of Bryant Gumbel, the press and all that, but it seems so unimportant to me. Let’s talk about life.”

Oh, Deborah, let’s not. Let’s talk about Today. Norville tries to be diplomatic about her peculiar career there (“I think the problems will go away. Call me an ostrich—I think people are interested in other things”). She tries to be philosophical (“I look at it as a chapter that will influence me for the rest of my life”). Tries to deflect the problem from herself (“It’s not just me. The whole show seems to be getting hit. That’s the bottom line”). But the real bottom line is that she was hurt by the past 12 months on Today. “It was more painful than childbirth,” she admits. “No comparison.”

And far, far messier than motherhood. “I can control the little guy upstairs,” she says. “But I can’t control the office gossip or the industry gossip. Look, I’m the first one to say if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen…but I crawled into the oven, and it was turned up to broil. I’m not bitter. But, gosh, I was shocked initially. Devastated, and then utterly depressed. I can’t tell you how depressed I was.”

Whether shocked, devastated or depressed, she hasn’t let it show. “I truly think what she is doing is taking the high road,” says one insider. “She is too much of a lady, and much too smart, to stoop to public bitterness. But the reality is that she realizes that NBC handled the whole situation in a very poor manner. I don’t think she blames anyone in particular. I just think that she feels the situation was handled unprofessionally—in an undignified manner for both her and Jane.”

Still, she did her job. “Maybe that is the Southern woman in me,” says the Dalton, Ga., native proudly. “Steel Magnolias was not a misnomer. There is an inner strength to women in general and Southern women in particular. We’re like willows. We bend real far, but we don’t break.”

And a willow that has gotten hold of the right self-help book is even stronger. “When I was 18, I read Wayne Dyer’s Your Erroneous Zones,” Norville says. “It’s a wonderful book. The lesson I took was, ‘Don’t let someone else’s bad day become yours.’ If Karl comes home mad as hops about something at the office and I allow him to put me in a lousy mood, then I have given him control. What I can do is be understanding: ‘Karl really had an awful day. Now is not the time to ask him to put the changing table together.’ ”

In fact, what made Wellner mad as hops was the way his wife was treated. “He was my knight in shining armor,” says Norville. “He wanted to joust with anyone who said anything negative.” Wellner still gets mad as hops. “The real soft, wonderful wife she is—that never comes across.” he says. “It was so unfair, drove me absolutely nuts. She can’t go around and shake hands with 250 million viewers, but slowly, but surely, I know people will get to see that she is a damn fine human being.” One damning point, however: “She’ll sit and eat a whole bag of potato chips. A large one, too. You haven’t seen her when she gets started on a bag of potato chips.” From there on out, though, he marvels. “She is much more practical than me. I have a thumb in the middle of my hand. She gets into things. She puts wallpaper up, she sews, she digs in the garden.”

Norville seems to be having visions of suburban flowers, and more children treading them. “We’re wondering if we want to raise Niki in the city,” she says. “I grew up in a place where no one locked doors. [In] my hometown, when Mom wanted you to come home for supper, she rang the bell. And you could tell the Parkers’ bell, the Norvilles’, the Knights’. You played in the creek, and you went exploring. I love the city, but Niki has to have room to grow.”

Well, you can take Niki away from the city, but probably not from the television screen where Mommy shares space with. Mr. Gumbel and that funny Uncle Willard, where Mr. Gumbel once made Uncle Willard almost cry with a very mean memo, and where Mommy’s bright shiny star got tarnished overnight. Some day-say, 10 years from now—will Norville sit Niki down and tell him her tumultuous Today saga? “I would hope,” says Norville. “that when he’s 10, the other 10-year-olds won’t care about this silliness.”

Tom Gliatto, Alan Carter in New York City

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