Jennings the Gent

Aug 15, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The first time I met Peter Jennings, he lit my cigarette for me.

That long-ago gesture has sober undertones and overtones now. But at the time it was the “World News Tonight” anchor who had just finished a question-and-answer session at a Television Critics Association tour in Los Angeles. Mr. Jennings was playing the gallant to a reporter he had until that moment known only over the phone and from newspaper clips.

“Why, you’re a rather handsome woman,” Mr. Jennings said.

“You’re rather handsome yourself. But of course you knew that,” I said.

Banter would be a part of the dialogue over the two-plus decades to come. Because I was a reporter and then a critic writing about TV at the New York Post, our paths and assignments and sometimes opinions would cross with enough regularity to generate a comfortable context for impertinent questions and responses.

Peter Jennings had long been a regularly bold-faced name on the Post’s Page Six, in juicy items about everything from which ABC correspondent he might have big-footed to how luxuriously he might have traveled to an assignment.

He made a great show of disliking having to deal with any question that smacked of gossip. Gossip is currency in TV business circles and (in its fetal stage) often turns out to be fact.

And so, if the gossip were seriously silly, such as the persistent rumble that Peter Jennings was using infomercial-type products to obscure the balding spot that was visible from certain camera angles, a reporter at a party might approach Peter from the rear, on tiptoes, mostly to get a laugh from Peter’s press representative at the time, the roundly adored Arnot Walker.

Sometimes Mr. Jennings himself would suddenly materialize, interrupting a call to his press rep to ask: “Where doooo you get this s**t?”

To which there could be only one response: “I don’t make s**t up. I do have to check it out.”

Sometimes, the checking process was less fun than at other times. The hot rumor one day in 1994 was that Emily Rooney was out as executive producer of “World News” only seven gossip-generating months after being brought, Cinderella-like, from Boston to apply her legendary local news sense to “World News,” where, it turned out, it was not welcome.

I called. She answered. The conversation quickly became more than awkward on both ends. “I’m calling to ask about the changes at ‘World News,'” I said. “What changes?” she replied. Pause. “I’m told you are stepping down,” I said. Pause. “I’ll have to call you back,” she said, before walking down the hall to find out what Peter Jennings and his executive producer at the time, Paul Friedman, had not yet told her.

She did call back that day in 1994, after getting the official word. She called back last week, when she was rifling through her memories and notes to put together a piece on the Friday “Beat the Press” edition of her weeknight show, “Greater Boston,” on WGBH-TV.

Like so many people last week, she was remembering Peter Jennings as someone from whom she learned much and for whom she had held no bitterness, someone whose death left a void. (As did that of Mr. Walker, who died in 1998 at age 44 after weeks in the hospital, weeks in which Mr. Jennings was often at Mr. Walker’s side.)

She also was remembering her personal experience with the question that he was famous for springing at moments when it could be most unnerving: “Are you really going to wear that?” It was mentioned in numerous anecdotes told last week during the many TV hours devoted to remembering Peter Jennings.

Usually, he popped this question just before a correspondent was about to go on the air. In Ms. Rooney’s case, it was shortly before she was scheduled to accompany him to a black-tie dinner when he asked: “You aren’t going to wear that, are you?” “Guess not,” replied Ms. Rooney, who remembered last week: “I ran out and bought a new outfit.”

On one of my mother’s visits to New York in the mid-’90s, Mr. Walker gave her the VIP treatment, tucking her into a chair just feet from Peter Jennings’ anchor chair during “World News Tonight.”

She was a faithful watcher of “NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw,” but Mr. Jennings chatted graciously with her after the broadcast and posed for a picture with her.

Afterward, my mother and I walked him to the front door of his apartment building.

She remained faithful to Mr. Brokaw.

But she had never felt like such a handsome woman.