Natalie Jacobson Has News For You

Her fork and knife resting on a plate of half-eaten gourmet pizza, Natalie Jacobson leans back slightly in her seat, fending off tears. Never surrendering her perfect posture or famous poise, she quickly stifles the emotion and exhales.

“Wow. I’m surprised by my reaction,” she says, then excuses herself from the table at the Armani Café. When she returns, she will be smiling again, and no one who happens upon Boston’s most beloved woman will be able to tell how close to crying she was just moments before.

Never mind, for now, the subject that brought on the tears. We’ll get to that
in time. Never mind — or, rather, forgive — the folly of parsing Jacobson’s emotions the way we do the slightest changes to her hairstyle. Our broader purpose here, 32 years into her tenure at Channel 5 and nearly a half-decade after her well-chronicled breakup with her husband and co-anchor, Chet Curtis — it will be five years next month — is to consider whether they reveal something important about her personality or are merely a blip in an otherwise contented life. To contemplate Jacobson’s happiness and (yes, seriously) the meaning of Happiness itself.

She certainly looks serene enough to the 165,000 households who tune in to watch the sunny, self-assured Jacobson deliver the headlines at 6 o’clock on WCVB-TV, in a broadcast that draws higher average ratings than not only every other news show in the local market, but much of the networks’ prime-time programming. She has the professional respect of colleagues who have come to appreciate the tough, intense, off-air Jacobson, and the satisfaction that comes with being the city’s first female evening anchor and, today, its last larger-than-life anchor, period. Flouting the industry’s trend toward interchangeable headline readers, she remains a first-name-only celebrity on the order of Ben or Manny, an icon recently deemed worthy of having her own page on the Channel 5 website. She is admired by the luminaries who attend the charity galas she hosts and adored by the fans who approach her to offer their praise as she runs errands in the Back Bay. She owns two very nice houses and a very nice Audi convertible and what must be a very healthy retirement account.

Yet even as Jacobson should be coasting through her gilded years, she is not entirely satisfied. “I’ll tell you one personal thing that I worry about,” her boss, Channel 5 general manager Paul La Camera , volunteers. “At times I wish she’d be happier than she is. I think part of that is she’s so passionate, so ambitious, that whatever she’s reaching to achieve, it’s never fully achieved. . . . It’s hard to define what that ultimate goal is, but she never feels like she’s gotten there. I don’t know if she’s ever going to be fully fulfilled. So my message to her would be: Back off a little bit and enjoy it. Enjoy who you are and everything you’ve done for this community, which admires you so much.”

Nonsense, says Jacobson when I relay La Camera’s sentiment to her near the end of our lunch, after the dishes have been cleared and her tears are long gone. “I’m the happiest person I know.” Like the news she delivers, the claim sounds all the more true for having been announced in her authoritative tone. It’s enough, almost, to convince you to ignore the contradictory evidence and just take her at her word.

Among Boston television insiders, the acronym for New England Cable News has taken on a double meaning. What NECN really stands for, they joke, is Never, Ever Cross Natalie. Tom Ellis did when he was paired with her at Channel 5 from 1978 to 1982, and Jacobson, an upstart just two years into her evening anchoring duties when they began working together, helped chase the then-heavyweight out of the station with her on-air glowering; now he’s serving out his career as one of the cable network’s weekend anchors. With Ellis gone, Jacobson was able to do the news with her husband, Chet Curtis, who worked alongside her on the 6 and 11 o’clock broadcasts for 18 years. After the couple announced their separation in December 1999, he lasted another seven months before Channel 5 banished him to a less visible role. The following February, he left the station to take a job cohosting NECN’s NewsNight . For her part, Jacobson, then 56, was allowed to give up her 11 o’clock slot and settle into a less onerous schedule. She also got the marquee 6 o’clock news all to herself. At an age when the few female newscasters who have made it that long often face demotion or forced retirement, she had outlasted rivals of both genders. As always, it wasn’t only her genial screen persona that had led to her success. It was also a little-seen prickly side.

When La Camera handed her the reins of the 6, he bucked tradition at Channel 5’s parent company, Hearst-Argyle Television. And from an industry standpoint, the move was definitely unconventional. “It’s rare to have a single lead anchor in most local news operations, primarily because they are trying to attract as broad an audience as possible by using a duo, particularly in heavily viewed time slots,” says La Salle University communication professor Richard Goedkoop, author of Inside Local Television News. “It is even rarer to have a female solo anchor, because of long-standing prejudices on the part of viewers and pandering by news directors.”

But from WCVB’s perspective, the arrangement proved the best way to deploy its most bankable talent. By the time Jacobson took over the slot, Channel 7 had all but erased Channel 5’s long-held lead in the ratings. Before the year was out, she had put her employer firmly back in front and, while she was at it, demonstrated that her popularity with viewers remained unmatched.

“There was a certain fire from Natalie that was hotter than it had ever been when she started to solo-anchor that show,” says Joe Murray, who produced Channel 5’s 6 o’clock news until he became managing editor of Hearst-Argyle’s WMUR-TV in New Hampshire last year. “She took an ownership that she never had. Everyone who worked there noticed that.”

While Jacobson also fronts the 5 to 5:30 block with Anthony Everett, her duties on the 6 o’clock news — a broadcast whose credits literally end with her signature — remain her chief source of motivation. “The 6 is a gift for me,” she says. “It’s the one thing that makes me excited to go to work and the one thing I have left that allows me to communicate with the audience.” That show alone, however, might not provide a sufficient outlet for her considerable ambition much longer — and if that happens, her bosses may balk at bending as far as they once did to placate their star.

“You can have disagreements with Natalie, you can have a dialogue with her, but you don’t push her too far,” says Jim Thistle, head of Boston University’s broadcast journalism program and a former WCVB news director. “My approach was, ‘Let’s not really tick her off that bad. Because there’s more to be lost than gained.'” But that was a different era. Today, news formats trump news personalities. Budgets are tighter than a Beacon Hill apartment. And because of that, Jacobson may not receive the kind of latitude she’s used to anymore.

When Jacobson, in the style of her national counterparts Diane Sawyer and Paula Zahn, pushed for an even higher profile at Channel 5 during her last contract negotiations in 2002 and 2003, the station granted part of her wish by launching a special Natalie page on its website, complete with her most high-profile interviews and favorite recipes ( Boston magazine has a broadcast collaboration with the station). But it stopped short of green-lighting her request to host a televised town meeting each month, agreeing to do the specials just four times a year. Jacobson’s diet of substantive projects — the type of projects she says she most craves — was further curtailed last year when the station took away Jacobson’s personal producer, Linda Polach, whose sole responsibility had been to put together the anchor’s much-hyped interview segments. The arrangement was Jacobson’s most treasured perk; losing it was like having her parking space revoked, only worse.

“I begged for that for years, and I finally got it a couple of years ago. Then I guess they had some needs on the desk, and they asked Linda to fill in there, and her being the good soldier — she always is — she did that,” Jacobson says. “It’s a major loss for me. Linda and I, we did so many things together. I’m just so disappointed that the company doesn’t want us to do that anymore.”

Though it’s a stretch to label her a diva, Jacobson does seem to have become accustomed to privileges accorded by her seniority and robust ratings; on many days, for example, she arrives at the station around 4 p.m. and leaves by 7 p.m., needing only that much time to deliver her polished newscasts. But in this area, too, she can no longer always expect the celebrity treatment. Sometime in the past year, Channel 5 began enforcing a strict no-pets policy, which has impinged on Jacobson’s pampering of her insouciant bichon frisé, Breezy. Jacobson dotes on the dog, a roly-poly and generally well-behaved cotton ball with paws. From time to time, she used to bring the dog along to the office; a Channel 5 staffer says Breezy, unbeknownst to La Camera, would even occasionally sit at Jacobson’s feet while she read the news. (“Oh my God, you’d better not write that!” she says. “Paul will have a heart attack. I don’t think he knew that.”) Last year, after someone at Channel 5 complained, Hearst-Argyle finally put the kibosh on Breezy’s visits. “It’s okay. I don’t know who made a big deal about it, but somebody did,” Jacobson says. “It was kind of a surprise to everybody who worked there, because she was sort of the Channel 5 mascot. But that’s fine. I’m sad to leave her, but I respect the decision.”

In the summer of 2000, with Curtis already resettled in Quincy’s Marina Bay, Jacobson followed him out the door of the pair’s house in Needham — the only home they’d ever shared — and moved into a three-bedroom at Trinity Place on Huntington Avenue. It had everything she was looking for, except outdoor space, which she finally obtained earlier this fall in the form of the terrace that came with the $1.6 million unit she bought in the Atelier 505 in the South End. Jacobson has found her pied-à-terre perfectly suited to her new lifestyle. “Being single and living downtown is great,” she says. “This is one of the times where my visibility is really to my advantage. Everybody just treats me as a neighbor, and because they know me, they’re quick to say hello.” She adds, “I think it would be a lonely life if I weren’t in town.”

Jacobson is in demand on the charity circuit, and when not emceeing a black-tie fundraiser, she might spend free evenings going out for dinner or drinks. On nice days, she walks Breezy on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall. She lunches on Newbury. She hangs out with girlfriends and her daughter, Lindsay, who’s been staying with her since she graduated from Vanderbilt last spring. All that’s missing from her bachelorette routine, it seems, is romance. Jacobson says she’s not dating anyone and leaves the impression that she hasn’t had as many suitors as she might have expected.

If she were inclined to write one, Jacobson’s would be a rather distinguished personals ad. She turned 61 in August, but thanks to her natural beauty — and perhaps in part to the maintenance requirements of her career — she doesn’t look it. Her chin-length brown hair is unmarred by gray strands, and her teeth glow a preternatural alabaster. Regular treadmill workouts have kept her 5-foot-9 frame trim. Jacobson is also an avid tennis player and — after shaving 10 strokes off her average this summer with frequent weekend outings on Nantucket’s Miacomet links — a proud bogey golfer. She enjoys travel, home decorating, and gourmet cooking, and can debate politics and the Red Sox rotation with equal aplomb.

Of course, any guy who takes her to a game has to be willing to tolerate the attention she’ll generate on the concourses, not to mention feel comfortable knowing she probably could have scored better tickets than his. Therein lies the reason Jacobson’s love life has fallen short of the Notting Hill ideal.

“There are lots of men out there who’d like to call her up, but they’re totally intimidated,” says Jacobson’s colleague Susan Wornick, who remarried in June after going through her own very public divorce from Channel 4 sportscaster Bob Lobel in the mid ’80s. “They think, ‘She’d never have dinner with me.’ Or they might see her out and want to say, ‘Hey, can I buy you a drink?’ But they don’t dare, because their male ego couldn’t take it if she looked up and said, ‘Not hardly’ — when that absolutely wouldn’t happen.” That reality has taken some getting used to for Jacobson, who when last unattached was an unknown street reporter. “It’s hard for guys to date Natalie Jacobson,” Jacobson says. “And I understand that. I didn’t at first. But I get it now.”

Late in the 1990 Massachusetts gubernatorial race, Jacobson sat down with then-Boston University president John Silber and lobbed a question widely credited with sinking his campaign and cementing her status as the city’s most influential journalist. Asked to describe his strengths and weaknesses, Silber chose to act out the latter by growling his disapproval, confirming voters’ impression of his vituperative nature. Put that same query to Jacobson, and she gamely tackles the tougher half first. “I can be short on patience,” she says without hesitation. “I can be exacting. I think I could be more diplomatic than I am sometimes. The good part of my passion is that it’s honest — if there’s something that I’m criticizing, it’s because I wish it were better, not because I’m putting you down. But it can also work against me, in the sense that I can just say, ‘This is terrible, this cannot go on the air,’ as opposed to suggesting we take another look at it.”

When Jacobson turns to the other side of her famous question, the part about personal strengths, she mentions something her daughter, Lindsay, once told her. “I remember her one time saying, ‘Mom, you don’t have to fix everything. ‘” Jacobson recounts that statement to elaborate on her desire to help people, but it could hint at a less flattering quality as well.

In September, I sat in the Channel 5 studios as Jacobson anchored the 5 o’clock news with Anthony Everett. During a commercial break, he mentioned that his daughter was less than thrilled to be back in school. Jacobson jumped in and spelled out how Everett and his wife should handle the situation with a certitude that caused her well-intentioned advice to sound almost hectoring. That Natalie-knows-best attitude has always been her trademark; after her mother died in 1979, Jacobson went so far as to secure a real estate license so she could help her father, a former Gillette executive, sell his home in Wellesley. Jacobson says she just wanted to save him some money. But perhaps part of her also felt no one else could possibly perform the job as well.

In her career, the line between Jacobson’s high standards and an inherent distrustfulness has sometimes been hard to distinguish. Linda Polach and Joe Murray both talk about how difficult it was to earn Jacobson’s faith when they started producing for her. Each eventually prevailed at that task, and each has come to defend her. “It seems like it was a year-long process,” Murray says. “But it made me excel as a journalist. She has a way of questioning your judgment that at first could have a negative impact on a person’s confidence, but if you stick with it, you feel like you could win anybody’s trust.” Polach had a similar experience. “It took us a little while to get into the groove,” she says. Some who work with Jacobson less directly, however, experience only the sting of her perfectionism without its rewards: One Channel 5 staffer describes her as more likely to walk into a shoot at the last minute and order wholesale changes to the camera angles or lighting than she is to offer younger colleagues pointers, engage them in friendly banter, or thank them for their contributions. Others never even get close enough to face one of her withering critiques and end up feeling shut out by a woman they had hoped might be a mentor.

At Channel 5, that last camp is largely comprised of the station’s new guard, who were trained on the Channel 7-style sensationalizing presentation and rapid-fire pacing Jacobson has so openly derided. They entered the business after many of the obstacles it presented to women — obstacles that Jacobson, like other female journalists of her generation, needed a hard edge to break through — had already been removed.

Those staffers don’t see the Jacobson who brought sandwiches to fellow WCVB veteran Janet Wu and her crew after spotting them doing a standup in Copley Square on the Friday after the Democratic National Convention, the end of what had been a particularly grueling week. Instead, they see a Jacobson who can seem ungrateful or aloof.

“Natalie can be very testy when she thinks what’s being done is not up to her standards, and in many ways, she has a tough row to hoe over there. There are fewer allies around her from her age group,” says Jim Thistle. “She grew up in this business when the format was not as important as the people who   presented it. That’s changed. Viewers are less loyal. So then you say, where does that leave a person like Natalie Jacobson? Do you go off and enjoy yourself, pontificate, reminisce about the good old days? Or find another role for yourself, one that allows you to enjoy success and still participate in a meaningful way?”

It’s hard to imagine Channel 5 without Jacobson, harder still to imagine she’ll be ready to walk away when her contract expires next July. But Jacobson is clearly growing antsy with the limitations imposed on her. On the one hand, she says, “I’d love to have a little more control of my time”; on the other, she laments that she isn’t permitted to film more specials and in-depth segments. “I’m ready for a new challenge,” she says. “If it could be with WCVB, that’d be great. If it can’t be, it can’t be.”

And what might Jacobson do if she leaves? More than anything, she’d love to follow Channel 5 alumnus Bill O’Reilly and host her own interview show. She says she has discussed book ideas with an editor at Houghton Mifflin. Maybe she’ll write an eyewitness history of Boston — or maybe it should be a video history, broken down by decade, or a compilation of her most important interviews. She’s thought of putting out a children’s book starring Breezy. She’d like to find a way to unload the 3,000 copies of the cooking lessons she taped in 1992 with Jasper White that are gathering dust in storage. She’s kept her real estate license active, so that’s another possible avenue to pursue. She says she could really use someone who could help her sort it all out.

“I don’t know how I could best use my experience, my skills, my imagination, my business sense,” Jacobson says, pondering those options. It’s been a week since our first conversation. She has just come from the photo shoot for this article, and her usually subdued bob has been sculpted into a swirling confection. “Would I be a good consultant? I don’t know. I’ve never done that. Would I be good on boards? Maybe. I think probably what I could offer someone is that my ear is to the ground, and it has been for a long time. I see the recipient of your product or your services. So maybe there is something there,” she says. “I have no idea.”

Without prompting, Jacobson brings up La Camera’s comments about her discontentment. “I was thinking about what he said,” she says. “You know what I think he really meant? Because I am happy — I think I told you, I’m the happiest person in the world. Really, I feel lucky about that, that I have such an optimistic, happy feeling about life.”

Jacobson speaks her next words with the deliberateness of a lawyer presenting a closing statement, making sure her point is not missed. “I think what he might have meant — because I’ve gotten this feeling from him — was that he wished I would just accept the status quo,” she says. “Accept the fact that we’re not going to do what we did 20 years ago, in terms of the type of programming. We’re not going to do the talk show. We’re not going to do yada-yada, because the business has changed. I think he wishes that I would accept that. But that’s not my nature.”

Let’s assume La Camera was referring solely to Jacobson’s job satisfaction or lack thereof, that his assessment did not apply at all to her deeper state of mind. Let’s assume that for Jacobson, restlessness truly is bliss. That still leaves the matter of those tears, or more specifically, the topic that brought them on.

“I loved Chet with all my heart, and when he broke my heart, I thought I’d never recover,” Jacobson was saying as her eyes welled up over lunch. She went on, “It was a long painful journey out of a very deep hole. And I kept quiet about everything, never spoke to anyone, because it seemed the right thing to do.” A little more than a year after Jacobson and Curtis announced their separation, the Boston Globe Magazine reported in a profile of the former couple rumors that one of them had had an affair. Was that what she was referring to now?

Pressed for details during a later conversation, Jacobson would add only this: “In terms of my personal life, people think they know all about me. And it was hurtful and painful for people I worked with and the general public to think that I had walked out on that marriage. Because nothing could have been further from the truth.”

Jacobson says she has had no second thoughts about the divorce and does not waste time wondering where she would be now if she and Curtis had stuck it out. “Oh, no. No, I don’t,” she says, her voice hard. “That’s a silly thing to wish for. Am I sorry that it ended the way that it did? Yes. But it did, and you move on.” She and Curtis remain cordial, and she sometimes leaves Breezy with him when she goes out of town. Curtis says he’s dating someone, and, no, he won’t give her name, and that while it’s serious, “to marry again would truly be the triumph of hope over experience,” to borrow an old saying. (One of Curtis’s daughters from a previous marriage is this magazine’s executive director of marketing. She declined to comment for this story.)

Meanwhile, Jacobson, never willing to accept the status quo, hasn’t given up on finding someone new. “If there’s one thing missing, it would be to have a partner. Someone to share life with, to laugh with, to travel with. Someone who, you know, was happy with his life and who was happy with the way he had conducted himself and what he had achieved in his life so he wouldn’t feel intimidated by me, or my success, because he felt that way himself. Who maybe had a great relationship at one time, too, and whatever happened.”

“Isn’t that amazing, that you could bring it down to just one thing missing?” she asks. “How lucky am I?”