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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 856

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This is the grave of David Garroway.

Born in 1913 in Schenectady, New York, Garroway lived all over the place as a child, as his parents moved constantly. They finally ended up in St. Louis in the late 1920s, which is where Garroway went to high school. He went to Washington University in St. Louis and majored in psychology. After he graduated, he floated around a bit. He got a job in a laboratory at Harvard for awhile, but also worked as a salesman. He wasn’t very good at the latter. So he decided to take a stab at the radio. He got a job in 1938 working at a page at an NBC station. He went to an NBC school for announcers and finished near the bottom of his class. But he still got a job at KDKA in Pittsburgh in 1939. He turned out quite good at this because he would do almost anything for a story. He reported from a hot air balloon. He reported from under the ground in a coal mine. His big shtick was “let’s see what the people think” stories, getting him out of the studio and into the chatting with the man on the street. For reasons beyond me, people actually seem to like this kind of reporting, even though the average person has no idea what they are talking about on basically any topic.

Garroway was a rising star pretty quick. In 1941, a station in Chicago poached him. Then the U.S. joined World War II. Reporters such as Garroway were highly valued by the relatively sophisticated propaganda network the government put together in the war. He was went to Honolulu as a DJ for the soldiers there, running a radio station that mostly played the type of Benny Goodman/Glenn Miller jazz that was highly popular in white communities at the time. It might not seem that being a DJ in the military would be that valuable, but when part of your job as a military is to keep soldiers mentally healthy, this kind of thing was more important than you’d think.

Garroway went back to Chicago after the war, working on WMAQ, hosting a variety of shows, doing a lot of work in jazz that included concert promotion, and specializing in audience involvement in radio shows. His fellow DJs voted him the best in the nation in a Billboard poll in 1948, 1949, and 1951.

It was hardly surprising then that with the rise of television, NBC quickly tapped Garroway. During the early years of TV, a lot of the personalities still worked radio. In fact, Garroway maintained his radio shows until 1961 and had a couple of later radio shows as well. His first TV show was a variety show titled Garroway at Large that ran from 1949-51. His conversational style made him a pioneer of the television talk show, along with Hugh Downs. Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and a few others. In the beginning of TV, there were a lot of Voice of God programs. People such as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite were the masters of that style. But there was another style as well, one that was warmer and more entertaining. That was Garroway’s genre. In 1951, NBC came up with a morning side titled Today and made Garroway the first host. That show of course still runs today. He would stay with the show for a decade, often with a chimpanzee “co-host.” He was the first to take the show on the road, including to Paris and Rome. He did everything from silly skits to hosting politicians. In other words, he really pioneered the format that still defines these shows today. He had a whole bunch of other shows as well, often short-lived, but that kept him on NBC all the time.

No one forced Garroway to leave in 1961. But his sunny demeanor on the air covered up a deeply depressed person who was sinking lower as time went on. A first marriage ended in divorce. A second ended when his wife overdosed on pills and died in early 1961. By this time, Garroway was starting to disappear in the middle of the show, leaving co-hosts to cover for him. Finally, he left entirely in June 1961.

Over the next ten years, Garroway did this and that but never again had the spotlight that he did in the 1950s. There were some public interest TV shows, some radio slots, but between his continued depression and the way he left Today, his star was significantly dimmed. By the 1970s, he was decidedly minor figure in the TV universe, appearing as a guest star on a couple of bad shows.

In 1980, Garroway married for the third time, to the astronomer Sarah Lippincott. She of course is buried with Garroway. Lippincott is quite an interesting person herself. She was born in Philadelphia in 1920, attended the University of Pennsylvania, where she was a basketball player, and then got a master’s degree from Swarthmore. She became a professor at that college and worked closely with another prominent astronomer, Peter van de Kamp, on a number of important research projects for over a quarter-century. In particular, she was on the lookout for evidence of planets in other solar systems. She thought she found some, but probably in fact did not. However, her methods became quite valuable in discovering binary star systems. She and Garroway met because he was living in Philadelphia and was a big astronomy nerd. They met on some tour of Soviet telescopes. She continued publishing until 1983, retired at some point after that, and died in 2012 at the age of 98.

Garroway was also a huge car guy (this is such a generational thing that is really quite actively dying; I’ve never known a single person under the age of about 60 now who is super into cars in the way that my father’s generation and was and going back a couple generations before that). He raced his 1938 Jaguar, appeared in car commercials, and was one of the nation’s most known lovers of classic cars.

After his 1980 marriage, Garroway’s physical health started to match his problems with his mental health. He had open heart surgery in 1981 and then got a staph infection that made his recovery difficult. He was addicted to amphetamines as well and had to go through rehab. He appeared on the 30th Anniversary of Today in 1982 and seemed in good health. But the staph infection had caused other problems in his body that appeared shortly after that last television appearance. He was depressed by the collapse of his career and in and out of the hospital for his weakening body. So he picked up a gun and shot himself in the head in 1982. He was 69 years old. In the aftermath, Sarah funded the establishment of the Dave Garroway Laboratory for the Study of Depression at the University of Pennsylvania.

Let’s watch Garroway work:

David Garroway and Sarah Lippincott are buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.

This grave visit was funded by LGM reader contributions. Thanks! If you would like this series to visit other television broadcasters, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Regis Philbin is in Notre Dame, Indiana and Hugh Downs is in Paradise Valley, Arizona. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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