Lucy Jarvis, Who Took TV Viewers Far and Wide, Dies at 102


Lucy Jarvis, a groundbreaking producer in television and theater who was especially known for gaining access to hard-to-crack locations, including the Soviet Union and China at the height of the Cold War, died on Jan. 26 in Manhattan. She was 102.

Scott McArthur, her longtime producing partner, announced the death.

In the late 1950s and early ’60s, when television’s top producing ranks included few if any other women, Ms. Jarvis helped bring about some remarkable programming, including gaining access to the Kremlin for a 1963 television special about that Moscow complex. In 1964 she took television viewers on an extensive tour of the Louvre in France, a documentary that won multiple Emmy Awards. In the early 1970s she got permission to film in China, bringing American viewers an inside look at ancient sites there at a time when that country was still largely sealed off.

Her work in theater was just as internationally adventurous. In 1988 she collaborated with Soviet producers to bring a production of “Sophisticated Ladies,” the Duke Ellington musical revue, to Moscow. In 1990 she brought the first Soviet rock opera ever seen in the United States, “Junon and Avos: The Hope,” to City Center in New York.

In a 1999 interview with The Daily News, she explained her longstanding interest in introducing one culture to another.

“If I can bring about an understanding of people whom we consider our enemy and know very little about,” she said, “I can justify the space I occupy on this very crowded planet.”

Lucile Howard was born on June 23, 1917, in Manhattan. Her father, Herman, was an engineer and a hotelier, and her mother, Sophie (Kirsch) Howard, designed clothing patterns for the Singer sewing machine company.

Ms. Jarvis credited her mother with instilling in her the poise and confidence that would later allow her to go head-to-head with formidable world leaders. Her mother, she said, made her study elocution, piano and dance and schooled her in how to enter a room with poise and greet people with confidence.

“She said, ‘I am giving you the tools so that you can walk into a room anywhere in the world and feel perfectly at ease,’” Ms. Jarvis said in an oral history recorded for the Television Foundation and New York Women in Film and Television in 2006. “She made me believe that there was nothing I couldn’t do if I wanted to. That was Self-Esteem 101.”

At Cornell University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1938, she was involved in the drama club, but her major was nutrition. Her first job was as a dietitian at the Cornell Medical School.

A doctor there recommended her for the food editor’s job at McCall’s magazine, where she went to work in 1940. In that capacity she was encouraged to give talks around the country, and that led to invitations to appear on television in the very early days of that medium.

Even those primitive TV shows were reaching more people than the magazine did, or soon would be. “I thought, ‘I’m in the wrong place,’” she said in the oral history.

In 1940 Ms. Jarvis had married Serge Jarvis, a lawyer, and later in the decade, after earning a master’s degree at Columbia Teachers College in 1941 while working at McCall’s, she left the magazine to raise their two children.

In the 1950s she re-entered the work force, taking jobs at radio and television stations and then, in 1955, with the talk-show host David Susskind’s company, Talent Associates.

In 1957 she met Martha Rountree, the wife of one of her husband’s clients and a creator of the long-running radio and television series “Meet the Press.” They started a program for the WOR-Mutual Broadcasting System that year called “Capitol Close-Up,” which profiled powerful figures.

“Our first interview was with then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the White House,” Ms. Jarvis recalled in the oral history. “Our second interview was with the vice president, Richard Nixon, and our third interview, third show, was with J. Edgar Hoover, who had never before, or since, done a program.”

In 1959 she joined NBC as an associate producer (she later became producer) of a Saturday night debate program, “The Nation’s Future.” It featured two people on opposite sides of an issue, with Edwin Newman as moderator. One of her jobs was making sure the studio audience was evenly balanced between supporters of each position.

One particularly contentious episode was on American policy toward Cuba, where Fidel Castro had taken power in 1959, leading to increasingly hostile relations and an embargo.

“We had fistfights in the hallway,” Ms. Jarvis was quoted as saying in the 1997 book “Women Pioneers in Television,” by Cary O’Dell, “but the most difficult chore was finding enough pro-Castro people.”

Perhaps even more volatile was an episode on whether fluoride should be added to the water supply.

“That one almost got us all killed,” she said in the oral history.

One of her greatest coups came when she used persistence and well-placed connections, beginning in 1962, to get permission to film “The Kremlin,” an NBC special broadcast in May 1963 that gave American viewers an unprecedented view of that complex and its history.

“We went into areas denied Russian TV cameramen,” Ms. Jarvis, who is credited as associate producer on the program, told The Boston Globe. “About the time we were concluding our filming, the Cuban situation” — the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 — “broke out. We finished rapidly and got out fast.”

For “A Golden Prison: The Louvre,” the French, concerned about the artworks therein, put almost as many obstacles in Ms. Jarvis’s path as the Soviets did for “The Kremlin.”

“They were afraid of lights,” she said in the oral history. “They were afraid of the reaction. And they were just very stuffy about it.”

It was a time when the producing ranks, at NBC and the other networks, were virtually all male.

“Most of the women who worked at NBC in those days,” Ms. Jarvis said, “when I came on as producer, were stenographers, gofers; on rare occasion they worked their way up to researcher.” She would hire women as associate producers when she could, she said.

Not all of her work was focused overseas. One particularly powerful NBC News special she produced, broadcast in 1965, was “Who Shall Live?,” an examination of the vast number of patients who needed kidney dialysis, the limited number of machines available to provide it and the punishing cost of the treatments.

“More than an examination of a medical problem,” The Globe wrote, “‘Who Shall Live?’ is a penetrating look at the frightening impasse reached when scientific advances have outdistanced the conventional laws of economics.”

In August 1972 Ms. Jarvis began filming in China for a documentary; she was “the first American since 1948 to be admitted to China to film news documentaries,” one news report said. The result, seen on NBC in January 1973, was “The Forbidden City.” Howard Thompson, reviewing it in The New York Times, called it “an uncommonly worthwhile hour of television viewing.”

In 1976 Ms. Jarvis left NBC and founded her own production company, Creative Projects; she later added a second company, Jarvis Theater and Film. Among her first TV projects with her new company was producing Barbara Walters’s first special for ABC; broadcast in December 1976, it featured interviews with the president-elect, Jimmy Carter, and his wife, Rosalynn, as well as with Barbra Streisand.

In addition to “Junon and Avos,” which Ms. Jarvis produced with the fashion designer Pierre Cardin, her later projects included a 1981 made-for-TV movie, “Family Reunion,” that starred Bette Davis.

Ms. Jarvis’s husband died in 1999. A daughter, Barbara Ann, died in 2001. She is survived by a son, Peter, and a granddaughter.

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