PITTSBURGH — On the surface, absolutely nothing about Sophie Friedman Masloff said "mayor of a major American city."
She lacked the politician's varnished smoothness. Her rhetoric was as organized as freshly shattered glass. A newspaper columnist aptly described her voice as "three cats in a microwave on full power."
"I'm not a glamour gal," Masloff once said. "I don't have the attributes of a typical politician. I really can't account for my success."
But on May 6, 1988, in one of the more improbable stories in Pittsburgh's political lore, Masloff, then president of City Council, found herself in a conference room next to the sanctum of Mayor Richard Caliguiri, who had died earlier that day.
Masloff had been in the mayor's office countless times. Now, having inherited it, she was reluctant to go in.
"I'm frantic beyond recall," she said at the time.
Not only did she go on to complete Caliguiri's term, she confounded political experts the next year by winning her own four-year term in one of the hardest-fought mayoral elections ever in Pittsburgh.
Masloff made history as the first woman and first Jew to be mayor, attaining the office at age 70. Her unpretentious, grandmotherly manner made her an authentic Pittsburgh celebrity, earning her appearances on national television, in national newspapers and, after she left office, in commercials.
Her 51/2 years as mayor capped a career in public service that spanned six decades and saw her ascend from a job stuffing envelopes at Democratic headquarters to the pinnacle of Pittsburgh power.
Masloff, 96, the city's 56th mayor, died at 8:55 a.m. Sunday.
As mayor, Masloff tacked the city forward in a turbulent time of economic hardship and increasing violence stemming from the crack cocaine epidemic that plagued virtually all U.S. cities.
"She led at a time when Pittsburgh really was just beginning to get off its knees," said current Mayor Bill Peduto, who once worked in Masloff's finance department. "She was very cognizant that Pittsburgh wasn't going to be the same city she grew up in."
Despite the financial difficulties, Masloff was able to cut the city's reviled wage tax twice.
Years later, despite being warned off by Allegheny County commissioners, she sued to end a 28-day transit strike in 1992.
"I felt bad," she recalled. "[Elderly and poor] people couldn't get to work; they couldn't get to the doctor."
It was one of numerous times that Masloff would feel herself patronized in a male-dominated power structure. She was told 'I don't want you meddling in this,' " Masloff recalled. "I said, 'You wouldn't say that to a man.' "
Critics sometimes derided Masloff as a figurehead and poked fun at her penchant for malaprops, including her serial mangling of the names of musicians and other celebrities.
Bruce Springsteen became "Bruce Bedspring," the Grateful Dead became "the Dreadful Dead," and Steelers quarterback Bubby Brister became "Buddy Brewster."
It turned out that Masloff was a step ahead of her critics. The bloopers were a put-on that humanized her with voters. Her strong advisers were a secret of her success.
"Those malaprops were deliberate," she said in a 2002 interview. "We'd sit through a boring meeting, and people would be falling asleep and I'd say 'When is Bruce Bedspring coming?' I knew it was 'Springsteen.' I just wanted to liven things up.
"I found the secret to good government is to have knowledgeable, smart, dedicated people around you. I knew up front I was not able to handle it myself."
Masloff's second term was beset by economic woes and by seemingly intractable crime and gang troubles. Faced with declining poll numbers, she decided not to seek re-election in 1993. Masloff remained active in politics and civic life and appeared in television and radio commercials, hawking appliances and milk.
A mild heart attack in August 1999 slowed her for a while, but she bounced back after having surgery to clear six blocked arteries.
Masloff was born in 1917 and grew up in Pittsburgh's lower Hill District, the daughter of poor Romanian-Jewish immigrants. In a 1989 interview, Masloff recalled that her mother often sent her downtown to pay utility bills or taxes.
"I would walk all over the [government] building and look in the offices and say, 'Wouldn't this be a nice place to work?' " she recalled.
During high school, Masloff had frequently spent time at Democratic headquarters, making the acquaintance of party leaders and leading to her first government job, with the county, in 1936.
She worked in a county tax office for five years, during which she met and secretly married Jack Masloff, another county employee. The two eloped in 1939, keeping their marriage quiet to skirt a rule that spouses could not both work for the county. He died in 1991.
In 1951 Masloff took a position as a clerk in the jury assignment room of Common Pleas Court.
She was active politically, and in 1976 the party endorsed her for a vacant City Council seat. She won re-election in 1977, 1981 and 1985. She ran for council president in 1986 but lost.
Surrounded by council members who were renowned for their bickering and grandstanding, Masloff distinguished herself with her silence. She generally voted the administration line, rarely spoke and offered few legislative initiatives.
Even as she gathered experience and led the Democratic ticket in her re-election campaigns, Masloff rarely was mentioned as a potential candidate for higher office.
But in 1988, with the city's council president under scrutiny of the FBI, Caliguiri encouraged Masloff to run again. She won and became mayor under the city charter when he died five months later.
Early doubts about her leadership soon were dispelled.
When a key political supporter who worked in the Water Department was caught bypassing the meter at his residence, Masloff didn't hesitate to fire him. "She said, 'I pay my water bills. He should have, too.' "
The septuagenarian mayor's work days often began at 7:30 a.m. and continued late into the evenings with appearances at civic events. Two police detectives who accompanied the mayor amassed more than $20,000 in overtime pay in one eight-month period.
After a series of postponements, Masloff announced her candidacy for a full term as mayor in 1989, saying "grandparents don't have ambitions for themselves; they have aspirations for those who will follow them."
Her news conference featured one of the gaffes that made Masloff's advisers cringe. Questioned by a TV reporter, she misstated her age and date of birth. Later, she issued a clarification.
Masloff's first wage tax cut and a fragmented, five-candidate Democratic field enabled her to win nomination that May for a full term with 28 percent of the vote. The runner-up had 23 percent. She was elected without Republican opposition that November.
Masloff had seen her triumph coming long before most.
In January 1988, still in her council office, she noted that no one seemed to regard her as a serious political force. The conventional wisdom was that if Caliguiri left office and she did become mayor, she would finish his term and step aside.
Asked her if that was her plan, Masloff acknowledged, with a twinkle in her eye and spreading smile, that she had bigger ideas.
"I just might surprise them all," she said.Copyright © 2015, CT Now