Former Piitsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff applauds before an address by U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in Pittsburgh

Former Piitsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff in 2008. (DAVID DENOMA, REUTERS / August 17, 2014)

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.