Esther Van Wagoner Tufty, a pioneering American newspaperwoman of regal bearing and enormous zest who in a 70-year career covered many of the great events and personalities of Washington and the world, and became in her own right the subject of legend, died May 4 in Alexandria. She was 89.
A broadcaster on both radio and television, and the founder of her own news service that once provided stories to about 300 newspapers, Mrs. Tufty, whose coronet of gold braids helped win her the nickname of The Duchess, came here 50 years ago and covered every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Over the years, Mrs. Tufty lost an eye, was afflicted by cancer and had at least seven pacemakers installed to assist her heart. But she continued turning out copy in her National Press Building office, winning recognition in recent years as probably the oldest working reporter in a city full of reporters.
Her death at the Mount Vernon Nursing home followed a stroke.
In the course of a career that began shortly after graduation from high school in Michigan, Mrs. Tufty's diligence in pursuit of the news occasionally became news itself.
During the 1944 presidential campaign, Mrs. Tufty was injured in the wreck of New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey's campaign train. When the Soviets blockaded Berlin, Mrs. Tufty flew into the city atop 10 tons of airlifted coal. Before a national television audience, Mrs. Tufty climbed onto a table at the 1952 Democratic convention to reach the man she wanted to interview.
Her determination in seeking out and reporting the news was accompanied by a feisty breeziness in describing her own activities. In November 1966 she returned from a trip to Vietnam and said:
"It's my third war, not counting marriage."
She was also known for a personal sense of flair and panache that seemed typified by her pince-nez spectacles and by the vivid scarlet or plaid cloaks that transfixed a room full of cocktail party guests when she entered.
On the wall of her office hung a photograph of her disguised for a White House party to look like President Roosevelt, an impersonation that, contemporary news accounts maintain, stunned the unsuspecting Secret Service.
The nickname The Duchess stemmed from an incident in which a European innkeeper mistook her for a member or royalty whose arrival he was expecting. Mrs. Tufty and her party received red carpet treatment and the name stuck.
For a time early in her career here, she was known as the "headache girl" in recognition of an aspirin company's sponsorship of a 30-minute radio interview show she conducted.
"I interviewed everyone except [former New Deal Secretary of State] Cordell Hull," she said.
Later she was on television as Washington editor of NBC's "Home" show. Essentially, however, Mrs. Tufty considered herself a reporter of "hard news."
Thus, she saw her 1960 installation as president of the American Women in Radio and Television as indicative of progress from an era when women on the air were confined to giving advice on "what to do with a tired piece of lettuce."
Her inauguration in 1969 as president of the American Newspaper Women's Club made her the first woman to head three national organizations for women in journalism. The third group was the Women's National Press Club.
In her 1969 inaugural address, Mrs. Tufty maintained that membership in the three groups would raise no conflict of interest and that she was "not supported by any foundation except the one I'm wearing."
A native of Sanilac County, Mich., Mrs. Tufty was raised in Pontiac, and after high school went to work for the newspaper there as assistant society editor.
She continued newspaper work in Madison, Wis., while attending the University of Wisconsin. After graduation she married Harold Tufty, from whom she later was divorced. In the '30s, after serving as managing editor of a newspaper in Evanston, Ill., she came with him to Washington where she opened her news bureau with 26 small Michigan papers as clients.
She was a Democrat who worked for Republican newspapers, was a particular admirer of Hubert Humphrey and believed that Americans talk too often about what is wrong with America rather than what is right.
In April 1954 the State Department sent her on a speaking tour of Australia. While she was there, the Australians presented her a female kangaroo named Topsy. The animal was to be forwarded here. When Topsy arrived, it turned out that a male had been sent for company.
"I want to call him Turvey," said Mrs. Tufty.
Among the awards she held was the Distinguished Service Award of the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped in recognition of her articles promoting hiring of the handicapped.
Survivors include two sons, Harold Jr., of Washington and James, of Honolulu, and a brother, former Michigan governor Murray D. Van Wagoner of Birmingham, Mich.