Sophie Masloff, a self-proclaimed “old Jewish grandmother” who in 1988 became Pittsburgh’s first female mayor and drew attention for her folksy, self-deprecating style, memorably misidentifying a certain Jersey-born rock star as “Bruce Bedspring,” died Aug. 17 at a hospice in the suburb of Mount Lebanon, Pa. She was 96.
Joseph Sabino Mistick, her former chief of staff, confirmed the death but did not disclose the cause.
Mrs. Masloff, a Democrat, was the first Jewish mayor of Pittsburgh, where she was born to impoverished Romanian immigrants. She was 2 when her father died, and her mother scraped a living by rolling cigars in a factory.
The future mayor spent four decades working as a secretary and clerk in the Allegheny County government before winning election to the city council in 1976. She was council president when she became interim mayor at 70 after the death in May 1988 of three-term Mayor Richard S. Caliguiri from a blood disorder. A year later, she won her own term as the city’s top executive.
In her one term as mayor — she did not run for reelection — Mrs. Masloff gained a reputation as a reassuring, often deliberately absurdist grandmother-figure who comforted the city through gang violence, a boom in drug abuse and economic malaise.
Pittsburgh, a onetime steel and manufacturing capital, had been in a long slump, but was on the cusp of rebounding through newly designed riverfront parks and other cultural offerings, new housing developments meant to lure a vibrant middle class and welcoming what became the “knowledge-based economy” of high-tech entrepreneurs and other professionals.
She was a sports fan who unsuccessfully proposed a new baseball stadium, an early whisper of what would eventually become Pittsburgh’s PNC Park. The idea of pouring millions of dollars into a stadium drew public uproar amid the city’s budget cuts in the early 1990s. She signed a law prohibiting discrimination against gays in hiring by the city, as well as legislation requiring that day-care space be provided by all new office buildings.
Mrs. Masloff drew national news media attention for being the antithesis of the too-polished politician. In 1992, she hung up on presidential candidate Bill Clinton, thinking the caller was a prankster.
“Yeah, and this is the Queen of Sheba,” she replied before slamming down the phone.
“He laughed about it afterwards,” Mrs. Masloff told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
When a diplomat from the former Yugoslavia came to visit Pittsburgh, Mrs. Masloff told him as they shook hands before photographers, “You know, I’ve never been to Czechoslovakia.”
The man responded, “Madame Mayor, I’m from Yugoslavia.”
“I know that,” she said. “But the truth is, I’ve never been to Czechoslovakia.”
At official functions, she often used the punch line: “As Henry the VIII said to each of his wives, don’t worry, I won’t keep you long.”
She flubbed names of the famous — deliberately, she claimed. The Grateful Dead became “The Dreadful Dead” and the Who became “The How.” And there was, of course, “Bruce Bedspring.”
“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 it up.”
As a council member and mayor, she was low-key, preferring to work quietly rather than stepping on the soapbox.
“She did a lot behind the scenes on behalf of women, but she never trumpeted it,” said Susan B. Hansen, a political scientist at the University of Pittsburgh.
“She knew from the beginning that there had not been very many women in higher office, and she would really have to struggle,” Hansen said. “This made her very aware of the dearth of women holding public office in Pittsburgh, and she tried to remedy this by bringing names forward, always pushing to bring women into her inner circles. But she never made public speeches on the issue. That wasn’t her style.”
Sophie Friedman was born Dec. 23, 1917, in Pittsburgh and grew up in a neighborhood of Jewish immigrants. After her father’s death, she was raised with three half-siblings by her mother, who never learned English.
Her childhood was defined by poverty. “She would buy two bananas and we’d each get a half,” she once told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, speaking about her mother.
“We were very, very poor, and it was just a horrible life as a child, but I came through it and just think of the great honor I had. What an incredible honor it was for me to be elected mayor of Pittsburgh. My mother, if she were alive, would never have believed what happened to me.”
Soon after graduating high school in 1935, she became a clerk in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas and remained in that job for nearly four decades.
She was married to another county employee, Jack Masloff, from 1939 until his death in 1991. Survivors include a daughter, Linda Sue Busia; two grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.
She maintained an active profile as ex-mayor, serving on governing advisory boards and appearing in TV commercials for milk and household appliances. Mostly, she was a character — a political figure of rare self-awareness.
“In some situations, where you have to listen to a lot of boring speeches, I can’t resist the opportunity to say something silly,” she told the New York Times in 1992. “But some people are not too humorous, and lately I’ve come to the place where I limit joking around because it might look like I don’t know any better.”