Sophie Masloff’s story is as compelling as it is unlikely, but it has not been told comprehensively until now.
With her new book, “Sophie, the Incomparable Mayor, Masloff,” local Jewish historian Barbara Burstin delves into detail about the life of Masloff, a daughter of Romanian Jewish immigrants “from the wrong side of the tracks,” who rose to become the first Jewish and first female mayor of Pittsburgh.
Burstin has published three prior books on the history of the Pittsburgh Jewish community: “Steel City Jews 1840-1915,” “Steel City Jews in Prosperity, Depression and War, 1915-1950” and “Jewish Pittsburgh,” part of the Images of America series.
She began working on the Masloff book in 2016.
“I had been doing all this on the Pittsburgh Jewish community and my books kind of ended in 1950, and I really am not contemplating a sequel taking us up to the present time,” Burstin said. “But Sophie is part of the Pittsburgh Jewish community, and it just kind of hit me that nobody has put together any kind of biography about her, and she deserves it.”
In her book, Burstin covers Masloff’s life beginning with her childhood, her long career as a clerk in the Court of Common Pleas, her election to City Council and her mayoral administration during which she successfully shepherded Pittsburgh through tough economic times from 1988 to 1994.
Because Masloff, who died in 2014, left no diaries and few papers, Burstin’s research depended upon newspaper accounts and conversations with more than 60 people who knew the late mayor, including family members, colleagues and close friends.
“The reality of her term in office was very different from the perception of a lot of people, even people who I talked to who were Pittsburghers,” Burstin said. “I don’t think that even among the Jewish community that she was considered a great mayor or anything. I found that there was a real disconnect between how she came across and how effective and smart and capable she was as mayor.”
But Masloff’s effectiveness and intelligence did come across through conversations with associates who worked closely with her, according to Burstin.
“These were people who were by no means political hacks, machine politicians, anything like that,” she said. “These are people who could have made a lot more money elsewhere who chose to work with Sophie because they admired and respected her, and in some cases grew to love her — that she was just a wonderful person who was doing the best by the city that could be done at a very tough time in our history.”
After working for more than three decades as a clerk in the Court of Common Pleas, in 1976, Masloff won a seat on Pittsburgh City Council in a special election. When Pittsburgh Mayor Richard Caliguiri died in office in 1988, the then 70-year-old Masloff succeeded him, after having been elected Pittsburgh’s first female City Council president just months before. She served out Caliguiri’s term and was re-elected in 1989.
In addition to keeping Pittsburgh’s economy afloat when other cities were going bankrupt, Burstin said, Masloff’s administration is credited with developing the Hill District’s Crawford Square and supporting the Regional Asset District, which provides grants for cultural, civic and recreational facilities.
RAD has been “an enormous contribution because it has funded all kinds of arts, cultural activities and sports,” Burstin said. “It’s really made a major mark on the cultural landscape of Western Pennsylvania. And Sophie was very instrumental in that, just in greasing the wheels, being present in the legislative sessions. You had to get the state to buy into it, you had to get the city and county to buy into it. And Sophie had those relationships and was able to influence people and get things done.”
Masloff was not wholeheartedly embraced by all factions of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, Burstin noted.
“Sophie was from the other side of the tracks,” she said. “So, among the old guard, the German Jewish elite, the descendants from that, Sophie was not one of them by any manner of means. She didn’t attempt to be one of them, and she didn’t come across that way. She was her own person and so she wasn’t necessarily touted or held on a pedestal, that’s for sure, by many people in the Jewish community. “But she really didn’t care,” Burstin continued. “She was beloved by all manner of people in this town, and it was proven. She’d go out on the street and people would yell, ‘Hi, Sophie.’ She was just a beloved, popular mayor, but among the business elites and even the so-called Jewish elites, she was not given that kind of recognition.”
Masloff’s life, Burstin said, is a “tremendously fascinating human interest story.”
“She certainly didn’t go from rags to riches — this was not lucrative, she literally went from paycheck to paycheck,” Burstin explained. “She never had extra cushions, and her husband was not really a wage-earner for much of his life, so Sophie was the breadwinner, and on a city salary. She never took extra money for any of the commercials she did, she gave to charity. She really was not mayor for any kind of self-aggrandizement, that’s for sure, and frankly she was a leader with traits of honesty, integrity, and caring for people which we certainly look to and appreciate in this day and age.”
Masloff’s rise, according to Burstin, “was certainly uncharted, unexpected. It wasn’t anything she plotted or planned. She was at the right place at the right time, but she got herself there. She earned that.”
Burstin, who has held recent speaking engagements about “Sophie, the Incomparable Mayor, Masloff,” allows time for her audiences to share their own “Sophie stories,” she said. “She was a character.” pjc
The book is available at sophiemasloff.com.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at