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Bella Stumbo, 59; Times Writer Known for Incisive Profiles

December 07, 2002|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Bella Stumbo, a gifted writer whose dogged reporting, grace with words and ability to make the most obstinate subjects reveal themselves led to some of the most memorable profiles and features published in The Times, has died. She was 59.

An inveterate smoker, Stumbo died Thursday at her Highland Park home after battling throat cancer for more than two years, said her friend and attorney Bernard Kamine.

Her pieces appeared in The Times for 22 years, beginning in 1971. A master of the personality profile, she wrote about many of the most colorful and controversial figures in public life, from former Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry to Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner.

She was extraordinarily adept at capturing aspects of her subjects that they rarely showed in public and almost certainly never intended to share with a reporter.

There was the time she quoted industrialist Justin Dart calling former President Gerald Ford "a nice man, but not very smart." Or the time B.T. Collins, chief of staff for Gov. Jerry Brown in the early 1980s, let loose with his opinions about his boss, from Brown's hair-grooming habits ("disgusting") to his intellectual preoccupations ("out in Uranus half the time ... ").

"Each [story] caused a squall," Newsweek's Jonathan Alter wrote in 1990, "but none of the subjects, however embarrassed, complained publicly."

None, at least, until she wrote about Washington's Mayor Barry in 1990. Over the course of 18 hours with Stumbo, the flamboyant and controversial politician was quoted as saying that Jesse Jackson would be "the laughingstock of America" if he ran against him for mayor and that "Jesse don't wanna run nothin' but his mouth."

Barry later denied making the comments and accused Stumbo of "Barry-bashing" and racism. But Stumbo's editors stood behind her during the headline-making storm that ensued. Collins acknowledged that Stumbo's piece about him was damaging; he offered his resignation, but Brown declined it. Unlike Barry, however, Collins did not dispute Stumbo's savagely accurate portrayal of him, and he confessed he had only himself to blame.

"She totally destroyed me," he told the Washington Post a few years before he died in 1993. "But it was nobody's fault but my own.... She's an incredibly charming person. People like me and Marion Barry, with egos the size of a room, she knows how to play that. And that's your own fault, if you're a grown man."

After a while, those in the journalism trade had a word for what it meant to be profiled by the tall, pretty woman: You were Stumboed.

Around The Times, her habits were legendary. She gently coaxed reluctant subjects into an interview, often after submitting a previous story for examination, or after a mutual friend vouched for her character. Then she trailed her subjects for as long as they tolerated her -- sometimes months on end. "There was a very fine line," Tim Rutten, one of her last editors, said somewhat teasingly, "between her reporting technique and stalking."

When it came time to write, she would hole up at her house, not to emerge for days, during which she did not eat or sleep but chain-smoked a storm. When she was done, "she would look haggard, like someone who had spent six nights on a Greyhound bus," said another former colleague, Robert A. Jones. "There was nothing pretty about it.

"Then the story came out, and it was wonderful."

She offered exquisite, often damning detail, which came in part from spending so much time with a person that he would forget she was a reporter. The revelations also came, as Collins suggested, because she was beguilingly unassuming, affecting a somewhat helpless air that belied her toughness and education.

Born into a blue-collar family in Pikeville, Ky., she grew up in Colorado and went to Denver University. She earned two master's degrees, one in journalism from Northwestern University and the other in government from UC Santa Barbara.

Before landing at The Times, she worked at UPI, Bangkok World, The Los Angeles Evening Citizen News and KABC-TV.

Despite her years away from her roots, her voice always carried a hint of Kentucky hill country drawl, which was part of her allure. Interview subjects "would just bend over backwards to help this poor girl from the 'hollers' of Kentucky," a former colleague said.

This may explain how, for instance, she captured Barry browsing through women's lingerie in a boutique near the White House. Or his speaking in earthy terms about everyone from Jackson to his former wife.

Or how she got the bit that put kingmaker Dart in boiling water with fellow Republicans.

She accompanied Dart on a flight from Palm Desert, where he had just spent New Year's with Ronald and Nancy Reagan, to New York. When they were boarding, he noticed that former President Ford was also a passenger.

Dart turned toward his personal aide and grimaced.

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