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Nan Robertson dies at 83; Pulitzer-winning New York Times reporter

Robertson was known for helping to improve pay and career opportunities for women writers and editors. She won the Pulitzer for her account of her near-fatal struggle with toxic shock syndrome.

October 15, 2009|Elaine Woo

Nan Robertson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter who brought distinction and change to her newspaper through highly publicized professional and personal battles -- one against sex discrimination at her newspaper, the other against toxic shock syndrome, which nearly killed her -- died Tuesday at a nursing home in Rockville, Md. She was 83.

The cause was heart disease, said her stepdaughter-in-law, Jane Freundel Levey.

A reporter for the New York Times for 33 years beginning in 1955, Robertson was known for her role in a drive to improve pay and career opportunities for women writers and editors, which culminated in a class-action lawsuit settled in favor of the women plaintiffs in 1978. She chronicled the fight and the paper's long history of discrimination against women in the 1992 book "The Girls in the Balcony."

In 1983 she won a Pulitzer for a New York Times magazine article, "Toxic Shock," a moving, often gruesome account of her struggle to survive toxic shock syndrome, which had struck her with brutal swiftness two years earlier. She was hospitalized for 11 weeks and lost the tips of eight fingers to gangrene but recovered fully and returned to the Times, where she covered cultural affairs until retiring in 1988.

"Nan Robertson was a superb journalist, a riveting writer and a dogged reporter," said Gene Roberts Jr., a former managing editor of the New York Times and journalism professor at the University of Maryland, where Robertson also taught for several years after retiring from daily journalism. "She elevated journalism by insisting, and proving, that women could do whatever men could do in the craft, and probably better."

Robertson was born in Chicago on July 11, 1926. She earned a journalism degree from Northwestern University in 1948 before becoming a European correspondent for several papers, including Stars & Stripes, the Milwaukee Journal and the New York Herald Tribune.

When she returned to the United States in 1955, she thought her foreign reporting credentials would help her land a good job at the New York Times. The paper hired her to write for the fashion department. After about five years, she worked her way out of the women's pages to the city room, where she became a general assignment reporter. She showed such mettle scrambling for news that her mostly male colleagues paid her the ultimate compliment: "Nan, you write like a man."

"They were absolutely equal in their treatment of me," she said of the city desk editors. That experience changed drastically in 1963 when she transferred to the Times' Washington bureau.

To her chagrin, she discovered that at the National Press Club, where national and international figures came to deliver major addresses, women reporters were second-class citizens. While their male colleagues covered the speeches of the high and mighty from comfortable seats in the club's ballroom, the women were exiled to a balcony so small that chairs wouldn't fit in it. The women took notes while standing and strained to see and hear the speaker from their remote perch. They were barred from asking questions of the speakers and had to enter and leave the club through a back door. It was so humiliating that Robertson and two other women from the Times refused to cover events at the club, but their protests brought little relief.

"It was discrimination at its rawest," Robertson wrote in "The Girls in the Balcony."

Near the end of her decade in the Washington bureau, Robertson joined a group of 50 women who signed a letter to Times management in 1972 protesting huge disparities in pay and other conditions. In 1973 six women (who were later joined by a seventh) sued the paper in a New York federal court. The lawsuit was settled out of court in 1978 for $350,000 and a pledge from top executives to implement an affirmative action plan.

In 1973, Robertson left Washington for a dream assignment as the Times' correspondent in Paris. She left her European post two years later to enter treatment in New York for alcoholism, a problem that had worsened after her second husband, Stanley Levey, died during heart surgery in 1971. She later was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown. Her struggles with drinking led her to write "Getting Better: Inside Alcoholics Anonymous" (1988).

Divorced once and widowed twice, Robertson is survived by a sister, Jane Robertson Paetz; five stepchildren, Bob Levey, John Frank Levey, Mary Houghton, James Houghton and William P. Ross; and nine step-grandchildren.

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