Alice C. Steinbach, Pulitzer Prize winner

Baltimore Sun reporter who specialized in the fine art of the celebrity profile also wrote books about her travels abroad

  • Alice Steinbach won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for "A Boy of Unusual Vision."
Alice Steinbach won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing… (Baltimore Sun )
March 14, 2012|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Alice C. Steinbach, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for The Baltimore Sun, whose work captured the wonder and grace of people and places around the world, died Tuesday of cancer at her Roland Park Place home. She was 78.

In her more than two-decade career with The Baltimore Sun, Ms. Steinbach took readers into close communion with her detailed profiles of the rich and famous from the world of entertainment, literature, politics, society and the arts. In a later career as a travel writer, her work took readers on strolls through places like the colorful back streets of Paris' Left Bank or, as she wrote, "the impossibly crowded Uffizi art gallery" in Florence.

"Life was always an adventure for her, and when she discovered things about the world, she discovered things about herself," said John S. Carroll, who was editor of The Sun from 1991 to 2000. "I always admired her and her abilities.

"When I look back, she was never satisfied or sat on her laurels. After she won the Pulitzer, she found new things to write about and then began writing books."

The daughter of a homemaker and a merchant mariner who was lost at sea during World War II, Alice Carter was born in Baltimore and raised in Edmondson Village. She was a 1951 graduate of Western High School. In the early 1970s she worked as director of publicity at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

"She always loved to read and write, and was a self-taught journalist. She never went to college or studied journalism," said a son, Sam Steinbach of Redmond, Wash. "She started writing freelance articles for Art In America magazine and other publications, which eventually led to an offer of a job at The Sun."

She was hired in 1981 as a writer in The Sun's features department. She also wrote a weekly bylined column during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Ms. Steinbach, who had an ear for the off-beat anecdote, relished in writing detailed, subtle and nuanced profiles of individuals.

"Alice showed that the pursuit of great journalism involves a certain fearlessness," said Mary J. Corey, The Sun's top editor and a friend since the two worked together on the newspaper's features staff. "She was a trailblazer, not just for women in the industry, but for journalists everywhere. She wrote like a dream, and I'd study her work — how her stories were structured, where she chose to begin. Her success made me, and many others, see that there didn't need to be a glass ceiling for women in this field."

Ms. Steinbach won the Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for feature writing for her article about the courageous and inspirational saga of Calvin Stanley Jr., a 10-year-old Northwest Baltimore resident who had been blind from birth. In "A Boy of Unusual Vision," she told the story of young Calvin, who watched TV, played video games and rode bicycles, and how the sighted had patiently "created a special world for Calvin's inner eye to inhabit."

The article began: "First the eyes: They are large and blue, a light, opaque blue, the color of a robin's egg. And if, on a sunny spring day, you look straight into those eyes — eyes that cannot look back at you — the sharp April light turns them pale, like the thin blue of a high, cloudless sky."

Ms. Steinbach's other interview subjects included U.S. first ladies, Yves Saint Laurent, Barbara Walters, William Manchester, Eudora Welty, Diane Rehm, Hamilton Jordan, Jody Powell and Betty Friedan.

"Despite her silence, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis became over the years a screen onto which we projected many images: martyr, gold digger, socialite, and more recently, the betrayed wife of a womanizing president," Ms. Steinbach wrote in a 1994 profile of the former first lady. "If she had been hurt by some of the millions of words written about her, she has never expressed it."

During O.J. Simpson's trial in 1995, she traveled to Los Angeles to research and write a profile of Dominick Dunne, who was covering the trial for Vanity Fair.

Sitting in Morton's, then a fashionable West Hollywood watering hole, Ms. Steinbach observed that throughout the evening, a "steady stream of deeply tanned men and glamorous women carrying $2,000 Hermes pocketbooks" paid obeisance to Mr. Dunne in an atmosphere that was redolent with "the sweet smell of excess."

She quoted Dunne recounting how the trial had everything one could want in a story: "Rich people, big houses, interracial marriage, love, sex, lies, fame. And all the justice money can buy."

"Alice had an extraordinary gift for storytelling," said Jan B. Warrington, who had been Ms. Steinbach's editor and is now a Baltimore County psychologist.

"She was a careful observer of the world, and she had a great curiosity about human behavior, and most of all, she genuinely loved the craft of writing. Her people profiles in the Sunday Sun in the '80s were so popular with readers; they were showcase pieces."

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