Tufty, Esther Van Wagoner (1896–1986)

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Tufty, Esther Van Wagoner (1896–1986)

American journalist and war correspondent. Born Esther Van Wagoner on July 2, 1896, in Kingston, Michigan; died on May 4, 1986, in Alexandria, Virginia; daughter of James Van Wagoner and Florence (Loomis) Van Wagoner; attended Michigan State College, 1914–15; University of Wisconsin (Madison), B.A., 1921; married Harold Guilford Tufty, Sr. (an electrical engineer), on September 17, 1921 (divorced1947); children: Harold Guilford Tufty, Jr. (b. 1922); James Van Wagoner Tufty (b. 1929).

Established the Tufty News Service in Washington, D.C. (1935); covered the Washington political scene, as well as Nazi air assaults on Britain, the Berlin airlift, and both the Korean and Vietnam wars (1935–85); worked as television and radio commentator (beginning 1952); served as president of the Women's National Press Club, American Newspaper Women's Club, and American Women in Radio and Television; became the first woman member of the National Press Club (1971).

Born in Kingston, Michigan, in 1896, Esther Van Wagoner Tufty was one of two distinguished siblings; her brother Murray Van Wagoner later served as governor of Michigan. Tufty got an early start in journalism, straight out of high school, going to work as assistant society editor of the Pontiac Press of Pontiac, Michigan, for $7.50 a week. She later attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison, from which she graduated with a bachelor's degree in journalism in 1921. Immediately after, she joined the reporting staff of the Evanston (Illinois) News-Index, working her way up to managing editor, a position few women achieved in those days. In September 1921, she also married electrical engineer Harold Guilford Tufty. They would have two sons, Harold Guilford Tufty Jr. (b. 1922) and James Tufty (b. 1929), before divorcing in 1947.

After several years working for newspapers in the Midwest, Tufty headed East to seek her fortune in the nation's capital. There in 1935, a year before her 40th birthday, she founded the Tufty News Service, for which she served in a trio of roles: as writer, editor, and president. Originally set up to serve 26 Michigan newspapers, over time Tufty's news agency came to feed reports to more than 300 U.S. newspapers. In the next few years, she concentrated on coverage of the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then in its first term, and other events on the domestic political scene. In the 50 years she spent at the helm of her news service, she covered every president from FDR to Ronald Reagan. With other pioneers, such as Doris Fleeson and Sarah McClendon , she was one of the first women reporters to cover the White House. McClendon, the veteran Washington correspondent for a group of Texas newspapers, once recalled, perhaps a bit enviously: "I watched Esther Tufty, and she had everybody calling her 'the Duchess.' She was tall and statuesque and had beautiful, long braids. She had established this idea that she was very important and that she was the one to talk to and the one to invite to everything."

Beginning in 1952, Tufty began work as a television and radio commentator for the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), starting off at the 1952 Republican National Convention in Chicago. For a time she had her own radio program, "Tufty Topics," on a local Washington station. Tufty is the only woman to have served as president of Washington's top three press clubs for women: the Women's National Press Club (now the Washington Press Club), the American Newspaper Women's Club, and American Women in Radio and Television. In 1971, she became the first woman to join the National Press Club in Washington, which voted to admit women only two days after the Women's National Press Club agreed to accept men as members.

Being her own boss allowed Tufty to hand-pick her assignments, and when World War II broke out in Europe, she did not shy away from the perils that front-line coverage entailed. She traveled across the Atlantic to cover the war in Britain and in the years after the war flew into Berlin during the airlift sitting atop a load of coal. She also covered the wars in both Korea (when she was 55) and Vietnam (when she was 70). During the Vietnam War, a helicopter flying Tufty to visit a hospital was hit by enemy fire. Of the incident, she later recalled: "We were a sitting duck. It was an awful feeling. Then I reminded myself, 'You didn't have to come.'"

In 1983, Tufty's alma mater awarded her its Distinguished Service to Journalism Award, noting that when she graduated from the school of journalism, "Warren G. Harding was in the White House and a satellite was a falling star. Yet every weekday, there she is, pecking away at her typewriter in a cozily cluttered office in the National Press Building in Washington, D.C., still very much a newspaper reporter at the age of 86." And there she continued to work until she was felled by a massive stroke in 1985. She died the following year.


Edwards, Julia. Women of the World: The Great Foreign Correspondents. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.

Don Amerman , freelance writer, Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania