Nancy 'Nan' Robertson: firsthand account of illness led to Pulitzer


Nancy “Nan” Robertson occupied a peculiar time for ambitious women. When she graduated from Northwestern University with a journalism degree in 1948, the war was over. The men were back, and the working women were sent home. So she moved to Europe. She spent about a year at Stars and Stripes as a copy editor and general assignment reporter in Germany before moving on to other publications.

She didn't return to the U.S. until 1955, after landing a job at The New York Times. She was immediately relegated to the so-called women's pages — "as if those seven years (in Europe) hadn't mattered at all," she said in an interview years later.

Assigned to the Washington bureau of the Times in 1963, she was to cover, she said, “the first lady, her children and their dogs.”
But Robertson prevailed, later writing about an illness that almost killed her. In 1983, Robertson won a Pulitzer Prize for her account of toxic shock, which she painstakingly typed after the tips of eight fingers had been amputated.

The story began: “I went dancing the night before in a black velvet Paris gown, on one of those evenings that was the glamour of New York epitomized. I was blissfully asleep at 3 a.m.

“Twenty-four hours later, I lay dying, my fingers and legs darkening with gangrene.”

She also wrote candidly about her struggles with alcoholism in a 1988 book, "Getting Better: Inside Alcoholics Anonymous."

She later wrote "The Girls in the Balcony," which became a journalism textbook. Published in 1992, the book chronicled the history of sex discrimination at the Times — and of the female staffers who in the mid-1970s successfully sued the paper over unequal pay, lack of promotions and discriminatory treatment. She died in 2009 at 83 in Bethesda, Md.



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