Elane Stein, a prominent figure in Baltimore broadcasting whose career in radio and television spanned more than three decades, died Sunday at St. Vincent's Hospital in Santa Fe, N.M., from injuries she suffered in a fall at her home a day earlier.
Ms. Stein, who had retired and moved to Santa Fe in 1996, assiduously avoided revealing her age.
"She was 85," said her nephew and only survivor, Mark W. Stein of Clarksburg, Montgomery County.
"Elane was a major air talent in the 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s," Richard Sher, a longtime WJZ-TV reporter and friend, recalled yesterday.
"Elane was one-of-a-kind ... feisty ... and extremely opinionated. If she didn't like you, you knew it," Mr. Sher said. "However, under that rough exterior was a very loyal friend."
Jeff Beauchamp, WBAL vice president and general manager, worked with Ms. Stein for many years.
"For women in local broadcasting, Elane was truly a pioneer. There were two names from those early days: Elane and Mollie Martin," Mr. Beauchamp said.
"Elane had a unique niche and style. She was well-connected in the art and theater community in New York and Washington," he said. "When Princess Diana got married, we sent her to London and she just loved it. She did a terrific job, and it was the kind of thing that she always excelled at."
Ms. Stein, who stood 6-foot-1 with dark hair pulled backed from her angular face and piercing brown eyes behind oversize tortoise-shell glasses, could be an intimidating presence.
"Well, I tell 'em off and they hate me and it's wonderful because they know who I am and they tell their friends, 'Don't listen to her. She's a real bitch,' " Ms. Stein told The Sun in a 1980 interview.
"Not only was she intimidating to those she interviewed but also to her co-workers and those who managed her," said Mr. Beauchamp, with a laugh.
"But she had a big heart, and one thing about Elane was when you did battle with her, once it was over, it was over," he recalled. "Five minutes later, we'd be laughing and talking about something else."
When Ms. Stein was interviewing psychologist Joyce Brothers, she asked if Dr. Brothers had ever been in treatment. Dr. Brothers, in a rising voice, responded by saying, "Did you come here to criticize me or to psychoanalyze me?"
Ms. Stein replied, "Neither. I was just curious as to why you were never in private practice."
With that, Dr. Brothers slammed down the microphone and stormed out of the studio.
"Well, she's a very uptight, thin-lipped broad," Ms. Stein told The Sun after the interview.
Ms. Stein then explained her technique when it came to speaking with celebrities, authors, musicians, artists, physicians, athletes, lawyers, politicians or just everyday people.
"I do not try to show off or ask the most brilliant question ever asked. I asked what people wanna hear sittin' at home," she said.
Ms. Stein was born in Baltimore and raised on Brookfield Avenue. After graduating from Forest Park High School in 1941, she headed, against her parents' wishes, to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.
"I was very self-conscious about my height. Kids can be cruel, and they were cruel. I escaped into plays," she said in the 1980 interview.
She also studied at the Johns Hopkins University and earned a bachelor's degree in drama at Columbia University.
After working as a John Robert Powers model for two years, she headed to Europe in the early 1950s to work as a producer for the Voice of America.
She was reassigned to the agency's Washington office for several years before returning to Baltimore in 1959 when she became music librarian and director at WCBM-AM.
"Who was on the air in the '50s?" she told The Sun in 1988. "You had women doing these ditsy cooking shows in the afternoon. If I had been a man, I'm sure I would have been put in the news department. I did have a brain."
After badgering station management, she got her own show, The Performing Arts, a celebrity interview program in 1962 that first aired at 11 p.m. Saturdays.
"There were all of three people listening. The engineer, me and my mother. My father had gone to sleep by that time," she said.
In 1975, she moved to WBAL-AM, where she was public service director and broadcast a short interview program at 9:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.
Until retiring in 1996, she appeared on Maryland Public Television's Critics' Place as TV critic. For 14 years, she had also appeared on WJZ-TV's Square Off, hosted by Mr. Sher.
It was on Square Off that Ms. Stein had numerous memorable clashes with Dr. Edgar Berman, a Baltimore physician, author and panelist, who had written The Complete Male Chauvinist.
Dr. Berman described her as "a very large woman with an even bigger mouth."
Ms. Stein poked fun at his diminutive stature and head of swirling gray hair: "Poor Edgar. He has a Napoleon complex. ... He might be 5-foot-7 in elevator shoes and a Carmen Miranda get-up - and that's counting the banana on top."
She was a lifelong "dyed-in-the-wool Democrat," her nephew said, an early champion of women's rights and lifelong supporter of the underdog.
Her weekly repartee on WBAL with Don Walls, former Daily Record editor and film critic, also brought her a wide following.
Ms. Stein loved to describe to listeners Mr. Walls' flamboyant style of dress.
"Elane used to say to listeners, 'Don Walls is the only guy who gets dressed up for radio,' and was always making cracks about my purple shoes, whether I was wearing them or not," Mr. Walls told The Sun last year.
For many years, Ms. Stein did commercials for Midstate Federal Savings & Loan, Wells Liquors and other Baltimore companies.
"People always wanted Elane pitching their products," Mr. Sher said.
Ms. Stein earned respect for being candid and frank about her health problems and failed eight-year marriage to Merrill Rosenfeld. At the divorce proceedings, Ms. Stein acknowledged that she used her stove as a filing cabinet.
"My ex-husband complained that I hadn't cooked a meal in eight years," she told The Sun in 1986. "I told him that if he had been hungry, he should have gone to a restaurant."
In 1974, she underwent an aortic valve replacement because of Marfan syndrome, a condition that affects connective tissue.
In her last interview with The Sun in 2007, she mentioned that she had fallen and broken her pelvis a year and a half earlier, and was still being treated for Marfan complications.
"I just will not give up," she said. "One thing everybody knows, and that is that I tell the truth - about everything except my age."
Ms. Stein's longtime friend, Nelson Schreter, a former Baltimore necktie manufacturer who also lived in Santa Fe, died in 2005.
"I'm acceding to her wishes that no services or celebration of her life be held," Mr. Stein said.