Jean Sharley Taylor dies at 91; groundbreaking L.A. Times journalist

Jean Sharley Taylor, a groundbreaking journalist at the Los Angeles Times who for years was the only woman named on the newspaper's masthead, has died. She was 91.

Taylor died Saturday under hospice care in Yorba Linda, said her son, the Rev. John H. Taylor, vicar of St. John Chrystosom Episcopal Church in Rancho Santa Margarita.

She had Alzheimer's disease and colorectal cancer.

Taylor retired from the Los Angeles Times as associate editor in 1989. In her 18 years with the newspaper, she supervised hundreds of journalists and helped to establish the Los Angeles Times Magazine, the daily Calendar section and the Book Review. She also supervised coverage in the food, travel and real estate sections.

During her tenure overseeing the arts and entertainment sections, the newspaper won three Pulitzer Prizes for arts coverage.

Taylor's married name was Jean Sharley Taylor Lescoe. Her husband, Dr. Richard J. Lescoe, died in 2009.

But professionally she was known as Jean Sharley Taylor — a woman whose talent and persistence earned her a place in cigar-chomping newsrooms where women were often seen as unsuited to the gritty work of real reporting.

"I've come to appreciate her as a feminist from a generation before feminism was identified," her son said.

When she started as a reporter at the Detroit Free Press in 1950, Taylor literally had no seat in the all-male newsroom. She was given a gluepot, a typewriter and a cubbyhole on another floor.

"A new editor came and asked, 'Who is this woman who's writing miraculous copy for the front page? Why isn't she in the newsroom?' " John Taylor said. The editor led her to a permanent desk in the newsroom, amid mutters from her colleagues about the paper putting up lace curtains.

At The Times, she was "an amazing role model for women," said Narda Zacchino, a former top editor at the paper. "In meetings, I was often the only woman in the room and I often thought about her and how she would have reacted in a situation, how she would have handled something.

"She was the epitome of grace and diplomacy."

She also had become a "compassionate mother confessor to scores of reporters and writers," wrote Malcolm Boyd in his 2001 book, "Simple Grace: A Mentor's Guide to Growing Older."

Taylor told the author that she resisted management efforts to cut costs at the expense of journalists' jobs.

"In my experience at newspapers, I was asked to encourage editors, even good ones, to leave at 62 or 65 because of their high salaries and pensions," she said. "Once, when I refused to encourage a fine section editor to retire, this led to a heated discussion with the metro editor. He said if he had his way, he would dispatch everyone over 62, except the visible columnists."

When she took the associate editor's post in 1974, Taylor was thought to be the first woman ever on the Times masthead — a spot reserved for the newspaper's highest-ranking journalists.

Born in Detroit on June 14, 1924, Jean Sharley was the daughter of immigrants from England.

Although she started as a fashion writer at the Detroit Free Press, she ended up covering political conventions, the Kennedy inauguration and other news events. When she wrote moving stories about the funeral of slain civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo, she received hate mail and death threats.

"I was 10 or 11, and I asked my mother why there was a police car parked outside our apartment building," her son recalled. "She said, 'Oh, they're just keeping track of the neighborhood.'"

In fact, a caller, apparently enraged by the sympathetic tone of her pieces, told her: "We're gonna get you — and we know where your son goes to school."

After her job in Detroit, she signed on at the Arizona Republic as women's editor in 1967. She was made associate editor there before heading for Los Angeles in 1971.

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For the record

Oct. 14, 1:02 p.m.: An earlier version of this story reported that Jean Sharley Taylor began working at the Arizona Republic in 1976. She joined that newspaper in 1967.

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She was known as a writer's editor — someone with an appreciation for the finer points of style — partly because she was a polished writer herself.

One of her best-known pieces was a 1972 Los Angeles Times Magazine profile of Joseph Stalin's only daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva Peters.

Taylor had befriended Peters, who defected from the Soviet Union, and interviewed her at her home in suburban Phoenix.

"She approached her first major interview in four years like a five-star general planning an invasion," Taylor wrote. "Her notes were ready. She spread ink-scrawled pages on a glass-topped patio table and delivered a two-hour outline of what she wanted said, turning away questions with, 'Later, later, we shall come to that.'"

Taylor ended the lengthy piece with an image of Peters after dinner at a "gaudy, pseudo-Mexican" restaurant, trying to recall a tune:

"In a burst of intimacy, (she) leaned over to hum the melody, using da, da, da, in place of the words she did not know: 'Those were the days, my friend, I thought they'd never end, da da da da…'

"Her voice low, anxious to be accurate, Svetlana Stalina Alliluyeva Peters sang an old memory in a Scottsdale parking lot. A long way from home."

Taylor's first marriage, to Detroit journalist Harvey Hileman Taylor, ended in divorce.

She played a big role in raising her two step-grandchildren. One of them, Stephanie Lescoe-Hall, lived with Taylor throughout her childhood. She remembered her grandmother, who was then in her mid-70s, taking her and four other excited teenage girls to a Rose Bowl concert by 'N Sync.

"That's just exactly who she was," said Lescoe-Hall, now a nursing student in Nevada.

In addition to her son and step-grandchildren, Taylor's survivors include step-daughters Donna Lee Lescoe, Linda Lescoe and Debbie Lescoe-Kaufman; and two granddaughters.

Twitter: @schawkins

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