Kelly Scott, former Times arts and culture editor with a cool reserve and critical eye, dies at 68
Kelly Scott, a former Los Angeles Times editor who oversaw arts, culture and entertainment coverage for much of her 25-year career at the newspaper, died in Highland Park, Ill., on Jan. 30 of complications related to thyroid cancer, according to her family. She was 68.
Scott started at The Times in 1990, steering film coverage as Hollywood productions boomed and the ad-fattened newspaper was near the peak of its cultural influence under the ownership of the Chandler family. At that point, Times circulation hit an all-time high of 1,225,189 daily and 1,514,096 on Sundays, making it the largest daily metropolitan newspaper in the country. A few days after Scott arrived, newsroom management handed out coffee mugs emblazoned with “Nation’s Largest Newspaper” and “We’re No. 1,“ she recalled later. By the end of the 1990s, Scott had become Sunday Calendar editor, a coveted role that set the agenda for arts and entertainment coverage.
In later years — after taking a sabbatical as a John S. Knight fellow at Stanford — Scott served as an editor for the Los Angeles Times Magazine, the Home section and the paper’s national desk, where she helped steer coverage of the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. She served a final stint as the Times’ arts and culture editor before taking a buyout and retiring in 2015, leaving as the shrinking newsroom entered its bleakest era under the chain ownership of Tribune Publishing.
Scott traversed that transformative and traumatic epoch in journalism history with a friendly but cool reserve, emerging from a quarter-century at The Times with a reputation for defending her reporters and culture critics. Her height and red hair made her easy to spot across the newsroom, where she often worked late to help put a print edition to bed and to lend a savvy, independent, intellectually curious touch to the paper’s coverage.
“The arts, and movies too, they basically want you to be their promotional arm. They don’t want you to be critical of them,” said Susan Freudenheim, a former L.A. Times arts editor who worked with Scott, sometimes jockeying with her over the same prime real estate in the print edition. “What she did was make really good choices as a news person inside the paper that then made the paper look professional and wise to the outside world.”
Kelly Jane Scott was born July 12, 1954, to John Robert Scott and Joan Boon Scott in Evanston, Ill., according to her family. She grew up in the northern Chicago suburb of Wilmette before graduating from Memorial High School in Houston. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in journalism at the University of Kansas, where she was the managing editor of the Daily Kansan.
Her early stops in journalism included several years at the St. Petersburg Times in Florida. Although seen by some as shy in the newsroom, she was hard-charging and also “so outgoing to her friends,” said her longtime friend Pat McMahon, a former Los Angeles Times editor who met Scott at the St. Pete Times.
After a stint at Newsday in the late 1980s, Scott arrived at the Los Angeles Times and became “part of a group of young red-hots” that included some of the paper’s top-notch reporters at a time when “people were eager to get in the paper,” McMahon said. “The actors and producers and filmmakers, they were all vying to have influence with the arts editors.”
Scott was known as a supporter of arts criticism. She sometimes would give feedback days after a piece ran, which can feel like a lifetime in the perpetual churn of a daily news operation, where stories are often seen once and then never again.
“A newspaper is one of the few places where there’s public dialogue about the arts — it simply acts as a public billboard for the conversation — and she really believed that good critics can lead the conversation and direct the conversation, for good or ill,” said Times art critic Christopher Knight. “She was not the sort of editor who tried to lead a critic to water and make him drink. She wanted to hear what the critic had to say, and if it resonated with her, she ran with it.”
For the record:
12:34 p.m. Feb. 7, 2023Kelly Scott’s daughter’s name is Susannah. It was misspelled Suzanna.
Scott married twice, divorced twice and had two children, Devin and Susannah Mitchell, whom she sometimes took along to movie and theater premieres.
“She was there for work, but we were able to have fun and see things,” Devin said. “As a kid, I didn’t appreciate how unique that was and how special that was.”
Scott was not a self-promoter — in fact, she sometimes was prone to self-deprecation — and her son didn’t fully grasp his mother’s professional skills as an editor until the time he asked for her help looking over a college admissions essay.
“It got a little contentious, because I didn’t like every note that she made. She was polite but firm, and of course I knew deep down that she was right, and the essay would be better and my admissions chance would be better if I listened to her,” Devin said. “She was so observant, and she was always sort of more comfortable asking the questions than answering them.”
Scott was a Bruce Springsteen fan and a dog lover who doted on her golden retriever, Tully, and her Airedale terrier/German shepherd mix, Jake. She also became a passionate supporter of the Los Angeles Dodgers during her time in L.A., a fixation that followed her back to her native North Shore in retirement, to the consternation of her Cubs-supporting family.
“She could talk equally with knowledge and brilliance about the Dodgers, as about [conductor Gustavo] Dudamel, as about yesterday’s Marvel movie,” said Freudenheim. “Her last text to me was about the Dodgers pitchers and catchers day coming up in February. This is a person with diverse interests, but depth in all of them.”
Scott is survived by her two children and her five older siblings: Michael Scott, Nancy Beren, Casey Scott, Trish Egan and Tracy Fairman.
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