The only woman in a sea of men in suits, Dorothy Townsend can’t help but stand out in the official photograph of the Los Angeles Times team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1966 for coverage of the Watts riots.
The picture also inadvertently documents Townsend’s other historic role at the newspaper. After insisting on being reassigned from “the women’s pages” in early 1964, she became the first female staff writer to cover local news in a city room long populated only by men.
Townsend, who wrote for The Times from 1954 to 1986, died March 5 of cancer at her Sherman Oaks home, said her cousin, Louise Hagan. She was 88.
“I don’t think any of us at that time realized what she had accomplished merely by making it to the newsroom,” Noel Greenwood, a former Times senior editor, said in an email.
“This was during an era when women were thought to be such delicate creatures that they were not fit for the challenges of hard news reporting, and were consigned to the features section,” he wrote. “I always remembered Dorothy as a heroine.”
To the female journalists who followed her into the city room beginning in the early 1970s, Townsend was “a pioneer, although she never considered herself such,” said Myrna Oliver, a former Times reporter who joined the local news staff in 1972.
“She complained that her editors tried to keep her from going into the worst areas,” Oliver said. “She said, ‘I can run faster than any of those men in the city room.’ She was a tough, petite little lady — and an excellent reporter.”
When the Watts riots broke out in August 1965, Townsend demanded that she be allowed to cover them, said Bill Thomas, who oversaw The Times’ coverage of the riots and later became the paper’s editor.
“She was ever ambitious, at my desk all the time, saying, ‘Send me, send me, send me,’ ” Thomas said. “Everyone was getting clobbered” covering the riots “but she insisted that she was one of the gang, so I said, ‘All right.’ ”
The feature stories that Townsend derided as “white glove assignments” quickly gave way to hard news.
Months after chronicling the “Sad Saga of Bimbo, the Psychotic Whale” at Marineland, she helped document the aftermath of the riots. She interviewed religious leaders who expressed guilt over being “blinded” to economic conditions in Watts and analyzed the “desperate” youths who took part in the riots.
“Dorothy was what we would have called back then very ladylike,” former Times columnist Steve Harvey said in an email. “She wore dresses. She didn’t smoke or curse.... But she was tough.”
As proof, he recalled how she was sent to skid row in 1978 to write about the fears of the homeless after a series of stabbings.
“She was funny and smart and she was one of the guys, and that was very hard to achieve back then,” said Patt Morrison, a Times columnist who was a newsroom intern when she met Townsend in the late 1970s. “It was a very macho environment when she came into it, and it was pretty brave for her to do.”
Born Feb. 25, 1924, in Claude, Texas, she was the only child of Randolph Townsend and his wife, Vernon. After her parents divorced when she was an infant, she grew up in Texas and Long Beach and often lived with her grandmother and an aunt.
As a young girl, Dorothy decided she wanted to be a great reporter, her cousin said.
She received an associate’s degree from Fullerton Junior College in 1948, the same year she started working at the Costa Mesa Globe Herald. She later attended UCLA and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1960 from Cal State L.A.
Upon joining The Times as a “Women’s staff reporter,” she regularly covered society events. But as feature sections evolved, so did her subjects. By 1960, she was interviewing future First Lady Lady Bird Johnson and profiling teenage mountaineers who climbed the Matterhorn for “what probably is the strangest summer job at Disneyland,” Townsend wrote.
First Lady Betty Ford once offered her an exclusive interview if Townsend would fly with her on Air Force One from Chicago to L.A., so the newspaper “rushed a suitcase to her with some toothpaste and other necessities,” her cousin said.
At The Times, Townsend also met her future husband, Richard Vanderveld, who worked in the Business section in the 1960s. They were married from 1968 until 2006, when he died at 80. The couple had no children.
When asked if Townsend spoke about how difficult it was to break the gender barrier in the newsroom, her cousin replied: “Nothing was hard for Dorothy. If she met an obstacle, she went around it or climbed over it. She was very determined but also very kind.”