Historian Leonard Pitt dies at 85, co-wrote entertaining ‘Los Angeles A to Z’ book
Where can you find these historical facts about Los Angeles?
• Mayor Charles Sebastian was forced to resign in 1916 when a newspaper published letters to his mistress that referred to his wife as the “Old Haybag.”
• An early name of the Dodgers was the Bridegrooms.
• Henry Huntington inherited his fortune from his uncle Collis, then married Collis’ widow.
All this and much more is in the highly readable, 605-page “Los Angeles A to Z: An Encyclopedia of the City and County” published in 1997.
Historian Leonard Pitt, 85, who co-wrote the exhaustive tome with his wife, Dale, died July 22 at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in West Los Angeles.
He was recently diagnosed with leukemia, said his daughter-in-law, Dinna Rivera Pitt. Dale Pitt died in 2008.
Leonard Pitt was a highly admired historian and longtime professor at Cal State Northridge whose 1966 book, “The Decline of the Californios,” was a detailed study of early Spanish-speaking Californians.
He was planning to write an almanac focused on the Los Angeles area, but Dale Pitt dashed that idea as too boring. Instead, they spent six years researching and writing “Los Angeles A to Z,” chock-full of 2,000, endlessly browsable entries on individuals, communities, landmarks, historic events, ethnicities, industries, arts organizations, sports heroes, architecture, religious movements and more.
“We would talk to librarians and they would be annoyed that there was no one reference work,” he told The Times in a 1997 interview. “They would say, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were a handy guide when people came in asking about, say, Highland Park?’”
Indeed, if you look up Highland Park in the book, the short entry packs in a lot of facts, including that the area along the Arroyo Seco was once called Garvanza and that in 1895 it became the first major unincorporated territory annexed to the city of Los Angeles.
Residents of the area wanted to join the city, the Pitts wrote, because they were “frustrated by marauding bandits who hid in the arroyo and preyed on travelers,” and wanted city police protection.
Looking up the origins of city names is part of the fun of browsing the book — Compton was named for temperance preacher Griffith D. Compton; El Segundo, meaning “the second,” was so named because it was the site of the second Standard Oil complex in the state.
Then there are the scandals, including the unsolved 1922 slaying of movie director William Desmond Taylor and the case of Griffith J. Griffith, the self-made millionaire who gave the land for Griffith Park and who shot his wife in a drunken rage in 1903 when he accused her of diverting money to her church (she survived, and he spent two years in San Quentin).
All this in alphabetical order, with topics of serious historical significance mixed in with tidbits. The book, the Pitts wrote in its preface, “can provide an overview to broader issues. And finally, it can satisfy the browser who searches at leisure for unexpected nuggets.”
Leonard Pitt recently finished updating the text of “Los Angeles A to Z” for a new edition to be published in coming months, Dinna Pitt said. He never stopped gathering tidbits about L.A., scouring newspapers and other local publications on a daily basis.
“When he was admitted to the hospital,” she said, “just about the last conscious thing he said was, ‘Can you get me a book? I really need something to read.’”
He was born Sept. 14, 1929, in Paterson, N.J., to Polish immigrants. His family moved to the Bronx in New York when he was a boy and he graduated from the High School of Music and Art (now Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School) intending to be a musician.
In 1947, he moved with his parents to Los Angeles; his father had contracted emphysema and needed to be in a more temperate climate. Pitt enrolled in UCLA to pursue another interest: history. He ultimately got his doctorate degree in the field at the school in 1961.
UCLA was also where he met his wife.
Pitt began teaching at Cal State Northridge in 1962 and remained there until he retired as a professor emeritus in 1992.
In “The Decline of the Californios,” he explored the diversity of Los Angeles. “What is constant is that the city is an ever-changing kaleidoscope,” he said in a 2001 Times interview. “The complexion is ever-shifting, the majority is ever-shifting — the majority becoming the minority, the minority becoming the majority.”’
He embraced shifts in diversity but was wary of other changes in the city. When he was a teenager, he and his family lived in a house in West Los Angeles that was torn down to make way for northbound lanes of the 405 Freeway.
“Freeways connect up places,” Pitt wrote in a short essay for his daughter’s school project. “But as I learned from personal experience, they also tear down homes and disconnect lives. They say this is progress.
“Sometimes I’m not so sure.”
Pitt is survived by daughter Marni Pitt, sons Adam and Michael Pitt, and three grandchildren.
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