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Dale Pitt, 1931 - 2008

With husband, writer created 'Los Angeles A to Z'

October 01, 2008|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Dale Pitt, who co-wrote with her husband "Los Angeles A to Z," the first encyclopedia on the city and county of Los Angeles, a 1997 local best-seller that was admired for its scholarship and readability, has died. She was 77.

Pitt died of a stroke Aug. 10 at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Hollywood, said her husband, Leonard Pitt. She was a longtime resident of Mar Vista.

The couple spent six years researching and writing the single-volume reference after Leonard proposed working on a local almanac. His wife later recalled her reaction: "Boooooring."

Instead, she suggested the couple craft an encyclopedia in dictionary form. To research the concept, they queried local librarians, who harrumphed over the absence of such a handy guide.

Dale, a writer and editor, wanted to create a comprehensive work with her husband, a retired Cal State Northridge history professor, that would be fun to read and contain what the couple called "unexpected nuggets."

Between "Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem" and "Zuma County Beach," the encyclopedia includes 2,000 entries in 600 pages. The Pitts tried to cover as much history as possible while being "a little bit eccentric," Dale once said.

There are entries on the rival gangs the Crips and Bloods, a Utopian movement in Tujunga known as "Little Landers," and a society of book lovers called the Zamorano Club.

There is also more expected fare: brief biographies of Los Angeles mayors and celebrities; significant articles on ethnic communities, governmental institutions, culture and politics; and 335 photographs.

The stories of the 88 cities that then made up the county "are told briefly and with enormous grace (after enormous scholarship)," Times reviewer D.J. Waldie wrote in 1997.

Two years ago, The Times chose "Los Angeles A to Z: An Encyclopedia of the City and County" as one of 20 books of "essential reading" about Southern California. Calling the reference "breezily wonderful and authoritative," Times staffers Thomas Curwen and David L. Ulin wrote: "The Pitts know the prerequisite of good storytelling: Just get out of the way and let the facts do all the work."

When the book came out, it was "very popular and well received," Mark Hennessey, owner of the Santa Monica bookstore Hennessey + Ingalls, told The Times on Monday. "It was probably the best book about Los Angeles at the time."

Cindy McNaughton, a senior librarian in the history and genealogy department at Los Angeles' downtown Central Library, said the book has become "an important and valuable resource" for librarians.

"We never had anything before to open and go to G for 'Griffith Park,' or whatever," McNaughton said.

Dale's role in local history could have qualified her for an entry in the encyclopedia. She became a Hollywood footnote when she took a story credit for blacklisted screenwriter Adrian Scott on the 1960 film "Conspiracy of Hearts." His credit was restored by the Writers Guild of American in 1997.

"I fronted for Adrian," Dale said in 1996 in Cineaste magazine. "We were friends, and he asked me if I would do that for him. . . . It was something that I did gladly as a favor, but I felt bad because he couldn't have his name on it."

She was born Dale Lash on July 22, 1931, in Chicago to Jack and Dora Lash. Her parents, Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, were merchants.

At UCLA, Dale earned a bachelor's in theater arts and English in the early 1950s and met Leonard, a fellow student; they married in 1953.

Dale's "first passion" was writing for live theater, but her work was largely unproduced, according to her husband. However, she wrote an episode for the dramatic anthology series "Goodyear TV Playhouse" that aired in the 1950s.

As an editor, Dale's projects included history books by her husband such as "Decline of the Californios" (1999).

She also indexed works; her cataloging of the entries in the 17-volume "The Collected Works of J. Krishnamurti" (1991) was "a major accomplishment," her husband said.

The Pitts were working on a revised version of their encyclopedia and planned to add 500 entries at the time of her death. Leonard said he will try to complete it.

The most surprising thing about researching local history was that "there's nothing new under the sun," Dale told the Daily News of Los Angeles in 1997.

"You go back 100 years and you could be reading the same headlines as today," she said. "The sky was always falling for somebody -- and it never really fell."

In addition to her husband, Dale is survived by her children, Michael, Adam and Marni; and two grandchildren.

Memorial donations may be made to the Children's Defense Fund, www.childrensdefense.org.

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valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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