Category Archives: Women’s History

The Los Angeles Times Women of the Year Award


As Women’s History Month comes to an end, I interviewed Andrea Thabet (http://remakingla.com) about Dorothy Chandler and the Los Angeles Times Women of the Year Award.




Between 1950 and 1977, the Los Angeles Times honored close to 300 women for their achievements in Southern California. The Women of the Year Awards recognized “women of concept and vision, who by outstanding achievement to their fields of endeavor, have created and produced improvements affecting all our lives,” explained Times publisher Norman Chandler in 1957. Married to the publisher,  Dorothy Buffum Chandler started this award program in an effort to improve the women’s section of the newspaper.

Los Angeles Times Women of the Year, 1966 Los Angeles Times Women of the Year, 1956 Los Angeles Times Women of the Year, 1976
When the winners of the Los Angeles Times Women of the Year Award were announced, the Times published brief biographies of each woman.

Celebrities like Nancy Reagan, Doris Day, Edith Head, Bette Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Lucille Ball received honors alongside artists, athletes, doctors, politicians, publicists, educators, graphic designers, scientists, nuns and company presidents. When Herald-Examiner reporter Aggie Underwood received the honors in 1960, Dorothy Chandler announced, “Aggie makes me proud of the printed word. It is with the greatest pride that I, as a part of the Los Angeles Times family, see a newspaper woman win one of the Women of the Year Awards.”

For this honor, recipients received an engraved silver cup and attended a lavish annual award ceremony originally held in the executive dining room of the Times building. As the event grew, the Chandlers moved the ceremony to their Windsor Square home (called Los Tiempos) before settling in the larger Harry Chandler Auditorium in the Times. At the ceremony, members of the editorial staff gave brief introductions for each woman.  Book editor Robert Kirsch did the honors when Joan Didion won in 1968:

“To a reporter’s awareness, [Didion] adds a novelists’s perception in the chaos of detail, she provides an organizing vision—all of it expressed in eloquent evocation.” Miss Didion’s acceptance was brief and included the comment that “I’m one of those writers who began writing because she couldn’t talk.”

When the Times stopped the awards in 1977, its publisher Otis Chandler opined in the paper that “a women-only awards program was unnecessary in today’s world.” As Thabet detailed in our interview, this decision did not sit well with Dorothy Chandler but she had no choice in the matter. “In truth, the Women of the Year Awards were unfairly viewed as a plaything for clubwomen, patronesses of the arts, etc.,” Larry Harnisch commented on his blog.

Skimming through the brief-but-impressive biographies of the almost 300 honorees confirms Harnisch’s assertion.  When USC chemist Dr. Marjorie Void received the honor 50 years ago, she enthusiastically approached the podium in her wheelchair (she had multiple sclerosis, according to the 1966 Daily Trojan). “I am especially happy because [this award] indicates that teaching and research are not only important in themselves, but accessible as a career for any woman willing to put in the time and effort,” she exclaimed.

Artist and nun Sister Corita Kent also won that same year. Times entertainment editor Charles Champlin suggested that Corita Kent proved the “cloistered life puts her into daily and intense context with the realities and challenges of the human condition.“ Kent’s award may explain why the 1966 keynote speech was given by Immaculate Heart College’s Sister Mary William. Impressed with the honorees’ “willingness to slog through the inevitable dirt, difficulty and disappointment of the human condition,” Sister Mary William continued:

“A year ago I exhorted the graduates of Immaculate Heart College to be great women. Choose life, I said, only that, and always, and at whatever risk…To let life leak out, to let it wear away by the mere passage of time, to withhold giving it and spending it is to choose nothing.”

May we all find such inspiration in the archives.

Nellie Coffman: The Mother of Palm Springs

Excited to announce that KCET’s Lost LA series just published my article about about Nellie Coffman, considered the Mother of Palm Springs.

How "The Mother of Palm Springs" Transformed a Desert Village into a Tourist Mecca

Before she was Nellie Coffman, she was Nellie Orr, daughter of Santa Monica hotelier James Orr. Originally from Indiana, the Orr family lived in several towns before relocating to Southern California in the late 1880s. Nellie later followed her family west after her first husband died tragically in a Texas fire within months of their wedding. The family settled in the area now known as Pico Rivera, next to the 400-acre walnut ranch owned by Charles Coffman.

Coffman’s son Harry, who managed a small parcel on his father’s ranch, was smitten. According to the hotel register, an eager Charles came to see Nellie just three days after her father started his new job at Santa Monica’s St. James Hotel. The two were soon married at the St. James Hotel and built a life around Harry’s medical practice in Santa Monica. Incidentally, James Orr also later owned Santa Monica’s Atlanta Hotel and the Clarendon. Hotel management was in Nellie’s blood.

The Atlanta Hotel in Santa Monica which was owned by James M. Orr. Courtesy of the Santa Monica Public Library Image Archives.

The Atlanta Hotel in Santa Monica which was owned by James M. Orr (father of Nellie Coffman). Courtesy of the Santa Monica Public Library Image Archives.