|Jean on vacation in Michigan, 1957|
You probably understand after hearing from Tom Johnson, my mom’s favorite boss ever, that Jean had a reporter’s ear for good stories and revealing details. She loved to tell people that her father, as a boy, once delivered a prescription to Buckingham Palace in the latter few years of Queen Victoria. Her mother’s family, from Lancashire, was about to sail for New York on the Titanic when the steamship company revoked their half-price tickets and resold them at full price to someone almost infinitely less lucky.
In her father’s case, a brush with greatness. In her mother’s, the touch of Providence. She loved her parents dearly, and their stories helped her understand, when life seemed grey, when poverty embarrassed her, that her life would always glitter in bright colors, that she would always be special.
|With her mother, Lily|
Her vocation, which is now undergoing sometimes heartbreaking change, provides its practitioners with constant brushes with greatness in the form of the events and people journalists cover. As for Providence, the church and prayer book worked their more customary magic with Jean as well. She never doubted the loving, saving grace of heaven -- not once. I have a million things to thank my mother for, none more important than an eternal if sometimes reckless optimism and an innate trust in God.
Greatness eluded her, however, at Redford Union High School in Detroit. As a freshman, she entered a contest to pick the new school fight song. The judges told her she would’ve won if she’d written the three verses they asked for instead of just two. As dementia overtook her at 89 or 90, this injustice, this outrage was one of the last things she forgot.
|A 1950s fashion assignment|
Her victories for women came before feminism had a name. Sometimes it was just a matter of making do. Covering a Tigers-Yankees game during 1961’s AL pennant race, she was barred from the Yankee Stadium press box. She put her portable typewriter on top of an overturned trashcan, found a chair, and made her deadline.
Jean’s writing was economical and lively, whimsical, smart, and fresh, occasionally sentimental but never mawkish – always the right word, never a word out of place. In 1965, Detroit civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo was murdered by a member of the Ku Klux Klan after the march from Selma to Montgomery. Jean visited the apartment Viola shared with her husband and children and described their small, neat bedroom and the family pictures, school books, and white-covered gold-leaf Bible that were arranged carefully on Viola’s desk. At the funeral in Detroit, Jean asked an African-American woman who didn’t know Viola why she was standing on the street in the rain, hoping to get into the church. “Because she died for me,” the woman said. These words ended Jean’s account of her city’s sad day in the next day’s paper.
She was a single working mother of a ten year old. Imagine how she felt when we received death threats after the Viola Liuzzo stories appeared. These callers deplored my mother’s sympathetic coverage of Viola’s murder and warned that they knew where I went to school. One evening, I noticed a police car by the curb outside our apartment. It came back the next night, and the next. My mother didn’t say why, because the last thing she ever wanted me or anyone to do was worry.
|Harvey and Jean|
While Harvey was an alcoholic, I don’t believe Jean ever uttered that word and his name in the same paragraph. The marriage essentially ended when I was two, though for the next ten years, Harvey came over for dinner almost every Saturday night. He sat at the end of the couch, drank martinis, smoked Chesterfields, laughed quietly at the conversation, and occasionally got up and went to the piano to massacre Beethoven sonatas.
|In her office in Phoenix|
Tom has spoken beautifully of Jean’s years at the Los Angeles Times, Christle equally so about their adventures. Christle and my mother’s other close friends – Bobbie and Ed Justice, Bette Gillespie, George Mair, Miv and Alfred Schaaf, Frank Wylie and Judy Babcock, Sister Jenny, so many others – were all gifts to her.
In 1978, Jean married that gracious gentleman Dick Lescoe, who lent her his three daughters, Linda, Donna, and Debbie. In retirement, with Tomasa’s help, Jean helped Debbie with her children, Stephanie and Ricky, and was a devoted grandmother to my children, Valerie and Lindsay, and to my wife Kathy’s children, Dan and Meaghan.
|Jean at the LA Times|
It made these gestures no less worthy or holy that Jean, even as she acted in love and justice, was observing and chronicling herself in the process. She was, after all, a reporter. She could have invented Facebook. I don’t know whether I’m curious or terrified about what might have happened if she had been healthy enough to establish an account. If my family and friends ever wonder why her son is a selfie junkie, now you know.
Jean could be stubborn. Tom has mentioned my time as an aide to Mr. Nixon. Jean and he were a formidable combination. They first met in Washington in 1985. She was in town to hear his talk to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and he asked me to invite her up to his suite so he could say hello.
She told him that she had covered a stop he had made in upper Michigan during his reelection campaign in 1972. The record is abundantly clear that neither my mother nor the 37th president got anywhere near upper Michigan in 1972. But Jean held her ground. Looking around frantically, Nixon saw a large box of Godiva chocolates that the hotel had given him. Pat Nixon preferred See’s. So he had suggested I take them home to the mother of my children. In the face of Jean’s intransigence, he grabbed Marcia’s chocolates, handed them to my mother, and bolted from the room. Nixon was less flummoxed by Mao and Khrushchev.
|With Elizabeth, May 2015|
I told her the stories, since she’d forgotten it all. I told her about Harvey and Dick and her grandchildren and about my godfather, Louis Cook, another handsome newspaperman who had loved her desperately. Hearing it all again, brand new each time, she’d always smile, and her blue eyes would gleam. And on a sunny Saturday morning last October – because she loved Saturday mornings best of all – she slipped peacefully into glory.
A Celebration of the Life of Jean Taylor Lescoe was held on April 16, 2016 at my mother's home parish, All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena. My fellow eulogists were Jean's friends Christle Balvin and former LA Times publisher Tom Johnson.