Ruth Ashton Taylor, Early Radio and TV Newswoman, Dies at 101


Ruth Ashton Taylor, who was the only woman on the CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow’s postwar radio documentary unit and was widely believed to be the first female newscaster in Los Angeles, died on Jan. 11 in San Rafael, Calif. She was 101.

Her daughter Laurel Conklin confirmed the death, at an assisted living facility.

“Ruth showed what women could do,” Liz Mitchell, who worked with Ms. Taylor as a production assistant and writer at KNXT-TV in Los Angeles, said in a phone interview. “She could cover small events and huge events — all different subjects — and nothing stopped her.”

As one of the few women in TV news in the 1940s and ’50s, Ms. Taylor dealt with institutional biases about what she should cover and what her reports should sound and look like.

At CBS, Ms. Taylor learned that women were not allowed to be heard on the air because their voices were too “squeaky,” she once said.

In Los Angeles in 1951, she was hired by KTSL-TV (later called KNXT and KCBS) to give the women’s side of the news on a half-hour nightly show.

Soon after her TV assignment began, she auditioned at KNX Radio to produce and deliver a five-minute daily afternoon report from what was promoted as “the women’s news desk.”

“It was such a novel thing that everybody thought it was a real oddity,” she told an interviewer for the Washington Press Club Foundation in 1992. “‘Hey, look at the monkey perform! We’ve never seen one like this before.’”

The subjects she reported on included cars, airplanes and fashion.

“Taylor says she always approached her stories any way she liked,” Suzanne Haibach Marteney wrote in her master’s thesis about Ms. Taylor for California State University, Northridge, in 1986. “She justified her attitude by saying she must be giving the woman’s view because it was her view and she was, of course, a woman.”

Ms. Taylor left KTSL (by now renamed KNXT) around 1952 but she provided her women’s radio reports for several more years while also hosting “The Ruth Ashton Show,” a half-hour news and features program, also on KNX. She resigned in 1959 after a confrontation with management when she refused to cover events like department store openings, she told Ms. Marteney.

She left journalism temporarily in 1960, when she took a job as the editor for special projects at the Claremont Colleges. After three years, she returned to radio.

Ruth Arlene Montoya was born on April 20, 1922, in Long Beach, Calif. Her mother, Flora Ashton, sold baked goods in Nebraska and later opened Sis Ashton’s Cafe in Signal Hill, Calif., after her husband, Julian Montoya, who worked for a bank, left the family when Ruth was 4. She soon took the Ashton surname.

Ruth graduated from Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., with a bachelor’s degree in American history. In 1944, she earned a master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School while writing news part-time for CBS.

After she graduated, CBS hired her full-time, and she worked for the correspondent Robert Trout and wrote for the program, “Feature Story.” Mr. Murrow encouraged her to find a subject that fascinated her for a documentary and she chose atomic science.

Her reporting travels for “The Sunny Side of the Atom” took her to numerous places, including Princeton, N.J., where Albert Einstein, who had ignored her letters asking for an interview, lived and worked.

A cooperative cabdriver brought her to Einstein’s house, where he was walking nearby. She got out of the car and approached him.

“I said, ‘Good morning, Dr. Einstein,’” she recalled when she was interviewed by the Washington Press Club Foundation. “‘I’m Ruth Ashton.’”

“Ah!” he said, “The broadcasting lady.”

He consented to an interview (although she did not tape-record him), and they talked “about things that meant so much to me, which is the future of the world or not.”

The documentary was produced by CBS as a nonfiction drama in 1947, with actors playing various roles. Agnes Moorehead portrayed Ms. Ashton.

Reviewing it for The New York Times, R.W. Stewart called it “an eloquent appeal for broader popular understanding of an obviously vital issue.”

Ms. Taylor stayed at CBS until 1949. Eager to return home to Los Angeles, she took a public relations job at KNX, which later developed into the on-air news position.

After her time at the Claremont Colleges, Ms. Taylor returned to KNX in 1963. She hosted an infotainment show with the comic actor Pat Buttram, a future cast member of the sitcom “Green Acres,” and reported for an afternoon news and feature program, “Story Line.”

In 1966, she was hired as the anchor of the Saturday afternoon TV news on KNXT, making her the first woman known to hold that type of position in Los Angeles.

“Everybody came out of their cubbyholes to watch her,” said Ms. Mitchell, who recalled watching the first broadcast in the newsroom. “The reaction wasn’t ‘Holy cow, why is a woman anchoring the news?’ but ‘Wow, a woman.’”

But many calls that came in to the station after that first broadcast were about her hair.

“Here was a woman who had just done something monumental and this was all they had to say,” Jess Marlow, a local anchorman, told The Sacramento Bee in 1990. “She was just crestfallen.”

After anchoring for about a year, she focused on reporting, but she still had to cope with outdated attitudes toward women in journalism.

“Ruth Ashton Proves Girls Can Succeed in News Field,” read the headline of an article about her in The Valley News of Van Nuys, Calif., in 1968.

Joe Saltzman, a former senior producer at KNXT, said by phone, “If they sent a male to cover a criminal trial, they’d send her to talk to the grieving girlfriend. She said, ‘I want to be treated like any other reporter. I’m going to cover fires and bank robberies.’ And she finally won that battle.”

She covered political conventions, Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, California state politics, floods, school board meetings and entertainment.

Connie Chung, who was an anchor at KNXT, said by phone that while Ms. Taylor was not well known nationally, “Everyone in Southern California knew that every woman who followed her was following in her footsteps. She paved the way for all of us.”

Ms. Chung added that after she became the co-anchor of the “CBS Evening News,” with Dan Rather, in 1993, “Ruth wrote letters to me when the old male goats at CBS were giving me a hard time in New York that dumped on them and cheered me on.”

Ms. Taylor retired in 1989 but freelanced for several more years as a political reporter and moderator of the station’s “Meet the Press”-like program, “Newsmakers.”

In addition to her daughter, Laurel Conklin, Ms. Taylor is survived by another daughter, Susan Conklin; a stepson, John Taylor; one grandson and one great-grandson. Her marriages to Ed Conklin, a news writer, and Jack Taylor, a cameraman, ended in divorce.

Ms. Taylor received the lifetime achievement award from the Television Academy in 1982 and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1990.

“Mom, I finally made my mark,” she said at the ceremony. “It’s right here on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in cement.”



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