Paul Conrad, who passed away on the morning of Sept.Â 4th at age 86, was a profane, angry man who let his biases freely show. He was also one of the most brilliant and effective editorial cartoonists who ever lived and a compassionate voice for the underdogs of society.
“Con,” as he was known to associates, was the scathing, endlessly provocative cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times from 1964 to 1993, brought in to kick up the quality of the previously unimpressive paper a few notches. He kicked it up many, many notches.
Up through the early 1960s, the Times was a local power-player of the first magnitude, prodding and pushing L.A. into becoming a mega-growth metro area (and making millions for the ruling Chandler family) but a journalistic embarrassment, boosterish and ultra-conservative. Humorist S.J. Perelman once wrote of a train ride he took: “I asked the porter to get me a newspaper and unfortunately the poor man, hard of hearing, brought me the Los Angeles Times.”
Otis Chandler, the newspaper’s new, youthful fourth publisher, was determined to make the paper not only vastly better, but great “” indeed, nationally great. He increased editorial budgets and demanded to hire the best journalists. When he inquired about a replacement for the late editorial cartoonist Bruce Russell “” a conservative old-school ink-slinger fond of vigilant American eagles and menacing Russian bears in his cartoons “” Chandler asked around who the best cartoonist was. The name of Paul Conrad, who had just won the 1964 Pulitzer Prize with the Denver Post, was brought up, along with the warning, “he’ll cause you grief.”
Told about the endless angry phone calls he might expect, Chandler replied he didn’t care: “If he’s the best, then I want him.”
Conrad, not anxious to join a right-wing newspaper known for promoting the political career of Richard Nixon, demanded editorial freedom: “Nobody tells me what to draw.” Chandler and Editor Nick Williams agreed, and the Conrad era began in Los Angeles in 1964.
Almost immediately, Con began to throw his flaming fastball pitches, shocking the paper’s conservative readers, not the least of which included the other members of the Chandler family, ultra-conservatives who supported Nixon, Red-baiting and the John Birch Society.
Conrad’s cartoons, which had been drawn in the brush-and-grease-crayon style of the 1950s and early 1960s, grew bolder. The images became more stark, the lines more powerful, and the content whittled down to often a single searing image. To Con, the best cartoons contained few or no words, and he was able to create at times entirely wordless, symbolic cartoons of tremendous impact that no other editorial cartoonist could match.
He took particular satisfaction in skewering Richard Nixon, especially during the Watergate crisis that ultimately brought down the Nixon Administration. His initial cartoon about the break-in of the Democratic Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel complex, “He says he’s from the phone company…” nailed the president to the crime from the first moment. Conrad, whose endless caricatures of Nixon portrayed the president as a dark, stooped, paranoid figure, was named to Nixon’s notorious “Enemies List,” a designation that Conrad delighted in.
Con also blasted Ronald Reagan with enthusiasm, first as California’s governor and later as president. Ronald and Nancy Reagan alike would call up Otis Chandler to gripe about whatever day’s merciless cartoon Conrad had drawn. Chandler didn’t relish the calls, but knew the power and quality of his cartoonist and stuck with him.
After Chandler gave up being publisher “” and had tired of fighting with other Chandler relatives “” in 1980, and the editors who worked with Conrad moved on, Conrad’s support at the paper began to weaken. The Times moved the editorial cartoon spot away from the customary upper-right corner of the Opinion page (next to the editorials) to the facing Op-Ed page, a move some thought was a slap at Conrad and a way of distancing his cartoons from the paper’s institutional voices.
By 1993, with the newspaper’s economic fortunes starting the decline that would accelerate in the following decade, the paper offered buyouts to most of its staff members. Conrad, then aged 69, could tell his management support was thin and perhaps wanting him out, and accepted the buyout.
Whether it was the conservative branches of the Chandler family asserting their power or other factors, Conrad’s position was filled with a polar opposite: the very conservative Michael Ramirez, himself a Pulitzer winner. Conrad appeared not to have been thrilled with the choice of Ramirez as his successor, but he was less than thrilled with the entire direction of the Times, especially its sale by the Chandler family to the Tribune Company of Chicago.
Conrad continued to draw editorial cartoons for the L.A. Times Syndicate “” often getting even edgier than while at the Times, up until apparently 2009. Those cartoons became sketchier and sometimes hard to read as he entered his 80s and his health declined.
On September 1st, his first gallery exhibit in many years opened at College of the Canyons in Valencia, north of Los Angeles. Conrad, recovering from a broken hip, declined to attend as did the rest of his family, and the gallery director asked me to step in to represent the field at the opening reception and at a talk to students scheduled for Sept. 22nd. I had just emailed Con’s son, David, about the exhibit, and by the next morning Paul Conrad had died of natural causes.
Conrad was a major influence on my life, affecting not only my interest in getting into editorial cartooning but also my entire approach, conceptually and visually, of how to do it. The rare wordless cartoon: Conrad’s influence. Strongly symbolic cartoons: ditto, as were the best of my kick-ass scathing cartoons. And I wasn’t the only one; many younger editorial cartoonists who’d grown up reading the Times were equally inspired. The Conrad style shows strongly, for example, in the highly symbolic work of John Sherffius, another Southern Californian now in Boulder, CO.
In person Conrad was intimidating. He stood six-foot-two and was constantly loudly expressing sarcastic irritation at something in the news or some politician, all the while laced with profanities. He was very sure of himself and his positions, and seemed angrier than anyone with his fantastic job and constant acclaim had a right to be. A college art instructor, assessing my chances of becoming a professional editorial cartoonist, wondered aloud if I was “angry enough to be” a pro in the field. That assessment was, of course, based on Conrad, and I later learned that nearly every other working editorial cartoonist was vastly mellower.
I only met Con a half-dozen or so times, mostly during college and early in my career. When I first wrote to him to critique my college cartoons, he let me know that I needed a lot of work, artistically and conceptually, and needed to “Read, read, read!” “” which apparently was the advice he gave to many young would-be cartoonists. He did not encourage me to go into the field, but added that the pro that he consulted at that age back in Des Moines, Iowa “” Pulitzer-winner Jay “Ding” Darling “” had told him essentially the same thing.
Con lived a suburban life in the Palos Verdes Peninsula, in southern L.A. County. During college I drew for the small, twice-weekly Palos Verdes Peninsula News (whose publisher was a friend of Con’s), so I took a certain pride in being able to say I saw Conrad’s cartoons in his newspaper while he no doubt was seeing my cartoons in “my” newspaper.
I can’t say I knew where I stood with him. My early material, and my early personality, were unpolished and not terribly impressive. I do remember showing him one of my strongest cartoons about Reagan in 1983; after flipping through cartoon after cartoon with little more than a “Hmm,” he saw the Reagan cartoon and exclaimed, “Now THAT’S a cartoon that says something!”
I was elated to have finally made a positive impression on the master, even if once.
Thanks, Con, for fighting the good fight for so long, kicking so much butt, and showing everyone what the field of editorial cartooning was supposed to be about… SAYING SOMETHING. Rest in peace, sir.