HOLLYWOOD—What really irks me about Paul Conrad’s death is that there are no more Paul Conrads. At this time of harried, hurried lives and widespread political lunacy we could really use editorial cartoons in savage black and white, by a first-rate artist who believed few or no words were necessary, who knew how to present messy issues in a way that could be devoured in seconds.
Growing up in California in the ’70s, I had a child’s eye view of Conrad. In the local newspaper of the small agricultural town of Watsonville, Conrad’s daily appearance was a breath of fresh vitriol. Via his comics, the crises and tragedy of Watergate unfolded. He would skewer politicians as well as the haves while presenting their victims—the have-nots. On different days his drawings would simultaneously make us laugh and haunt our consciences. And on occasion it would get my parents’ tongues wagging because Conrad, basically, had given them the finger in a cartoon. Thanks to that small town paper, the Pajaronian, and Conrad, I got a first-rate education in visual arts and satire.
Our paths crossed once—the humorist to be and the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner. Conrad was a genial man, genial enough to answer his own door to his Rancho Palos Verdes home and accept a packet of cartoons by a totally unknown artist. On a foggy August morning 13 years ago, he was having trouble keeping his omnipresent pipe lit.
My friend, Carey Fosse, came along for the visit to Palos Verdes. Carey is one of the funniest people I know. At the time he had created a nice stack of ink and watercolor cartoons; many occupied that queasy Conradland, lampooning dehumanization and the ugly truths of American life. I said, “Why not show them to Conrad, see what he says.” The package included a cartoon for an imaginary commemorative Nixon stamp. So we headed out to Palos Verdes to visit Conrad, who lived a few doors from my sister’s mother-in-law.
We spent a half hour chatting and seeing artwork displayed throughout his rambling Brady Bunch house. His wife Kay said it was a laugh a minute being married to a cartoonist. Conrad’s mantra was, “You’ve got tosaysomething! And read, read, read.”
This was early in my career. But Conrad already embodied what would be my definition of the humorist’s trade: to have your cake and eat it too. Or better yet, to eat your cake and have it eat you and your readers, too. Upon Reagan’s re-election “Four more years!” was the caption for a cartoon showing a jubilant Conrad, pen in hand, with a buffoon Reagan on the drawing board. Reagan was Conrad’s job security; he’d be on the easy street for the next four years. There would be horrors and blunders, and the readers of the L.A. Times would be alternately laughing and infuriated. Conrad could measure success in angry mail. When the mail bags came in, he knew he had touched a nerve. That was success.
In the brief half hour visit, Conrad taught me how to appreciate hate mail and, strangely enough, the virtues of suburban life. Kay stressed what a great dad he was and how he coached Little League and soccer for his two sons and daughters. I didn’t have children at the time but took away the lesson of a need for a normal life, even if your art is fired by righteous indignation. This was the Conrad version of Flaubert’s “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
He was specially proud of his bronze sculptures, which could be taken as a illustration of both his artistic range and his political beliefs. On the one hand, there was the two-faced figure, prefiguring all the hybrid celebrities, Bill and Hilary Clinton ”“ “Billary.” On the other hand, there was a bronze Reagan, in Robin Hood jerkin with bow and quiver; this was called Reagan Hood ”“ who robs from the rich to give to the poor. Another showed a poignant, wistful statue depicted John F. Kennedy, shoulders scrunched, squinting against the wind, hands deep in his jacket pockets. If there was a gag anywhere in sight, I couldn’t find it.
Conrad truly stretched the limits of cartooning, and it was ultimately free from the need to make you laugh. He could get in your heart and your conscience. As a cartoonist, he sat at Woody Allen’s proverbial “grown-up table,” and he brought children to the grown-up table. You. Mr. and Ms. Editor are denying today’s kids that cultural and political education. Shame on you.
At the conclusion of our visit, Conrad quickly drew Reagan in the flyleaf of a book on California political cartoons. He used an inadequate felt-tip, rendering the signature and date almost invisible. But clear as day are craggy Reagan, his outlandish doo, exaggerated cheekbones and the moniker “Reagan Hood.”
“That drawing is worth a thousand dollars,” his wife Kay quipped. Believe me, I couldn’t put a price on it. The drawing is souvenir of my half hour with a moral and artistic giant.