Dana Fradon, Prolific New Yorker Cartoonist, Is Dead at 97
Dana Fradon, whose sophisticated and occasionally absurd lampoons of businessmen, politicians and lawyers helped define The New Yorker’s postwar comic voice, died on Oct. 3 at his home in Woodstock, N.Y. He was 97.
His daughter, Amy Fradon, said the cause was liver cancer.
In a simple, unadorned hand, Mr. Fradon drew nearly 1,400 cartoons in his five decades at The New Yorker — a run that began under the magazine’s founding editor, Harold Ross, and ended under the current editor, David Remnick.
“I don’t think there was ever a cartoonist who was as consistently good as he was,” Bob Mankoff, a former cartoon editor of The New Yorker and the president of the licensing database Cartoon Collections, said by phone. “There was a great clarity to his style.”
Like many New Yorker cartoonists, Mr. Fradon cast a wide and whimsical net on American society. Some of his most memorable work focused on mocking the pomposity and dubious ethics of powerful men.
A 1977 cartoon shows four executives huddled around a desk. One pushes an intercom button and says, “Miss Dugan, will you send someone in here who can distinguish right from wrong?”
A year later, another group of businessmen was confronted with a similar ethical quandary. “‘Honesty is the best policy.’ O.K.!,” the boss says. “Now what’s the second-best policy?”
In 1993, Mr. Fradon showed an angry man in pajamas — perhaps a government official in legal trouble — praying at his bedside. “Under the Freedom of Information Act,” he says, “I’m requesting that you disclose what you have on me in your files.”
A file cabinet was the subject of a cartoon in 1977 that today seems prescient. There is no caption, only drawer labels: “Our Facts,” “Their Facts,” “Bare Facts,” “Neutral Facts,” “Disputable Facts,” “Absolute Facts” and “Unsubstantiated Facts.”
In the preface to “Insincerely Yours” (1978), a collection of his cartoons, Mr. Fradon pondered why he delved into “bribes, kickbacks and political hacks” for his inspiration while other cartoonists drew cats, dogs and married couples. While promoting the book, he told The Hartford Courant that the answer came from an editor at The New Yorker.
“Let’s face it,” he quoted the editor as saying, “you’re not motivated by any love for the oppressed. You’re motivated by hatred of the oppressor.”
Mr. Fradon put some of his political passion to work in the 1970s when he served three terms as a Democratic councilman in Newtown, Conn., where he lived for 62 years.
“The society I seek,” he said in his book, “is the society given lip service to by one and all. Governed by the Boy Scout oath, the West Point oath and the Golden Rule, it is populated by warmhearted TV Waltons, and protected from harm by honest Starskys and Hutches.”
Arthur Dana Fradon was born on April 14, 1922, in Chicago. His father, Norman, and his mother, Minnie, were Russian immigrants who struggled with odd jobs during the Depression but found some financial relief from New Deal social programs.
Dana was interested in politics and astronomy as a youngster, but he also showed talent as an artist and ended up at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. After serving in the Army, he graduated from the Art Students League in New York.
He drew some political cartoons for The New Masses, a Marxist political magazine, and learned about The New Yorker from Albert Hubbell, a writer for the magazine who was married to one of Mr. Fradon’s sisters, Marion.
His first cartoon was published in 1948, and for most of the next 55 years he drew nearly all his cartoons for The New Yorker. He declined to contribute for a few years in the 1990s because he disliked some of the changes made by Tina Brown when she became editor in 1992. He returned after Mr. Remnick took over in 1998.
Over the years Mr. Fradon shared the magazine’s pages with an extraordinary group of cartoonists, including Charles Addams, Saul Steinberg, Peter Arno, James Stevenson, Robert Weber, Charles Saxon, Anatol Kovarsky, Frank Modell and Roz Chast.
Mr. Fradon said that he spent two hours a day trying to think of cartoon ideas and sometimes had as many as 50 at a time.
“Once, when I was giving a talk,” he told Michael Maslin, a New Yorker cartoonist, in 2013 for Ink Spill, Mr. Maslin’s blog about the magazine’s cartoonists, “I said the most important thing of thinking of ideas is knowing when to pounce. You kick ideas around in your subconscious and then this one is a straggler and you pounce on it because it seems funny.”
In 1988, Alistair Cooke took note of a cartoon by Mr. Fradon that used ancient Rome to satirize Wall Street’s fixation on short-term financial results.
The cartoon — which Mr. Cooke called a “comic masterpiece” on his BBC radio series “Letter From America” — is set in a Roman hall, where a sour-looking emperor sits on his throne as four senators in togas stand two steps below him.
“It’s true, Caesar,” one senator says, reading from a report. “Rome is declining, but I expect it to pick up in the next quarter.”
Mr. Fradon’s last cartoon for The New Yorker was published in 2003. It showed a man proudly returning home with a prodigious day’s catch of fish — a too-frequent occurrence, judging by his wife’s annoyed response: “Teach a man to fish and you eat fish every damn day.”
He also wrote several children’s books, including “Sir Dana: A Knight, as Told by His Trusty Armor” (1988), which reflected his interest in medieval history.
Mr. Fradon lived at his daughter’s house with his former wife, Ramona (Dom) Fradon, a renowned illustrator who drew the Aquaman comic book in the 1950s and the comic strip “Brenda Starr” in the 1980s and ’90s. No other immediate family members survive.
Dana and Ramona Fradon occasionally collaborated on cartoons that they posted on Facebook.
“Mom would draw most of them and Dad would think of the gags,” Ms. Fradon said. “Mom was so studious an artist that she’d ask him, ‘Am I doing this right?’”
In one of the cartoons, an anxious-looking man opens his door to see the Grim Reaper, who wears a Trump button and tells him, “I’m only here to spread fear.”
Richard Sandomir is an obituaries writer. He previously wrote about sports media and sports business. He is also the author of several books, including “The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper and the Making of a Classic.” @RichSandomir
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