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Paul Conrad: ink, well

September 7, 2010 | 10:22 pm

Who needed a caffeine jolt in the morning when you could open your L.A. Times to the editorial cartoon and see what was infuriating Paul Conrad?

His cartoons – the boldness, the virulence, the insight, the genius simplicity of them – just left you agog. They’d make you laugh – sometimes in spite of yourself, depending on your political persuasion – and then maybe you’d get mad with him, or at him, or at the object of his scorn and mockery. But no one could look at one of his cartoons and not react just about as viscerally as Conrad had himself, when he conceived it in the first place.

Conrad died last Saturday, at age 86. Back when Conrad still worked in The Times building, I’d glimpse him now and again in his posture of furious invention, with that pipe in his clenched teeth – this was when people could still smoke at work. I had to wonder why he didn’t bite the pipe-stem clean off, so roaring and vehement was that voice in his head that guided his pen.

His pen should have been rated by caliber, like a weapon, for it was just that. It was a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living Conrad; being on the wrong end of his pen, where so many politicians found themselves, was like being served up as political cutlets.

What impressed me, too, was that someone as impassioned as Conrad, a devoted Catholic, came to change his mind about abortion rights issues; he was persuaded – no, he persuaded himself, he once said – that he had "forgot[ten] about the women in this thing."

For years, if you saw a picket line out in front of The Times, the odds were good that it had to do with some Conrad cartoon. I have a vague memory of a pile of manure being deposited at the paper’s doorstep as a commentary on a Conrad cartoon; I think he relished it, and it made him all the more acerbic.

A few times, I did let him know how much I’d admired a particular cartoon, and almost without fail, that cartoon wound up in an inter-office envelope on my desk, addressed to me in Conrad’s unmistakable hand. It was an overwhelmingly kind gesture.

About 10 years ago, Josh Needle, an admirer of political cartoons, opened "Impolitic," a gallery in Santa Monica devoted to political art, and on a couple of occasions, after some special exhibition, a gaggle of us – the likes of Needle; Conrad and his wife, Kay; Stan Freberg and his wife, Hunter; Times editor Narda Zacchino and her husband, Times columnist Bob Scheer – would decamp to a nearby restaurant.

There, Conrad presided at the top of his formidable lungs, decrying lame and venal politicos and moronic functionaries and pathetic editorial cartoonists who needed the crutch of too many words to make a point because their cartoons were too awful to do it alone.

Conrad had enough ink and vinegar in him to have happily drawn a cartoon every day, even in retirement, if the paper had been willing to print them. A pity it didn’t – all those morning jolts that we never got to see, by the hand of a man whose work could always  awaken us better than any grande espresso, all just for the price of a newspaper.

-- Patt Morrison

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