Phillip Fradkin, 1935—2012

07/12/2012

Philip Fradkin, author, historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist nationally renowned for his writing on the environment, died Saturday at his home in Point Reyes Station. He was 77.

In his own words, Mr. Fradkin told stories. About the American West, about wilderness and its preservation, about earthquakes, and about a person’s experience with wild and western places.

Born in New York City in 1935, Mr. Fradkin grew up in Montclair, New Jersey. His mother, Elvira, was a New Yorker and his father, Leon, was a Russian Jew. When Philip was 14, his father took him on a grand tour of the West he would come to love, traveling through Yellowstone, Zion, the Grand Canyon, Salt Lake City, Yosemite, San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver.

Mr. Fradkin attended Williams College in Massachusetts, where he majored in political science. After graduating, he joined the army and worked as a chaplain’s assistant on a troop ship. His duties included putting out a newspaper, which gave him a taste for journalism.

He would later write: “I wanted an occupation that would put me in contact with as wide a range of experiences and people as possible. I’m curious about the human condition.”

So, despite warnings that New York City was the true center of journalism, Mr. Fradkin headed west in order to be able to live “between the mountains and the sea.” He drove to California in the summer of 1960 in a Volkswagen Bug and took a job with a small suburban weekly in the Bay Area. He was selling ads, but began writing stories in his free time, with the help of the paper’s editor.

After working on two small dailies in central and northern California, Mr. Fradkin got a job at the metropolitan desk at the Los Angeles Times in 1964, where he would share the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 1965 Watts Riots.

The afternoon before the riot began, Mr. Fradkin and a Times photographer set out to cover an altercation that took place after a white highway patrolman, Lee Minkus, stopped a motorist on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. The motorist, a 21-year-old African American man named Marquette Frye, lived nearby, and the situation quickly escalated as an arrest attempt was made and Officer Minkus radioed for back-up.

Onlookers had already begun yelling and throwing rocks by the time Mr. Fradkin arrived, and took aim at the photographer’s vehicle, breaking some windows. The two left the scene, but returned as the police were starting to pull out. That was when the crowd exploded.

Mr. Fradkin later said he saw someone out of the corner of his eye raise a brick and aim it at his head. He ducked, and the brick landed on his shoulder. He fell to the ground, rolled, stood up and then vaulted across the hood of a car to reach the photographer—who was about to leave without him. Although he would describe the situation as terrifying, he returned for the next five days to cover the unrest.

After reporting on the riots, Mr. Fradkin was called to cover urban and student riots all over the United States. He was at the Ambassador Hotel when Robert F. Kennedy was shot in 1968, and spent six months reporting in southern Vietnam. But he watched colleagues become addicted to the excitement of the violence, and longed for a more peaceful and enduring beat.

He returned from Vietnam shortly after Earth Day in 1970, saw that no one at the Times was specializing in the environment, and pushed to become the paper’s environmental writer. In 1971 he became the first person to hold that title at the paper. “It was a hell of a good story,” he told a reporter at High Country News in 2010. “I got to travel anywhere I wanted to go in the American West, the Canadian Arctic and as far south as Tierra del Fuego.”

But in March 1975, the metro editor called Mr. Fradkin into his office to say they were taking him off the beat because he’d become “too much of an advocate.” Mr. Fradkin went to work with the Jerry Brown administration as assistant secretary for the California Resources Agency, handling coastal legislation, energy developments and public affairs. He helped push legislation that established the California Coastal Commission as a permanent body.

In 1974 Mr. Fradkin published his first book, “The Golden Coast,” about the shoreline’s natural beauty and its controversies of the day. In 1976 he became the western editor of Audubon magazine, and continued writing about that region’s environmental issues. In 1981 he published the book “A River No More,” based on his writings for the Times and Audubon on the plight of the Colorado River, which he called the west’s “sinking lifeblood.”

During the next 30 years he published an additional 11 books and taught writing and western history courses at the University of California, Berkeley, Stanford University and Williams College. He also served as a consultant to Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Mr. Fradkin’s work focused largely on places and things. His books from that time were “Sagebrush Country: Land and the American West,” “Fallout: An American Nuclear Tragedy,” “Wanderings of an Environmental Journalist: In Alaska and the American West,” “The Seven States of California,” and “Magnitude 8: Earthquakes and Life Along the San Andreas Fault.”

It was while living in West Marin, where he moved in 1977, that he met his wife of 25 years, Dianne. “A friend invited us both to dinner because she thought we would make a good pair,” Mrs. Fradkin said. “She was right, and we were together ever since.”

As the new millennium dawned, Mr. Fradkin’s writerly focus began to shift. While people appeared in his earlier works, they were not the main focus. But “The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906,” published in 2005, centered on the people rather than the phenomenon. The New York Times called it “a parable about human response to cataclysm.” From there, Mr. Fradkin said, it was an easy step to pure biography.

He published “Wildest Alaska: Journeys of Great Peril in Lituya Bay” in 2001, which he called “a gothic nature tale” that first germinated 25 years prior. He joked that although it was his shortest book, it took the longest to write.

He was first drawn to the tiny inlet in Alaska’s Fairweather Range in the 1970s, and later camped there with his then teenage son Alex. He told the Light in 2001 that the trip coincided with a “dark and confusing time” in his own life. When he returned to West Marin, where Synanon had taken up arms and the Trailside Killer was on the loose, he said, “I thought some essence of Lituya Bay had come trailing after me.”

Both “Fallout” and “The Great Earthquake” were nominated for Pulitzer Prizes, and the latter was on the best books lists of the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, and received the Californiana award of the Commonwealth Club of California.  
In 2008 he published “Wallace Stegner and the American West,” a biography about the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist known as “the Dean of Western Writers.” University of California, Santa Cruz professor Forrest G. Robinson told the Los Angeles Times that Mr. Fradkin’s career was “an oblique tribute to Stegner’s influence.”

“The Left Coast: California on the Edge,” published in 2011, was a collaboration with his son, Alex. “It meant a lot to Philip to be able to do that project with his son, and actually finish it and have it be received successfully,” longtime friend Gary Ireland said.

It was his work on Stegner that inspired the first Geography of Hope Literary Conference in Point Reyes Station, organized with Steve Costa of Point Reyes Books. The conference took its name from the last lines of Mr. Stegner’s famous 1960 “Wilderness Letter,” which reads: “We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

Locally, Mr. Fradkin served on the board of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association, and was a member of the Tomales Bay Library Association.

While he had always been a photographer throughout his career, in 2010 Mr. Fradkin announced that he was giving up writing in favor of the lens.

“I’m moving on to something more intuitive,” he told a reporter. “I’m fascinated with photography. It’s another method of expression. I have no specific project in mind. It’s nice to just travel without knowing I have to come back with information to put into a receptacle. You may never hear from me again.”

During that time, Mr. Fradkin’s son, Alex, said his father found joy in photography’s more emotional response to a landscape.
“Turning back to that allowed him a release,” the younger Mr. Fradkin said. “It was a way to be in the landscape, to follow his instincts with light and form and pattern, and to pursue the beauty of the area for its own sake.”

Mr. Fradkin loved rowing on Tomales Bay with his son onboard or Mr. Ireland paddling alongside in his kayak.

“He loved cutting through the water and listening to the birds. By picking up the camera, he was able to continue to evolve his sense of place, his love of landscape, and his passion for the community,” his son said.

Philip Fradkin is survived by his wife, Dianne; son, Alex; and daughter, Cleo. A memorial will be announced.