"Curious about the human condition"

A conversation with Western writer Philip Fradkin

  • Author Philip Fradkin


Philip Fradkin was raised in the Northeast, but he's done all of his writing in the West. As a fledgling L.A. Times reporter, he shared a Pulitzer Prize as the first journalist to cover Watts from the inside during the 1965 riots. He was one of the earliest environmental reporters, and he worked for a spell for California Gov. Jerry Brown, the first leading politician to preach the idea of limits. His 1981 book, A River No More, marked the first time a layman documented the thesis that the overallocated Colorado River would eventually run out of water. It was followed by books about subjects as various as the Nevada Test Site’s downwinders, earthquakes,  California's changing demographics, and, most recently, a biography of Wallace Stegner, the quintessential Western author. Now 75, Fradkin is researching his 13th book. HCN freelancer Tony Davis talked with Fradkin last spring after he spoke at a book festival in Tucson.

HCN: How did you fall in love with the West and decide to settle here?

Fradkin: I was raised in Montclair, in the North Jersey suburbs of New York City. My father took me on a grand tour of the West when I was 14, of Yellowstone, Bryce, Zion, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Salt Lake City and Lake Tahoe. Then, we drove down the east side of the Sierra Nevada and entered Yosemite National Park on a dirt road before continuing on to San Francisco. The trip opened my eyes to a completely different landscape, to a lot of drama that was missing in New Jersey.

HCN: What got you started in journalism?

Fradkin: I graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts, majoring in political science, and I had no experience at any level of the craft. Then I went into the Army, where I worked as a chaplain's assistant on a troop ship and put out the ship’s paper.  That gave me a taste of journalism. 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.

Everyone told me I was a fool to go out West because New York City was at the center of journalism, but I wanted to live somewhere between the mountains and the sea. So I drove out West in a VW bug in the summer of 1960. I took my first job as an ad salesman at a small suburban weekly in the Bay Area, because I didn't have the experience to get a reporting job. At night, with the help of my city editor, I covered city council and planning commission meetings and wrote the stories on my own time.

HCN: What was your experience in covering the Watts riot?

Fradkin: The afternoon before the riot started ... a highway patrolman was trying to manage a crowd that was gathered because he had stopped a motorist. I went down there with a photographer, and they stoned our car and broke some windows. We left, and came back in an hour. Just as police started pulling out, the crowd exploded. I saw someone out of the corner of my eye raise a brick and aim at my head. I ducked, the brick grazed my head and landed on my shoulder. I fell on the ground, rolled over and knew if I stayed there I was done for. I quickly got up and vaulted across the hood of a car, found our photographer who was about to leave without me and got out of there.  ...  I was terrified, but I returned for the next five days.

HCN: How did you transition into environmental reporting?

Fradkin: After Watts, I covered urban and student riots all over, was at the Ambassador Hotel when Robert F. Kennedy was shot in 1968, and spent six months in South Vietnam. I could see that other journalists got addicted to the violence. It was cyclic and very exciting, but the huge gaps in between those times were rather depressing. The environment seemed a much more peaceful –– and enduring –– beat. So when I came back from Vietnam just after Earth Day 1970, I saw nobody at the paper was specializing in the environment, and it was a big issue. After about a year I pushed a little and they gave me the title of environmental writer.

It was a hell of a good story. I got to travel anywhere I wanted to go in the American West, the Canadian Arctic and as far south as Tierra del Fuego –– I was dealing with subjects in places that really interested me. But in March 1975, the metro editor called me into his office and said that he and other editors thought I was becoming too much of an advocate and they were taking me off the beat.

HCN: Were they right?

Fradkin: It’s a problem with specialists; you start believing in your specialty. You need to believe in it to keep working at it. But I think the editors suspected what I didn’t realize myself. I get bored doing things that had been done before. I was finding I’d written a lot of these stories and they were falling into a predictable outline. … The message was that it was time to move on, not from the environment but in terms of the format I was writing in. I contacted people I knew who had just begun work in the Jerry Brown administration and became assistant secretary for the California Resources Agency, where I stayed for a year and a half before going to work as Western editor of Audubon magazine.

HCN: Were you able to accomplish your goals at the California Resources Agency?

Fradkin: Brown had a very good mind, but he didn’t want any agency to move ahead of him. From almost the beginning, he was focused on running for president. His main concern was how would this play in his campaign for the Democratic Party nomination. What you had to do was disguise what you wanted to get done. You had to be cunning. I focused on getting the California Coastal Act passed in 1976, which created the Coastal Commission. It was the first agency with real strong land-use controls, and it was over the most valuable, heavily populated piece of California. All the various resource agencies in the state had to agree on the various aspects of the legislation that would create the Coastal Commission. They didn’t agree, though –– they had their own petty jurisdictional fiefdoms they were trying to protect, and the best way I could figure out to get around their pettiness was to represent their views to Brown to the best possible extent, and that made them look foolish. If they look foolish, Brown thinks they have no real objections.

HCN: How did you come to write A River No More?

Fradkin: After writing stories on the Colorado River for the L.A. Times and Audubon magazine, I knew the river knit the West together. I thought it was a tremendous way to give a portrait of the region and hook it onto the river as a lifeblood, a dying lifeblood. Nobody in the government had put the whole river together and seen the demands on it and seen the amount of water that was and wasn’t there. No one had ever taken into account the fact that when the Colorado River Compact was put into place in 1922, it was based on a series of very wet years. I felt out on a limb. But if you added up the facts and looked at the river as a whole, you couldn’t help but come up with this idea that it’s no longer a river –– it’s a river no more.

HCN: Now, with the river suffering from a decade-long drought, do you feel vindicated?

Fradkin: No way. I think vindication is a sign of a large ego. The vindication is not personal. It is watching the continuation of the same kind of boom-and-bust development and the overuse of water in the West –  it’s the vindication of history. I only act as a narrator.

HCN: How did your reporting affect your view of the environmental movement?

Fradkin: Increasingly, I saw it as just one more special interest. They would always damn the developers as a special interest, but particularly working for Audubon magazine and watching that bureaucracy operate, I could see that where developers sought money, environmentalists sought to inflate their egos. After I left Audubon in 1980, I never renewed my membership in the Sierra Club or the National Audubon Society. But today, I’m very active on local issues in the small community where I live, on the coast north of San Francisco. At the local level, you can solve problems and have a greater effect than you can nationally.

HCN: You said at the Tucson Festival of Books that you changed from writing about things to writing about people. How did that happen?

Fradkin: I follow what interests me. If I repeat myself, I get bored and disinterested. The things I was writing about for a long time, like a trilogy I wrote about earthquakes, although people were in them, it didn’t center on them, it centered on the phenomenon. My next book was about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and that centered on people rather than the phenomenon. Then it was an easy step to pure biography.

HCN: What moved you about Wallace Stegner, and what made you take on the Ruess biography?

Fradkin: Stegner’s is a story on a life and a place, a history of the American West seen through the life of this man. It was a wonderful journey that allowed me to go back and write about areas I had known and loved, but hadn’t written about. Everett Ruess is the story of all of us when we were young and confused and in our formative stages. It is also the story of a parent’s grief. There is a totality and a universality about the story of Ruess’ life and death that has not been explored. His death made him a figure of mystery and myth.

HCN: What’s next in your creative development? You’ve said you might switch to photography from writing.

Fradkin: I’m sort of bored with books. I’m moving into something more intuitive. I’m fascinated with photography. It’s another method of expression. It’s freeing my mind. I have no project in mind.  It’s nice to just travel without knowing I have to come back with some specific amount of information to put into a receptacle. You may never hear from me again.

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