The Frazetta Museum, in Marshalls Creek, Pennsylvania, unlike the Toy Museum of Sciota, the Pocono Indian Museum of North Bushkill, or the Zane Gray Museum of Lackawanna, is not listed in the Monroe County phone book. There is no address posted on its website. It is absent from the full-color “Pocono Mountains Attractions” brochure. It does not join Yuppy Puppy, Tie-Dye Dave’s, or Five Guys Burgers and Fries in the “Official 2010 Cartoonmap” of the region. Driving Route 209 from our motel in its presumed direction, we saw signs for Discount Fireworks, Tenderheart Learning Center, the Pocono Snake, and Animal Farm but not it. The road score was Dead Furry Animals: 6; Espresso Bars: 0. “We’re not in Berkeley anymore, Toto,” Adele said.
Some journalists are sent to Paris or Amsterdam. I had drawn East Stroudsburg (pop. 9888; 87.9% white). I had not been to the Poconos since summer camp, 1958. They were shorter than I remembered.
“Take a look at this sucker,” my editor had e-mailed ten weeks earlier. “If this wasn’t custom made for you, I don’t know what was.”
The “sucker” in question was a series of seven e-mails feverishly exchanged, between the hours of 11 p.m. February 25 and 5 a.m. February 26, by the editor and a fan of the fantasy illustrator Frank Frazetta, who signed himself “James L.” The fan sought to enlist the editor in revealing “the single most bizarre, horrific, tragic, evil and insane story I have EVER come across…” A war, said the fan, raged over the control of the 82-year-old Frazetta’s $100 million estate. His museum’s fate hung in the balance. Frazetta, himself, was “missing” – his life possibly “in danger.” There were allusions to his wife of more than fifty years, Ellie, having been “put down before it was her time” – and death bed promises sworn to her. There were references to a doctor as evil as Sivana and a businessman as unscrupulous as Lex Luthor. The fan had been “rallying volunteer troops,” “luminaries of Film/Art/Comics/Movies/Music.” Now he called for the editor’s “amazing investigating reporting.” The fan had “notes since Day One” to offer. He had the family’s trust. He promised “complete access to photos, etc.” He foresaw a best seller. But, he cautioned, “Be careful. There are Italians involved.”
When the editor had requested the fan’s credentials, he replied that he had written for the Sci-Fi Channel. While he would be signing with a major literary agency momentarily, he was not currently employed. He was also, I learned when I called the phone number provided, living in an Anaheim Travelodge. In my years as an attorney, the outcome of return calls to potential clients residing in motels had dampened my enthusiasm for dialing them, but I had less experience as an amazing investigative reporter.
Mr. L. seemed sincere, well-spoken, and as lucid as Antonin Scalia. The war, he told me, pitted the artist’s oldest son, Frank Jr., and Frank Jr.’s wife, Lori, against his siblings Bill Frazetta, Heidi Gravin, and Holly Taylor. Frazetta, Mr. L. said, had been “kidnapped” to Florida, where his daughters kept him, “not allowed to speak, cut off from the world.”
An online review of the Pocono Record brought me current.
At 2:43 p.m. on December 9, 2009, state troopers, responding to a burglar alarm on the 75-acre Frazetta estate, found that Frank Jr. and two other men had pulled the museum’s front door from its hinges with a backhoe, removed ninety paintings insured for $20 million, and stashed them in an SUV and attached trailer. The three had been “apprehended before [they] could flee…” with Frank Jr. still inside the museum, his face concealed by a ski mask. When Bill Frazetta reached the scene, his brother threw snowballs at him.
Frank Jr.’s version of these events was that his father, who suffered from dementia, had told him to remove the paintings “by any means necessary,” inventory them, and keep them in storage until civil litigation between the children was resolved. This litigation appeared to have originated with Ellie’s death in July. Until then, she and Frank Jr. had sold reproductions of Frazetta’s paintings on books and posters, on prints and calendars, and t-shirts through the Internet, dividing the proceeds 50/50. Frank Jr. said Bill, Heidi, and Holly had declined to participate in the business and now hoped to pressure their father into shutting his museum and selling his originals so they could “cash out.” He explained that he had not worn a ski mask for concealment, but a ski cap, whose flap protected his lungs from the cold. He explained he required the backhoe to implement his father’s instructions because someone had chained shut the museum door. He did not explain why, if his father was demented, he had implemented them.
The troopers had called Frazetta in Florida, where he denied having given his son permission to remove anything from anywhere. Frank Jr. was charged with burglary, criminal trespass and theft by unlawful taking. Bail was set at $500,000 – quickly reduced to $50,000 with the provisions that he not leave the area, stay away from the museum, and not contact his father or siblings. Frazetta Sr. then issued a statement through his lawyers: “My primary interest is the well-being of our family, including all members. The incident is distressing to all of us. For those who have expressed concern over my health and welfare, know that I am fine.” The judge sealed the court file; the District Attorney expressed his wish that the family resolve the dispute themselves; and attorneys were said to be in negotiations.
While counsel negotiated, other matters commanded the attention of the press. First came Bill Frazetta’s announcement that his father’s paintings would not remain in Marshalls Creek. Though the museum seemed well protected – fire proofing, burglar alarms, smoke detectors, a locked, if not backhoe-proof gate – the art had been transferred to an unspecified “very safe” location. Some works would be displayed in New York City, while others toured the world. Vastly more people would be able to see them. Presumably prospects would improve for the sale of reproductions as well, since the museum had only been open five hours a day, on weekends, a few months each year. Many Frazetta fans did not even know it existed. (On a good weekend, I would learn, sometimes fewer than fifty visited. This had been fine with Ellie, who managed her husband’s business affairs – she preferred to deal with people one-to-one. That way, she believed, she could better educate his public. She could sell more prints and t-shirts. But, it had turned out, three of her four children disagreed with her business model.)
The family, Bill said, “kind of had plans for all this. [The burglary] just got the ball rolling faster.” The news of the museum’s departure seemed to shock no one in Monroe County, though some Frazetta fans in the world beyond were outraged at what they saw as a betrayal of Ellie’s wishes. It also seemed to lend good credence to Frank Jr.’s claim that he had not been engaged in a brazen daylight heist, but was trying to stop an unpleasantly rolling ball.
Bill denied his father suffered from dementia. His only problem was that a series of strokes had impaired his speech, making it difficult when he attempted “to spit things out.” And Frazetta spat out nothing about his feelings concerning the closing of the museum.
Bill’s assessment of his father’s condition was shared by Gerald Geiger, an East Stroudsburg attorney, who broke the news that, following Ellie’s death, Frazetta had established an LLC and transferred ownership of his art to it for estate planning purposes. Each of his children would benefit equally at his death, but, for reasons unexplained, only Bill, Heidi, and Holly held management positions in this company. That meant Frazetta had surrendered the right to control his art and could not legally have authorized Frank Jr. to remove it from the museum.
But if Frank Jr. had been unaware of such technicalities and was merely following his father’s instructions, he might have lacked the criminal intent that the felonies with which he had been charged required. This became more than hypothetical conjecture with the appearance at his preliminary hearing of Adeline Bianco, a local notary, who told reporters she had authenticated Frazetta’s signature authorizing his son to obtain his paintings “by any means necessary” on a document which, Frank Jr. said, he had presented to the police when arrested.
The situation grew even murkier when the Record reported on a deposition Bianco had given the day before her remarks at the court house. At that time she’d testified that on November 30, at the suggestion of yet another attorney, Ted Kessler, Frazetta, accompanied by his daughter-in-law Lori, had gone to Bianco’s office so she could notarize his revocation of powers of attorney he had given each of his children. He had said, breaking into tears, that Bill, Heidi, and Holly had forced him to sign the POAs so that they could strip his bank account. He further told her, Bianco testified, “Please make sure Frank Jr. does whatever it takes under any means to put my paintings in a secure storage unit.” But the actual written statement, which he dictated for her transcription and then signed for her notarization, read, “I Frank Frazetta…of sound mind and body of this date hereby order nothing and not the 2 daughters or 2 sons who can sign take or assume none of my obligations either tangible or monetary. I will have a will and list what each is to have. Until then, I hereby put an end to them using me.” Bianco’s assessment was that Frazetta was “not deranged” and that she feared “for the poor man’s life itself.”
Which makes one wonder: (1) Was there another notarized document which contained the “by any means language”; (2) Did Lori tell her husband what his father had said and had Frank Jr., not having read the more garbled document, assumed it contained that directive when he handed it to the police and summarized its contents; and (3) Why hadn’t Frazetta Sr. mentioned any of this to the police or in his statement to the public?
Things grew no clearer when Frazetta next “spoke” via a press release from Vanguard Productions trumpeting its intended release of a new edition of “library quality” Frazetta Classics, reproducing his comics work. “Vanguard publishes the very best!” the artist was quoted as saying. “I’ve enjoyed their books on Hal Foster, Al Williamson, Jeffrey Jones… [They] helped on our ‘Painting with Fire’ documentary and we helped [them on]… Roy G. Krenkel, Wally Wood, and J. Allen St. John… It’s a natural that we should work together. I’m looking forward to the quality job they do on the new Frazetta books.”
“Frank couldn’t talk that coherently on his best day 50 years ago,” my editor said. “It’s a snake pit. Enter at your own risk.”
Coincidentally, Adele and I already had booked a trip east in early May. We would visit her family in Massachusetts and mine in Philadelphia – and attend my 50th high school reunion. In between, we planned two days in Manhattan. But, I calculated, the Poconos would be cheaper – and they eliminated the anxiety of deciding which Broadway show to see. “We can be our own entertainment,” I said.
“You make the arrangements,” she said.
Since my summers there, Google informed, the Poconos had become a Romantic Weekend Mecca. (In my day, at least for me and my peers, Pocono “romance” was confined to brief make-out sessions on the canteen porch, where any deeper urges not thwarted by 1950s morality, the saltpeter ladled into our food was expected to throttle.) Wishing to focus on the task at hand, I eliminated all hostelries featuring heart-shaped beds or in-room hot tubs, Venus Courts or Gladiator Lounges. Among the area’s non-amorously oriented lodgings, I shied from those whose customer reviews warned of clanging plumbing, moldy wallpaper, stained carpets, broken windows, noisy bars, battling neighbors, inoperable wi-fi, insufficient hot water, all-pervasive cigarette smoke – which was many of them – and booked two nights at a Budget Inn with on-site salad bar. Then I compiled a list of names and addresses of people whom I wished to interview and sent each a letter, announcing my arrival and intent. I also boned up on Frazetta, about whom I knew virtually nothing.
He was, I learned from a 1995 Journal interview by Gary Groth, a kid from Brooklyn, who could climb faster and throw further and do more one-handed push-ups than anyone in his neighborhood. The New York (baseball) Giants offered him a contract. He went undefeated in fist-fights, in which he cast himself as the “good guy,” perennially besting “bullies” and “jerks.” And he had painted since he was eight. “He could sing, it was said, like Sinatra.” A near prodigy, his heroes were Hal Foster, Jack Kirby and, later, Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth. If Rembrandt or Delacroix, let alone Picasso or Pollock, interested him, it went unmentioned.
By his mid-teens, Frazetta was working in comics (Barnyard, Coo Coo). Later, he had his own syndicated strip, “Johnny Comet”, and ghosted “Flash Gordon” and “Li’l Abner”. He worked on Little Annie Fannie” for Harvey Kurtzman and Eerie and Creepy for Jim Warren. He drew movie posters (What’s New, Pussycat?, The Night They Raided Minsky’s) and paperback covers for Ace and Lancer. It was there – luring readers to the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard – that his art reached its apotheosis. Rarely reading the books, he produced covers that exploded from the racks and haunted people’s minds. (Some have declared that it was the sales they sparked that transformed paperback books into “a force” within the publishing industry.) They made him famous – and rich.
Early in his career – at a time contracts commonly granted publishers ownership of the art they published and most creators did not care – Frazetta had recognized the value of his original artwork. When E.C. Comics publisher William Gaines offered $60 for what would become the cover to Weird Science-Fantasy #29, Frazetta granted him first publication rights for $30, but kept the original. (By the time of Groth’s interview, he had already refused $250,000 for it.) When Ace would not return his covers, he withheld his best work from them. Lancer, whose policy was the opposite, benefitted. In 2009, he sold one he had done for it, “Conan the Conqueror,” to a member of Metallica for $1 million.
Frazetta had told Groth his work appealed because it radiated “mystery and wonder” while avoiding the offensive. (As an indication of what that might be, he admired Richard Nixon and Norman Rockwell.) Others have keyed on his “energy” and “power,” the wonder of his line, his command of space in order to focus on the essential. The critic Kenneth Smith termed Frazetta “a stylistic genius,” whose human figures became “archetypal for a generation.” The illustrator William Stout proclaimed him “probably the most influential artist of the last half-century.” And David Winiewicz, PhD (Medieval Philosophy, I believe), ranked him “with the greatest artists in history.” Frazetta’s art, his admirers said, “(E)xtends our perceptions… (and) widens our imagination.” It “washes away the dust of daily life” to make us “aware how wonderful and how terrifying life can be.”
But when I looked at, the work on display at the Frazetta Museum website seemed distressingly formulaic. Generally, a figure (or two), luridly colored and lit by a source impossible to account for, commanded canvas-central. The men were heavily, if improbably, muscled and the women suitable for gas station calendars. And whether Roman or Hun, Norse or Mongol, Martian or Venusian, embedded on snowy peak or in tropical swamp, all went about barely clothed. Their activities were as limited as their dress. Mostly, with axe or broadsword or club, they smote one another – or wolves or pythons or saber-toothed tigers. These depictions explored little emotional range. They probed character to little depth, offered little insight into human experience, and paid scant attention to the worlds in which these people presumably existed. The complexities and challenges of existence – python smiting, aside – seemed as absent from them as warts on the warriors’ noses or acne the damsels’ cheeks. There was no indication that, even in his private moments, Frazetta accessed the quirky, personal corners of the mind that, for me, made art tingle. His work seemed to block out – exclude – defend against – more than it invited contemplation
Being out-of-step did not discourage me. Neither did James L’s failure to provide me any further information. Nor the absence of a response from anyone I had asked for an interview. By now, the Frazetta story had hooked me in other places. First was its similarity to what was happening with the Barnes Museum.
In the early twentieth century, Albert Barnes, a self-made millionaire from North Philadelphia’s gritty streets, had amassed the world’s greatest collection of post-Impressionist French paintings. When he showed his acquisitions to the city’s art establishment, its members ridiculed them. “Fuck,” essentially said Barnes, “you.” He bought a mansion in Merion, just across the city line, and established, amidst a 12-acre arboretum, a foundation to display his paintings and teach his theories. And if you belonged to Philly’s cultural – or social – elite, he wouldn’t let you in.
Barnes died in 1951, leaving everything to his foundation. His will stated that none of his paintings were to be sold, loaned, or even hung differently than how he’d arranged them. But litigation chipped away at his intent. In the ’60s, the public gained limited admittance. In the ’70s, some of his collection was allowed to tour the world. Finally, according to the recently released documentary, The Art of the Steal, a coven of politicians, businessmen, and art world powers, over the objections of Barnes graduates, Merion residents, and devotees of the Barnes-as-is experience, contrived to close the building and ship the entire collection to a not-yet completed museum in Philadelphia’s center. The revisionists said they desired to better protect the paintings and allow more people access to them. The defenders called it a betrayal of Barnes, motivated by a desire to increase Philadelphia’s draw on tourists.
Barnes had 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, and 21 Soutines. Frazetta had 90 Frazettas. Otherwise, it was the same: the art, the private museum, and the devotions of the passionate few resisting the push for the larger audience and the money that would bring.
Except it wasn’t the same. Barnes was a collector, not an artist; society may have less of an interest in honoring the intent of a collector than it does in honoring his art. And while Frazetta as the actual creator of his holdings, may have earned a greater say in its fate than Barnes did in his, unlike him, Frazetta kept his wishes to himself.
Then there was the deepening thump of mortality’s muffled drum.
Frazetta was 82 and stroke-battered. I knew about strokes. They had lain my mother in bed, unable to rise, 90 percent of her speech unintelligible, half the remainder seemingly unconnected to this planet.
“Say ‘Hello,’ Mrs. Lev,” the attendant says when I call. “It’s Robert.”
“Hello,” my mother manages on a good day, “how are you?”
After that, it is anybody’s guess. Sometimes her speech communicates no better than static. Sometimes she drops the phone and forgets about it. I prattle on about my work, my meals, the weather with only the background TV – Ellen or Oprah – responding. Sometimes I catch an actual word from my mother. Sometimes it seems to relate to what I have said. Sometimes she is talking to a young woman in the ceiling.
“She is doing very well,” her attendant says, “for someone her age.” The specter of doing that well at any age has caused Adele to record contact information for a clinic in Switzerland that ends lives without proof of terminal illness. We consider keeping one way tickets to Geneva on us – last bullets for when the Comanches surround.
And I knew from pre-reunion mailings that ten of my class of 70 – the science whiz, the football MVP, my enior prom date – were gone. Who will fall next from the ledge, I wondered. We streamed toward it like lemmings, whatever our detours and prayers.
Over the next weeks, the combatants’ positions hardened.
A mysterious website, theghostofellie.com, established itself as the citadel from which fired the heaviest charges of greed and skullduggery against those it held responsible for the museum’s closure. Before the site shut down, most likely because of threats of suits for defamation, it called for a candlelight vigil to rescue Frazetta and save his artwork. Fifty people attended. The family pastor opined that, since Ellie’s passing, matters had become “nutsy” and prayed for reconciliation so Frazetta’s legacy was not lost.
The other side entrusted its fusillades to Frazetta. His initial volley came from an Internet video on which he appeared – white haired, speech intact, – riding in a golf cart with a grandson, on a boat with his daughters, having Heidi scratch his back. (She explained he had come to Boca Grande, a residential community on an island off the southwest coast of Florida where the family owned property, to enjoy the sunshine and his grandchildren.) “I’m having a ball,” Frazetta said. “I love it here…I’m not a captive. I eat and drink like a king.” He might have been a retired electronics appliance distributor speaking on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce.
Then Frazetta gave the Record a telephone interview. Frank Jr., he said, was “an alien… We played baseball in the old days. He always chose the opposite side from me… Don’t believe anything he tells you. He’s full of beans. He wants to run the museum for himself… He’s gone haywire… I can’t even face it. I don’t know what the heck’s going on. It’s insane. Nothing more, nothing less.” He denied asking his son to retrieve his paintings, denied telling Bianco he wanted them protected. He did not say why he had gone to her office. He did not discuss the documents he signed.
Finally Frazetta filed a law suit, demanding his son cease selling Frazetta art or merchandise. The suit also alleged that, in September 2009, Frank Jr. had duped the U.S. Army III Corps into accepting a 4600-pound, six-foot, six-inch statue he had made of his father’s character Death Dealer by falsely stating that Frazetta had authorized it. Frank Jr.’s lawyers responded that, having given authorization for the sales in early 2000, Frazetta now lacked the mental capacity to rescind it. (The litigation did not phase III Corps which preceded to install the statute – re-branded “Phantom Warrior” – at its Fort Hood headquarters and to deploy a smaller, fiberglass version in Iraq. A spokesman said Frazetta had been “involved in” the project since 1986.) Two days after the filing, someone broke into Frazetta’s Marshalls Creek home. The burglar stole several guns and placed a photograph of Ellie on her husband’s desk.
For me, these stories paled beside two others:
First, the Record reported that one “James L.” had threatened to report Heidi to the I.R.S. and have her jailed unless her father’s lawyers and business advisers were fired and the criminal charges against her brother dropped. In a “bizarre, 12-page jumble of demands…advice…and accusations,” the paper said, Mr. L, who described himself as Frank Jr.’s “strategist” also called for Frazetta’s return to Marshall Creek and the museum’s re-opening. (Lori Frazetta denied that Mr. L worked for her husband. “[W]e can’t be responsible for what other people do,” she added.
Then, a few days before our flight, the New York Times announced that mediation had resolved the differences between the Frazettas. All civil suits would be dismissed and all criminal charges dropped. The siblings said they looked forward to “working together as a team to promote [their father’s] remarkable collection of images.” They would keep further details confidential.
So I had a source with credibility as compromised as 1820 Missouri and protagonists with lips as zipped as Frank Costello’s before the Kefauver Committee.
When we reached Marshalls Creek, we pulled into a shopping mall to ask for directions to the museum. “What city is it in?” said the woman behind the cigar store’s counter. The tattoo parlor might have been a better bet, but it was closed.
“Go south a mile, past the Christmas store and brake repair shop; turn left on the dirt road,” said a silver haired man in orange shirt, blue pants, and white loafers walking a snow white Pekinese. He said he knew the Frazettas well. “Ellie hated the Poconos and was going to move as soon as Frank died. But Ellie died first and Frank couldn’t be by himself because of his stroke, so his daughter took him to Florida.”
The Christmas store and brake shop were gone, and the road was black-topped, so his reliability may be questioned.
A crumbling two-ton cement lizard greeted us.
We bumped down a road slightly wider than our Taurus. A low, stone wall was on our left and wooden picnic tables our right. The museum stood beside a small lake. Frazetta had first displayed his paintings in a brick building he owned a block from the East Stroudsburg train station. Then he moved them to Florida. Then he brought them to this place of his design.
Barnes had wanted a mansion as regal as any on the Main Line. Frazetta had gone mythic Spanish – aspects of a castle, aspects of a fort. Stone wings of equal height and length extended from a taller, conical-crowned central chamber. The roof was red tile. An iron gate, chained shut, shielded the front door. Parked nearby, as if Claus Oldenberg had been commissioned for a commemorative sculpture, was a yellow Komatsu backhoe.
The museum, I had read, contained Frazetta’s Conan covers, his work for Jim Warren, and other originals – sketches, water colors, oils – never published anywhere. His fans must have been thrilled to walk into that surround. These were fans who tore his pages from library books, who ripped his covers from paperbacks and concealed them in the cheaper comics they purchased. But, it could be argued, if Merion was too far to go to see twice as many Renoirs, the Poconos were too far to go to see Frazetta.
It seemed a long way for Frazetta to have come, too. I wondered what had driven him from Brookyln to the woods of Pennsylvania. It was not the typical artist who felt compelled to create a museum to honor his own work. While proud of his art, he had gone to great lengths to remove it from competition with alternative visions. To ask a traveler to choose the Frazetta over the Zane Grey was not exactly facing off against the Guggenheim or MoMA. And I wondered about those three children. Was this pop. 9888 world enough for them? Did the opportunities to alter or flee it with their share of $90 million account for what had split the family?
It was peaceful, sitting in the Taurus. The late morning sun shone bright and strong. Birds chirped; lily pads bobbed on the lake’s surface. Lightning did not strike us for our trespass. For the moment, the world seemed ordered more by wisdom than madness. I had, I recognized, my own take on the Poconos that influenced this return. They had been fine for eight weeks of an adolescent summer. We swam and played ball and, once a season, went into Stroudsburg for pizza and a movie. (The Sweet Smell of Success, I recall, aroused and puzzled me.) But I was always happy to return to the city. That was where life’s greater possibilities appeared to lie. By 14 and 15, even middle class Jewish boys had begun to explore the shadowy, smoky illicit: rock ’n roll shows; coffee houses; jazz clubs (even if they limited us to Shirley Temples). Places like the Poconos were to be fled from, not toward. Even now, though I have known firsthand people who had sought their bliss raising goats in New Hampshire or meditating within geodesic domes twenty miles from Taos or carving furniture from redwood burls in the Santa Cruz mountains, such choices still surprised me.
I met one of my best friends in the Poconos. Stanley Kessler (no relation to Frazetta’s lawyer) was the star center on our bunk basketball team and I an awkward forward. He sang lead on “The ABCs of Love,” to which I lent off-key, “do-wop” support. His subsequent trajectory – through Penn and a Center City law practice, where the ’60s and LSD veered him toward Ram Das, Primal Screams, and tantric sex – challenged my more modest deviations. Stanley was the only friend I saw each time I visited Philly. He would bring his boombox to the playground; and shooting baskets and listening to Bob Dylan bootlegs, we would renew our connections. We did that until he killed himself in 1995. I still regretted words I had not spoken. I still pondered steps I had not taken. The longer you live, I thought, the more beads of memory you string together bring you to that end.
Frazetta had reduced life to moments of combat. Sword against sword. Axe against fang. Maybe that is all life was – on this planet or planets to come. My own experiences had shaped me to accept its fragility – if not the need to shout this awareness with his theatrics. Few of us were at the mercy of Huns or werewolves; but we all risked mis-driven Chryslers and collapsing ladders, metastasizing cells and occluding arteries. We would face such lethal foes as surely as those within Frazetta’s frames faced theirs. I could not say if the artist shared my conclusion or, if so, in what manner his renderings provided comfort to him; but maybe that was going on. Maybe too, that accounted for his fans’ stolen covers – pilgrimages to Stroudsburg – posters upon walls. Maybe they gazed upon Frazetta’s images to steel their hopes for triumph over their own approaching horrors.
“Could be,” Adele said. “Or perhaps the ‘horrors’ were already there, and his images became handy buttresses for young men against difficult childhoods, peer terrors, and the garden variety battles of adolescents against parents and teachers and their own internal tugs and pulls.”
“You know,” I said, “even I dug that WSF cover when it hit the stands.”
Before we left for Philadelphia, we visited both Frazetta brothers.
Frank Jr., who is 52, owns Golf World, which sells woods and irons, spiked shoes and slacks in pastel hues. Bill, who is younger, owns Frazetta’s Fantasy Costumes, which sells wigs and masks, styrofoam tombstones and bloody rubber limbs. The businesses are housed in the building in which their father had first established his museum. A break in the rent might account for the shops’ proximity. But the shared locale suggests a closeness that existed before attorneys intervened.
It occurred to us that both businesses catered to life outside the nine-to-five. That each store allowed for expressions of the self – for art that was not ART. We imagined father-son conversations. “I can put up the money. What do you want to do?” And the answers were: “Games.” “Disguises.” The removal of one from whom one was and has been. Adele and I had each put 3000 miles between ourselves and our families. That had worked for us in forging lives that fit. The Frazetta boys had remained within a shout of theirs. I wondered if that had pinched them in some places and smothered them in others
We understood neither brother could discuss the litigation. But any detail might add a line to our story. We arrived during lunch hour. Neither had a customer.
My notes from our conversations tell me that the family moved to the Poconos from Sheepshead Bay in 1971. Once the brothers taught their friends to play stickball, life was fine. They played baseball and ping-pong and roller hockey. They hunted and fished and swam in their lake. Frank Jr. became the second person in the area to bowl a 300 game. He painted and sculpted. Bill did not. When he got home from school, his father preferred they play ball.
I recall Frank Jr. as balding and goateed, his face weighted by grief. He is on the phone discussing matters of insurance. I recall Bill as shorter, his face lit by James Caan’s cocky grin. He is behind the counter, with his two daughters, attractive, 20-ish, enjoying the interest of the outside world.
Frank Jr. told us he had abandoned his plan to write his father’s biography. “The people in charge,” he said, “don’t understand what he was all about.”
Bill told us he had come to his profession because he enjoyed putting on shows as a child and that Halloween had always been fun. “To the rest of the world,” he said, “‘Frazetta’ means my father. But to people in this area, it means my shop.”
There is much my notes do not tell me.
There are many questions I did not ask.
Partly this was because of the situation’s elemental sadness. Partly it was to respect the family’s privacy. Partly it was because the brothers’ semi-fratricidal jousting seemed to call for an author who crossed Dostoyevski with Hedda Hopper, and I lacked the former’s soul and the latter’s disregard for where she stuck her schnozzle. I no longer felt the need to focus a spotlight on this scene. It seemed more deserving of a nod, a farewell salute, a wish of luck for all concerned. I did not appear to be alone in this. No firestorm of admirers had risen to object to Frazetta’s art being scattered where the dollars blew. Frank Jr. cared. James L. cared. But who else? A few dozen? A few hundred? Frazetta may have cared at one time; but when he created his foundation, that moment had passed. His competency at the signing of those documents may have had significance. The specter of “undue influence” may have been something to address. But his children had decided not to measure either, and they seemed no one else’s concern. Now his work would go into the world as three of these four future heirs desired. That was how it worked. Creators passed from it, and the people that remained determined how they would be remembered. Then these people passed, and other people voted.
It was time for the next part of our trip. In Philadelphia I would hope to coax a few words or a single smile from my mother. Then I would re-unite with the aging men and women who had emerged from the boys and girls with whom I’d played and partied and learned. I would wrap both arms around the emotions I encountered. I would absorb the tinkling trickles of history across the rock strewn riverbed of time. I would hope to make of it sense or substance. I would seek accretions from erosions and gains from loss.
On May 9, the day we returned to Berkeley, Frank Frazetta died from a stroke in Boca Grande. Frank Jr. and Lori held a memorial service at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. Bill paid tribute in his store. Mourners recalled Frazetta as a “quiet,” “humble,” “simple,” “groundbreaking artist.” And he was, Frank Jr. told a reporter, “A better father than an artist.”
On June 8, the co-owner of a large collectibles house announced that he had purchased the Weird-Science Fantasy cover that Frazetta had refused to sell William Gaines from the family for $380,000, “the most ever paid for a single page of American comic book art.” It did not go unnoticed that this would raise the value of other work by Frazetta the collector already owned, as well as other works the family might choose to market.
Six weeks later, it sold “Conan the Destroyer” for $1.5 million.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Works consulted for this piece included The Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta (Bantam Books.); Frank Frazetta ( Books One, Two and Three) (Sun-Litho Print); Frank Frazetta: The Living Legend (Sun-Litho Print.); Frazetta: Illustrations Arcanum (Vertotik Publishing.); The Frazetta Pillow Book (Kitchen Sink.); and the DVD Painting With Fire. I am indebted to Robert Kehlmann for his views on Frazetta’s art and the advisability of “honoring” the wishes of collectors.