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Friday, 20 August 2004

George Frazier: Boston's Common Scold

By Richard Carreño
[WritersClearinghouse News Service]
Part I of a Series
For many years in the mid-20th century, George Frazier was Boston's favourite curmudgeon, or, as Time once described him, ''Boston's common scold.'' He was cheeky, ribald, and funny -- qualities that fewer and fewer American newspaper critics embody. He was never self-absorbed, self-righteous, or, Heaven forbid, self-serious. Those of you who remember -- or who have read -- John O´Hara's latter newspaper work in the Trenton Times and Newsday will get the idea.

Frazier's career in Boston --he reported, at differing times, for The Boston Herald and The Boston Globe (each spring, he would be assigned the Red Sox opening game story, which he wrote in Latin) -- was proceeded by journeyan work as a columnist for the old Life and, later, as an Esquire columnist. The Esquire column was titled "Elements of Style," and like much of Frazier's work -- even titles -- it was derivative. (Elements of Style, of course, is the name of E.B. White's well-known book on writing). Frazier, despite his original wit and kick-ass quipping, was not an original.

In style and in topics -- Frazier fancied himself a societal critic, an arbiter of taste and culture, and as an irascible bon-vivant -- he followed well-established journalistic traditions. One might also say that he was amongst the last in America to practice them. Like H.L. Mencken, Frazier was contentious, scrappy, and a constant nemesis of the Boobus Americanus. Like Lucius Beebe, Frazier was a quirky tastemaker, noted for his predilection for posh dining and, less recognised, his keen sense for style in men's fashions. And, as noted, there a bit of O'Hara in him. Like the other WASP-inspired Irishman, Frazier could combine two strains of criticism to form a kind of populist elitism.

Compared. individually, to each of these critics, Frazier would be clearly the lesser. But in the early 1970's when Frazier mounted Boston's stage for the last time, the troika of Mencken, Beebe, and O'Hara was a fading memory.

On 6 August 1976 (at the time I was feature writer for the Worcester Telegram), I met J. Pepper Frazier, Frazier's younger son, at J. Pepper's colonial-styled house in Pembrooke, Massachussetts. The meeting occurred two years after Frazier's lingering death (lung cancer) in Boston.

J. Pepper (as he is known) and I met during the late morning on a clear, warm day. Frazier's office was airy, and cardboard boxes were strewn about. These contained, J. Pepper said, his father's newspaper and magazine clippings. On the desk was a framed colour photo of George Frazier wearing his trade-mark, 30-year-old Prince of Wales plaid suit from Brooks Brothers.

J. Pepper is one of two sons. The older son is George Frazier, a lawyer in New Orleans, who was dubbed the "IV,' though there are no other "George Frazier" siblings. (The elder Frazier bestowed the ranking upon his son, a la John Steinbeck, who also designated his son John Steinbeck IV, though there was no preceeding Steinbeck who was a Jr., or a third).

The sandy-haired J. Pepper, then 30, is a graduate of St. Mark's School in Southborough, Massachusetts, and was a speech writer in Washington. He wrote for a brief time The Globe's "Lit'ry Life" column, his father's former Saturday piece that reviewed magazines and journals. (The senior Frazier was amongst the first to do this).

My interview with J. Pepper follows in Part II.