Mell Lazarus dies at 89; Woodland Hills cartoonist behind ‘Momma’ and ‘Miss Peach’
Mell Lazarus’ mother was unfazed by her son’s famous comic strip about a nagging, meddling mother.
That’s because Frances Lazarus, who lived near him in Woodland Hills, would never admit that “Momma” was based on her, though of course it was.
“She would say, ‘You have captured Aunt Helen perfectly,’” said Lazarus’ wife, Sally Mitchell.
That was fine with her son, who died May 24 at 89. Mell Lazarus maintained he had no desire to mock his mother during the more than four decades he penned the strip.
To hear him tell it, he had only affection in mind. There was even a serious side to “Momma,” which chronicled the antics of a canny, demanding, but ultimately likeable mother, and her over-mastered adult son.
Lazarus said he wanted to explore ways that members of multi-generational families can get along and thus remain involved in each other’s lives -- very involved, in the case of Frances Lazarus and her squat, large-headed cartoon counterpart, Mrs. Sonya Hobbs.
“I’m not hitting hard with ‘Momma,’” Mell Lazarus told an interviewer for Dynamic Years in 1981. “I simply think it’s important to realize the need for humor in dealing with situations in which roles switch back and forth. In many cases, Momma is the child and her kids show her the way. But, somehow, Momma always comes out on top.”
As well she should, he added.
The cartoonist who also drew the long-lasting “Miss Peach” strip was born Melvin Lazarus in Brooklyn, N.Y., on May 3, 1927. His father, Sydney Lazarus, was a glass blower who owned a glass-blowing business.
The father was open-hearted with less fortunate family members, and during the Depression he took in a succession of struggling relatives. At one point, young Melvin “wound up sleeping between two dining room chairs,” said his wife. It was a lesson in the importance of family bonds that would stick.
Lazarus went on to drop out of high school, publishing his first cartoon in a local paper at 16. He enlisted in the Navy and went to boot camp just as World War II was ending. Free to pursue cartoons in earnest, he started “Miss Peach,” a strip about a schoolteacher and her class in 1957.
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When he was 21, his father died. His homemaker mother, known as Frankie, was a sudden widow who needed her adult sons in new ways. Lazarus’ relationship with her eventually led to “Momma” in 1970.
Lazarus and his first wife had three daughters. In 1975, he followed them and his brother Herb to California. Eventually, they brought his mother to live near them in Woodland Hills.
She was indeed given to guilt trips -- but also witty.
Lazarus described himself as deeply interested in her character and “fascinated with what makes her tick.” Though he compared Frances Lazarus to “Catherine the Great with a low profile,” he also welcomed their twice-a-day phone conversions.
She had “one of the biggest hearts I’ve ever seen,” he said. Frances Lazarus died in 1984.
Mell Lazarus met Mitchell, a lawyer, many years after his first marriage ended when he spoke at a roast for her father, who was a gag writer (though Lazarus always wrote his own gags, she said). They married in 1995.
For years he juggled two strips. Mitchell said Lazarus was businesslike and efficient, retreating into his home studio weekday mornings, emerging at 6 p.m. and rarely stopping for lunch. “He really kind of had it down,” Mitchell said.
Lazarus remained such a devotee of extended family ties that he flirted with the idea of buying a large property for a family “compound,” his wife said.
Lazarus, who died at home of complications from Alzheimer’s, received two national awards from the National Cartoonists Society. He also served as a president of the organization and was awarded its medal of honor.
“Momma” and “Miss Peach” were published in hundreds of newspapers nationwide. Lazarus also wrote plays and novels.
He was known for mentoring and encouraging young cartoonists and loved the New York Times crossword puzzle and his golden retriever, a gift from his wife.
Mitchell -- 25 years his junior -- said that, although her husband didn’t like her to mention it, “I read Miss Peach every day since kindergarten. I loved it.”
Besides his wife and brother, Lazarus is survived by daughters Marjorie White of Venice, Suesan Pawlitski of Santa Barbara and Cathie Lazarus of Sherman Oaks, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
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