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.
Photos of leaders, stars and other notable figures who died in 2016.
Wong’s masterly touch brought a poetic quality to Disney’s “Bambi” that has helped it endure as a classic of animation. The pioneering Chinese American artist influenced later generations of animators. Full obituary(Peter Brenner / Handout)
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Actress and writer Carrie Fisher rose to global fame as the trailblazing intergalactic heroine Princess Leia in the “Star Wars” franchise. She later established herself as an author and screenwriter with an acerbic comic flair. She was 60. Full obituary.(20th Century Fox)
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George Michael, the English singer-songwriter who shot to stardom in the 1980s as half of the pop duo Wham!, went on to become one of the era’s biggest pop solo artists with hits such as “Faith” and “I Want Your Sex.” He was 53. Full obituary(Francois Mori / Associated Press)
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Best known for her portrayal of Carol Brady on “The Brady Bunch,” Henderson
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Tabei was the first woman to climb Mount Everest in 1975. In 1992, she also became the first woman to complete the “Seven Summits,” reaching the highest peaks of the seven continents. She was 77. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
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Fountain combined the Swing Era sensibility of jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman with the down-home, freewheeling style characteristic of traditional New Orleans jazz to become a national star in the 1950s as a featured soloist on the “The Lawrence Welk Show.” He was 86. Full obituary(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Born Youree Harris, Cleo became a cultural icon as the spokeswoman for Psychic Readers Network, where she starred in infomercials as a Jamaican psychic, replete with accent, who used tarot card readings to advise individuals using the pay-per-call service on their futures. She was 53. Full obituary(Associated Press)
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Nixon, a Hollywood voice double, can be heard in place of the leading actresses in such classic movie musicals as “West Side Story,” “The King and I” and “My Fair Lady.” She was 86. Full obituary(Rob Kim / AFP/Getty Images)
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The Nazi concentration camp survivor won the Nobel in 1986 for his message “of peace, atonement and human dignity.” “Night,” his account of his year in death camps, is regarded as one of the most powerful achievements in Holocaust literature. He was 87. Full obituary(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
One of the greatest basketball coaches of any gender or generation, Summitt spent 38 years as coach of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team before dementia forced her early retirement. She was 64. Full obituary(Wade Payne / Associated Press)
The iconic New York Times fashion photographer darted around New York on a humble bicycle to cover the style of high society grand dames and downtown punks with equal verve. He was 87. Full obituary(Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)
Aguirre was best known for his portrayal of the towering “Profesor Jirafales,” the likable and often disrespected giraffe teacher on the 1970s-era hit show “El Chavo del Ocho.” The screwball comedy helped usher in an era of edgier comedy in Mexico and elsewhere. Aguirre was 82. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
Known as “Mr. Hockey” for his enduring skills and fierce competitiveness, Howe was a member of hockey’s Hall of Fame and a longtime ambassador for the game. He was 88. Full obituary(Associated Press)
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Crouch, the co-founder of Trinity Broadcasting Network, was one of the most recognizable and enduring figures in Orange Country’s televangelism pantheon. She enjoyed vast, loyal support from viewers of “Praise the Lord,” the show in which she appeared with her husband, Paul. She was 78. Full obituary( Mark Boster / The LA Times)
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The first African American chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, Williams steadied the agency in the tumultuous wake of the 1992 riots but was distrusted as an outsider by many officers and politicians. He was 72. Full obituary(Nick Ut / Associated Press)
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The acclaimed Native American historian was the last surviving war chief of Montana’s Crow Tribe. President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. He was 102. Full obituary(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
Germany’s longest-serving foreign minister brokered an end to the painful 40-year division of his homeland in 1990, but only after persevering for decades through the most tragic and destructive phases of Germany’s 20th century history. He was 89. Full obituary(Martin Meissner / Associated Press)
The Iraqi-born British architect was the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor. She made her mark with buildings such as the London Aquatics Centre, the MAXXI museum for contemporary art in Rome and the innovative Bridge Pavilion in Zaragoza, Spain. She was 65. Full obituary(Kevork Djansezian / Associated Press)
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(Gijsbert Hanekroot / Redferns)
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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.