Philip Fradkin dies at 77; environmental writer chronicled the West

Philip L. Fradkin, a native New Yorker whose fascination with the West turned him into an astute chronicler of the region’s history and environmental legacy in books on such topics as the great San Francisco earthquake, nuclear test fallout in Nevada and the survival of the Colorado River, died Saturday at his home in Point Reyes Station, Calif. He was 77.

The cause was cancer, said his son, Alex.

Philip Fradkin obituary: The obituary of writer Philip Fradkin in the July 11 LATExtra section said that the Colorado River flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Its outlet is the Gulf of California. —

A reporter for The Times early in his career, Fradkin was the author of 13 books, including “A River No More: The Colorado River and the West” (1981), “The Seven States of California: A Natural and Human History” (1995) and “Wallace Stegner and the American West” (2008).

He also wrote three books about the physical, social and political effect of earthquakes, most notably in “The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906,” which the New Yorker said “starts out as an environmental history but evolves into a parable about human response to cataclysm.” Published in 2005 as the centennial anniversary of the San Francisco earthquake neared, it showed how firefighters’ misuse of dynamite caused fires that consumed most of the city, and how human frailties compounded the tragedy after the flames subsided.


“The trail I follow is the trail of politics and power,” Fradkin, who also helped UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library build an archive of thousands of images and documents about the quake, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005.

His book on the depletion of the Colorado River remains the seminal work on the issue, according to California historian Kevin Starr, who said in an interview Tuesday that Fradkin occupied “a foundational place in the history of environmental writing,” alongside figures such as Stegner, James Houston and Edward Abbey.

Prof. Forrest G. Robinson, a UC Santa Cruz expert on the literature of the West, described Fradkin as a literary descendant of 19th century explorer John Wesley Powell and Pulitzer Prize-winner Stegner, both of whom wrote insightfully about the West’s natural riches and resource problems, including those stemming from the ravaging of the Colorado River.

“Fradkin’s career was an oblique tribute to Stegner’s influence and through Stegner to Powell,” said Robinson, who also called Fradkin’s book on Stegner “easily the best factual record we have of Stegner’s life.”

Fradkin was born in New York City on Feb. 28, 1935, and grew up in Montclair, N.J. When he was 14, his Russian Jewish father, Leon, took him on a grand tour of the West — through Yellowstone, Zion, the Grand Canyon, Salt Lake City, Yosemite, San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver — that sparked his love of the region.

After earning a political science degree from Williams College in Massachusetts and serving in the Army, he drove to California in 1960 and took a job selling ads for a Bay Area weekly. Influenced by his mother, Elvira, a Vassar-educated writer and political activist, he decided to become a journalist and worked at papers in Turlock and San Rafael before starting at The Times in 1964.

Fradkin was part of the team of Times reporters and editors who won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 1965 Watts riots and he later spent a year covering the Vietnam War. In 1970 he became the paper’s environmental reporter.

He left The Times in 1975 after his editors told him his stories were too tilted toward the environmentalist viewpoint. Fradkin did not disagree and joined Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration as an assistant secretary of the California Resources Agency, where he helped push legislation that established the California Coastal Commission as a permanent body.

In 1976 he became western editor of Audubon magazine, leaving in 1981 when “A River No More” was published. He walked and boated the length of the Colorado River through seven states to Mexico, showing how various needs — for irrigation, cattle, power and recreation — had so depleted the Colorado watershed that the river no longer reached its natural outlet in the Gulf of Mexico.

The book gave Fradkin a theme that runs throughout his work — “the excitement, the drama, and the sense of loss one experiences in the West,” he told the San Francisco Book Review in February.

He said his goal in writing about Stegner and other environmental issues was to illustrate the effect of the Western landscape on its people. He showed, for example, how Stegner’s life was shaped by the failure of his father’s homestead. A similar connection inspired Fradkin’s last book, “Everett Ruess: His Short Life, Mysterious Death and Astonishing Afterlife” (2011), which examines the legend of the young artist and vagabond who disappeared in the Utah desert in 1934 at age 20.

Fradkin’s first marriage ended in divorce. In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife, Dianne, and a daughter, Cleo Brooks Cavolo.