LIMA — He started doodling in class, honed his art in newspapers, and made a name for himself in The New Yorker.
Alfred J. Frueh was born in 1880 in Lima to Henry and Anna Roemer Frueh. His father was a farmer and brewer, and Frueh was the oldest of four children. He went to St. Rose School and Lima Business College.
From his obituary published Sept. 18, 1968, in the New York Times, we learn his doodling was born at college.
“Mr. Frueh once told his daughter that it was the study of Pitman shorthand in a Lima business college that aroused his interest in drawing. When he got bored in class, he would turn the Pitman symbols into faces of his teacher and fellow students,” it reported.
He poked fun at himself in an interview with author Joseph Van Raalte: “As a matter of fact, I was not handsome enough to compete with the good-looking female stenographers.”
From 1894 to 1903, Frueh farmed and worked as a bookkeeper in his father’s brewery. In 1904, he went to visit an uncle in St. Louis to visit the world’s fair there, and the uncle recognized the 21-year-old man’s talent. Frueh’s father didn’t particularly approve, but the uncle encouraged him and invited him to return to town to stay. It only took three weeks for Frueh to make his decision. Upon his return, the uncle introduced him to editors at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch — and they hired him as a cartoonist for sketching court scenes and political cartoons.
Local papers carried a review published Nov. 14, 1905:
“Concerning Alfred Frueh, the well-known caricaturist on the staff of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a critic writing in the Mirror, says: ‘If I mistake not, that new picturemaker Frueh on the Post-Dispatch is destined to great sardonic, ironic cruelly cynical work in art. He has the immense raw crudity of strength which makes his technical deficiencies negligible. … The artist has a sense of fun but more than that is his searing quality of his satire and scorn. We shall hear from Frueh in the years to be.”
Frueh, who always went by Al, didn’t let the good press go to his head. He always dressed plainly, if a bit rumpled. He avoided photography, instead doing caricatures of himself that emphasized his height and rounded shoulders.
Frueh’s big moment came with a caricature of stage actress and singer Fritzi Scheff, starring in “Mlle. Modiste.” He transformed her face into a dog-like snout. She was so angry she refused to appear for an evening show.
“She was a very cocky little actress,” he is quoted as saying in Theater Arts Magazine in 1961. “It was very nearly the making of me. No one likes not to be noticed … and all at once I was famous!”
He quickly made the jump to New York, with his work published daily in the New York World from 1910 to 1924 except for two extended trips to Europe. While abroad, he married Giuliette Fanciulli in 1913, and they would have three children.
A newspaper story published June 7, 1912, added: “He began his career as a cartoonist in St. Louis and his ability to convey the humorous and the ridiculous in public characters and public affairs, through grotesque and strongly individualized drawing, enabled him to forge rapidly to the front.”
The New York Sun added to the accolades Jan. 28, 1913.
“In the hours of leisure (this phrase will sound strange to many a newspaperman) the artist made pictures and drawings that were only to ‘please himself.’ It happened that one of his colleagues saw some of these drawings, chiefly caricatures, and he brought news of them to the unique man at the head of the Little Gallery of the Photo-Secession, Alfred Stieglitz. Of course Mr. Steiglitz, after seeing the modest youth and his work, said, ‘Come.’ That is a way he has when he believes in anything.”
Steiglitz, a photographer who promoted the work of others who he believed were motivated by art and not money, mounted some 50 of Frueh’s drawings under glass and held an exhibition. The caricatures in this show were Billie Burke, Ethel Barrymore, Oscar Hammerstein and more. Frueh himself wasn’t even in New York at the time, as he had gone to Europe to study and better his art.
In 1925, Frueh had two cartoons in The New Yorker’s first issue and drew the second issue’s cover — a humorous illustration of two large policemen trying to fit into a tiny new patrol car. He was 45 years old.
In 1926, he bought a farm in Connecticut and spent roughly April to November there each year. He “developed (his) muscles” there, doing mass plantings of pine trees, grape vines and nut trees. He planted some 7,000 pine trees alone. His quest was to breed a soft-shelled black walnut, but he never was successful.
Frueh also filed two patents, one on a paper-folding technique and another on toy animals. The paper-folding technique went to use in a children’s set of colored paper, patterns and crayons. It was off the market less than a decade later. The toy animal patent was never commercialized.
He also found time at his country home to draw Christmas and New Year’s cards for his family. Several were on display in an exhibition titled “The Art of Al Frueh” in 1983 at the University of Connecticut. The catalogue author, Thomas P. Bruhn, explained:
“As one would expect they are humorous, although some reflect serious and topical concerns. For example, in 1925, the year of the Scopes Monkey Trial, he and his wife are caricatured as simians sitting on a wreath, picking fleas. A card from 1922, when the Ku Klux Klan was active, has a white-hooded Santa Claus riding a hooded reindeer. Other cards have more traditional holiday themes, but all express aspects of Frueh’s humor.”
Back in the city, he would continue the relationship with The New Yorker for nearly the rest of his life, his final illustration being published in 1963, when he was 81 years old.
The magazine wrote, “We did not suspect that it would be his last, because he seemed to have outwitted age: the vigor of his body and the undiminished youthfulness of his art had lured us into the happy assumption that he would go on living and drawing forever.”
Frueh suffered a severe stroke prior to his death at age 88 in 1968.