Arthur and Pauline Frommer
Travel guru Arthur Frommer is the quintessential wandering Jew. For almost 60 years, his guidebooks have enticed and escorted travelers on their journeys, selling over 75 million copies and encompassing 350 destinations.
But Frommer’s goal isn’t simple leisure. It’s travel fueled by purpose—wonder rather than wandering. “I’ve always regarded travel as a superb learning experience,” he says. “It opens your imagination, expands your consciousness and brings you to understand other lifestyles, cultures, philosophies and theologies.”
Frommer’s legendary Europe on $5 a Day (1957) pioneered the modern travel guide and is credited with launching American tourism to Europe. Today, at 86, he runs his publishing empire with his daughter, Pauline Frommer, 50. Together they preside over FrommerMedia LLC; Frommer’s Guidebooks, which publishes over 80 titles; and Frommers.com. Frommer, who had sold the brand in 1977 to Simon & Schuster—it went on to change ownership several times—reacquired it in 2013.
In an interview at Arthur’s New York apartment, father and daughter banter, finish each other’s thoughts comfortably and debate details as they do on their nationally syndicated weekly radio show, The Travel Show, which airs on over 100 radio stations and was named best audio travel broadcast in 2014 by the Society of American Travel Writers. “People say they tune in to listen to us argue,” says Pauline, who lives in New York’s Greenwich Village. “We butt heads, sometimes. But overall we have the same vision, the same political philosophies that shape what we write.”
That vision permeates their books. An array of 2016 titles is laid out in the dining room, overlooking a vista of skyscrapers, the sprawl of Lincoln Center below and the Hudson River beyond. His office is dominated by shelves upon shelves of past titles, including a Hebrew-language version of Europe on $20 a Day. Arthur apologizes for his sunglasses, a requirement after recent cataract surgery, but they don’t dim his hardy and entertaining storytelling and avuncular character. If he misremembers a date or fact, Pauline is just a beat behind, gently correcting or directing him, looking up facts on her laptop. She looks crisp in a black-and-white print dress, black stockings and black boots.
Their respect for each other is palpable: She calls him her mentor and editor, and he says he stands in awe of her abilities. They are both prolific writers; they pen regular columns for King Features Syndicate (he, twice weekly; she, weekly) and blog for the website. He wrote introductions to the 10 cities covered in the recent Arthur Frommer’s Europe as well as guidebooks to Belgium, Amsterdam, Montreal and Branson, Missouri, where he was “so horrified by the ultra-right-wing perspectives” that he wrote the “only travel guide in history telling people not to go.” Paris remains Arthur’s favorite destination.
Pauline Frommer’s EasyGuide to New York City, has been the best-selling guide to the Big Apple for the past two years. Her favorite destination is usually the last place she has visited—in this case, Madurai, a city in South India, which she visited after a volunteer vacation with her husband, physical therapist Mahlon Stewart, and their two well- traveled teenage daughters, Veronica and Beatrix.
The hotels and attractions the Frommers recommend go beyond the cookie-cutter variety. “I love the discoveries you make overseas of elements that have not yet reached the U.S.,” Arthur says, recalling the first time he tasted gazpacho in Madrid and reported on it to his American audience.
Arthur wrote his first manual, The G.I.’s Guide to Travelling in Europe (1955), in his Berlin barracks during his last three weeks of service in United States Army intelligence. He was drafted the day he graduated from Yale Law School and was headed to Korea when the Army discovered his aptitude for language—he speaks Russian, German and French fluently as well as a little Spanish and Italian—and sent him to Germany instead. On every military leave, he traveled to different European capitals on the modest salary of a private first class. But he was astonished that his fellow G.I.’s were afraid to travel.
The book sold out the first afternoon it went on sale and sparked the idea of a similar series for civilians. When Arthur returned to New York, he joined the prestigious firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison as a litigation associate. Yet on his first vacation, he went back to Europe, visiting 17 cities in a month and publishing Europe on $5 a Day. “It’s estimated that one out of 10 American vacationers went to Europe with a copy of the book,” Arthur says proudly. The book’s success motivated him to launch other guides.
Arthur chose local authors to write about the cities and countries they knew best, but continued to travel to Europe himself, often accompanied by Pauline and his first wife, actress and teacher Hope Arthur.
Arthur has remained “consistently and single-mindedly devoted to the ideal of budget travel, even as the travel media became all about luxury and upscale experiences. And Pauline has taken up that baton very ably,” says David Paul Appell, a travel writer and editor who is a longtime friend and collaborator. He describes them as “two of the most hardworking individuals I have ever met as well as being among the kindest, ethical, compassionate and loyal.”
Arthur views his travel writing as “uniquely Jewish” because of his liberal political bent, some of which might stem from his status as an outsider during his early years. He was raised in Jefferson City, Missouri, the only Jew in his public school class. He encountered quotas at Yale and in the Army. “I was always in the minority,” he says. Appropriately, his guides help visitors acquire an insider’s view.
Arthur’s parents, Nathan and Pauline, imbued him with a literary spirit that nurtured an intellectual curiosity. “My sister, Jeanne, and I both had books no matter how little else we had,” he says. “Respect for education was a part of our Jewish heritage.”
He describes his parents as “intellectual Jewish immigrants” from Austria and Poland who met at the New Americans Club in Syracuse, New York. Orphaned at 15, Arthur’s mother brought over her five younger brothers and sisters after she left Poland.
“She was quite the hero,” says his daughter, who was named for her.
His father was determined to remain employed during the Depression. He moved eight times in eight years—the companies he worked for went bankrupt one after another—ending up as the accountant at a pants factory in Jefferson City, home to seven other Jewish families and a small synagogue, Temple Beth El. Arthur often played the piano during interludes of silent prayer at Friday night services but did not celebrate a bar mitzva because the synagogue did not have a full-time rabbi.
In 2011, Arthur, Pauline and Beatrix made a roots trip back to his mother’s birthplace of Lomza, Poland—just outside Bialystok—where his grandfather, a rabbi, is buried. Much of the graveyard had been reduced to rubble by the Nazis, but Arthur says he located his grandfather’s tombstone: “I made a speech saying he should rest in peace and that his children made their way to the U.S., where they married and prospered.” Pauline and Beatrix also visited Auschwitz and were in Krakow for the annual Jewish Culture Festival.
“I didn’t cry in Auschwitz, but sitting in a Jewish restaurant in Krakow eating Jewish food and listening to beautiful klezmer music, I started sobbing,” recalls Pauline. “My whole life, I had heard stories about how horrific Poland was and how happy my relatives were to leave it. Being there you saw the other side. They had vibrant communities, gorgeous temples and fertile countryside. For the first time, I realized they had lost something by leaving.”
Today, fear of terrorism may be a factor in determining travelers’ plans anywhere in the world, from Israel to Bali to France, but Pauline notes that the threat of violence is becoming almost commonplace. “There is less and less reaction to it.” The Frommers recommend Jewish travelers visit the “astounding” synagogues in Krakow, Prague and Budapest. They also suggest sights in Jewish Spain—Girona, Seville, Cordoba and more. They have visited Israel (they have relatives there) but local authors wrote the guide.
Though travel has dominated Arthur’s career, journalism and politics have simmered in the mix from his childhood, when his mother tuned the family radio both to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats as well as to Father Coughlin’s anti- Semitic broadcasts. “She wanted us to know what we were up against,” he says. The family moved to Brooklyn, New York, when Arthur was 14 and he immediately knocked on the doors of all the major publications. He was hired as an office boy at Newsweek, where he worked throughout high school. He attended the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism for a year but transferred to New York University when his mother fell ill, majoring in political science. Later, he served as an editor of the Yale Law School journal.
His law practice was an exciting time with dozens of notable cases. He defended Lady Chatterley’s Lover against pornography charges and won the case in appeal. When Adlai Stevenson joined the firm after his presidential loss, he took the office next to Arthur’s and recommended the young associate to his socialite friends for parking tickets and landlord-tenant matters. Arthur extended his writing to books with a political focus, like The Bible and the Public Schools, which defended the Supreme Court decision prohibiting compulsory Bible study. Eventually, he had to choose between law and travel.
Father and daughter are unafraid to take bold stands on political and ideological issues. Arthur resigned from his show on WOR radio in New York when the station hired conservative talk-show host Bob Grant, returning only after Grant went off the air. On their website, they espouse an antigun stance that brought 1,100 death threats and attempts to boycott their books. He is a contributor to J Street, the liberal advocacy group on Israel. Travel influences politics, they agree. “We both believe we wouldn’t be electing the leaders we do if we were a better-traveled people,” Pauline says, pointing to what she labels the xenophobic outcry against immigration.
At home, Arthur takes pleasure in his family and in the men’s book group to which he belongs. He is married to Roberta Brodfeld, a retired psychiatric social worker, has two stepdaughters, Jill and Tracy Holder, and two more grandchildren, Michaela and Emilia.
He has thought about writing his memoirs, but says that relaunching the publishing company has diverted his time and energy. And there are still many places to be visited, he adds. “The world is huge.”
Rahel Musleah leads tours of Jewish India and speaks about the community. Her website is explorejewishindia.com.