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Monday, August 8, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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On the road with travel expert Arthur Frommer

The Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Fla. — Zipping around downtown Orlando, and the questions just keep coming:

"Is the Orlando airport an international airport?"

"You say the rainy season starts in June?"

"Are there bed-and-breakfasts here?"

"Everyone has air conditioning?"

"Is there a bus line?"

The questions emanate from a single source, an unassuming figure in khakis and a thinly striped shirt. He's Arthur Frommer. That's "Frommer" as in "Frommer's Florida," "Frommer's Italy," "Frommer's Portable Acapulco, Ixtapa & Zihuatanejo" and 300 other travel guides that bear his surname.

The king of the road is in town to take the local pulse, present a public talk and address the members of the Institute for Travel Writing & Photography. Frommer's manner is faultlessly genial, yet there's an unmistakable urgency to his queries — as if he could hardly wait to get the answers and share them with the world.

Yet when he speaks, it's not in the measured phrases of a network anchor. Frommer comes off more like an evangelist, peppering his discussion of travel bargains with such inspirational adjectives as "incredible," "wonderful," "beautiful," "remarkable" (his favorite word), "amazing" and "profound."

But there's more than a hint of scolding in his statements concerning the undemanding vacations (the typical cruise, say) that he decisively renounced in his 1988 book, "Arthur Frommer's New World of Travel."

"Most of the vacation journeys undertaken by Americans," he wrote in an edition of that book, are "trivial and bland, devoid of important content, cheaply commercial, and unworthy of our better instincts and ideals."

To judge from his talk, he hasn't changed his mind about that.

When the official evening is over, he tells the Arthur Frommer story.

It's a tale that begins in Lynchburg, Va., at the dawn of the Great Depression. He was born there in 1929 to poor immigrant parents — an Austrian father and a Polish mother — who moved around a lot in his early years. By the time he was 4 or 5, they had settled down in Jefferson City, Mo.

"We lived very close to the bone," Frommer recalls. Still, to hear him tell it, life in Jefferson City was largely carefree. When he was 14, though, his father found a better job and the boy moved, "kicking and screaming," to Brooklyn.

On his second day in New York, young Arthur snagged a job as a copy boy at Newsweek. Soon, he became the editor in chief of The Dutchman, the student newspaper at Erasmus Hall High School.

"He did get along very well with people," offers former classmate Joe Pollack. "He had the ability to get along with the man who was the adviser to the paper, Anton B. Serota, and Dr. Serota was occasionally fairly tough to get along with."

Hoping to become a journalist, Frommer enrolled at the University of Missouri. But when his mother took ill, he moved back to New York and transferred to NYU, where he majored in government. Deciding on a career in law, he attended Yale Law School.

But immediately upon graduation in 1953, in the midst of the Korean War, he was drafted into the Army.

"It was," he reveals, "what changed my life."

In the service, Frommer dutifully went through basic training and advanced infantry drills, fully expecting to be sent to war. He might well have been if he hadn't spoken Russian, which he picked up from his mother and studied at NYU.

Evidently, that was enough to get him assigned to Army Intelligence in Germany. Propelled by an irresistible impulse, Frommer was determined to use whatever time off he had from his military duties to explore Europe.

"It was at a time in the United States when no one went to Europe, unless you had a rich uncle," explains Frommer, who now lives in Manhattan near Lincoln Center. "And the entire travel industry said you shouldn't go there unless you could stay at the best, first-class hotels."

Frommer came to see things differently.

"I'd come to the conclusion that I had had a better experience of Europe because I had no money!" he insists. "I was staying in private homes. I was living in workingmen's districts. I was having the most exciting experience of my life."

"To my mind, and to my father's mind as well, ... the highlight of any vacation is when you get to know the people in the places that you're going," says daughter Pauline Frommer, a travel expert for CNN Headline News who is soon to launch her own line of travel guides.

As the elder Frommer was finishing his hitch, he wrote a small book, "The G.I.'s Guide to Travelling in Europe."

On the red-white-and-black cover of that 74-page publication is a simple drawing of a soldier with a small bag and a camera. The cover copy promises, among other things, the inside scoop on "G.I. Gasoline Discounts," "How to Speak 7 Languages," "Military Train Reductions" and "Living on a Shoestring."

The price was 50 cents and the author's name is given as "Pfc. Arthur Frommer." On the back, there is this advisory:

"Not for the civilian on a luxury tour but for the smart G.I."

It never occurred to Frommer to send his little book to a publisher. With about $600 from his mother and some Army buddies, he had it printed and distributed to PX stores on military bases.

Back in the U.S., he was working for a law firm when he learned that his little volume had become a big success. So on his first vacation, he returned to Europe to do more research and rewrite the book for civilians — still emphasizing inexpensive travel.

"His specialty has always been value in travel," says Herb Hiller, chairman of the Institute for Travel Writing & Photography. "He's always been iconoclastic."

What Frommer calls the "civilian-ized" book, "Europe on 5 Dollars a Day," was an immediate sensation and became the cornerstone of his empire.

"It benefited from the fact that it was never copy edited," he says. "I'm convinced, to this day, that if I'd handed it to a publishing house in New York City, it would have been given to some young English major, who had just graduated college, who would have destroyed it — taken out all the voice, all the personality."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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