The artist, the philanthropist, the sculpture: Paul Conrad, Joan Kroc and the secret history of Chain Reaction

This is the story of an embattled sculpture in Santa Monica, and the curious, once-secret story of how it came to be.

It begins with the late Paul Conrad, best known for his incendiary editorial cartoons at the Los Angeles Times. Over the course of his career, his work won him three Pulitzer prizes and a place on Nixon’s enemies list. (He said he was prouder of the latter than of the former.)

Not content with his success in one medium, Paul Conrad took to making sculptures. Some were religious in nature (Conrad was a devout Catholic). Others depicted political figures, small bronzes that packed a similar punch as his one-dimensional art.

(R) One of Conrad’s few sculptures on display, at St. John Fisher church in Rancho Palos Verdes.

The late Joan Kroc was the heir to the fortune her husband amassed by franchising McDonald’s. She sought out artists and great brains, and was known to sponsor them, just because she wanted to–and could well afford to. In the ’80s, right after her conservative husband, Ray, passed away, Mrs. Kroc became deeply involved in the no-nukes movement. She took out ads in newspapers across the country, gave millions to the Carter Center, funded a peace center at Notre Dame (and later on, one at the University of San Diego.)

When she approached Paul Conrad at a talk he gave, he didn’t know who she was. Eventually, the two became close friends, and Conrad and his wife Kay even vacationed with the heiress.

(L) Paul Conrad, the artist. (R) The late Joan Kroc.

It was likely on a yacht trip that the subject of Chain Reaction came up. Kay Conrad is almost 85 now. She doesn’t remember for sure, but she does know the family was sworn to secrecy about who was funding the proposed sculpture. It seemed a slam-dunk pairing: An acclaimed artist arriving at the Santa Monica City Council with the necessary $250 thousand to make it a reality.

The sketch that inspired the sculpture
The sketch that inspired the sculpture

Not everyone was so keen to have a 26 foot tall mushroom cloud installed in Santa Monica. There was so much back and forth that at one point Conrad took the idea to Beverly Hills. Ultimately, they rejected it. Eventually, the massive artwork did find a home in Santa Monica’s civic center, but not till four years after Conrad initially proposed it.

Chain Reaction almost landed in Beverly Hills.

Now, after over 20 years of bathing in the salty ocean air, the public art piece called Chain Reaction is in the cross-hairs: the city wants to tear it down, claiming that it’s a safety hazard–that to fix it would cost more than it did to build. Activists want to preserve it, both because of its cultural significance and because, they say, the threat of nuclear war is no less great than it was when the piece was erected back in 1991.

Today, on the eve of what would have been the 85th birthday of Joan Kroc, and with five months to go before the fate of the work is sealed, it seems a good time to look at the curious back story.

Joan Kroc took out ads in major newspapers across the country in 1985, decrying nuclear weapons.