Born in Chicago in 1921, Franklin McMahon’s first artworks were grammar school posters in Beverly Hills, California, and cartoons for his high school newspaper in Oak Park, Illinois. These were the years of the Great Depressions so he began marketing his work at an early age, sending batches of drawings to the many magazines that published gag cartoons. To help pay the postage, he sold shares in each batch to his classmates. A major sale to Collier’s two weeks before graduation in 1939 led to an apprenticeship with an art studio in Chicago.
In 1945 he and Irene Leahy married and were inseparable for the next fifty-two years until Irene’s death in 1997. They attended classes and lectures at Chicago’s Institute of Design, and all ideas were discussed at the dinner table. Over the years, nine additional creative chairs were added to that table: five boys and four girls… and, eventually, thirteen grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
As a designer-illustrator in the early years following the war, McMahon made drawings and laid out pages for Extension, Rotarian, Kiwanis, and other Chicago magazines, ad agencies, and book publishers. Asked to design a book on the Constitution of Illinois by the publisher Row-Peterson, he suggested that he travel throughout the state to make drawings of situations and people affected by that Constitution. Everyone agreed and off he went.
Impressed with the series, the editors of Life magazine asked McMahon to report on the Summer, Mississippi, trial of the men accused of killing Emmitt Till, a teenager from Chicago. Moses Wright, the boy’s great-uncle, shook off two hundred years of history when he stood up to paint out the men who had come in the night to take the boy. McMahon’s drawings was considered by many to be one of the catalysts for the American Civil Rights movement. His coverage of the movement also included the voting rights demonstrations in Selma, Alabama; the Million Man March; and Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns.
McMahon did two more trials for Life, but soon began to feel that the photo magazine would never use him for anything outside the courtroom. If he was going to move on, he would have to do it on his own, initiate his own reports and find a place for them later. He went to Europe to cover the Common Market, and returned for the opening day of Vatican Council II. These portfolios were published by Fortune, The Saturday Evening Post, Jubilee, and Look.
Now the phone began to ring and his suggested coverage of goose hunting in Cairo, Illinois, for Sports Illustrated led to other assignments including the San Diego-Acapulco yacht race, The Royal Bangkok Sports Club, partridge hunting in Spain, and other stories. His report, “Germany, Twenty Years Later,” ran in the Chicago Tribune. His coverage of the Catholic Church includes Pope Paul VI in Jerusalem, and Pope John Paul II’s trips to the United States, Mexico, and Poland. Most recently he covered The Parliament of the World’s Religions in South Africa, published by U.S. Catholic magazine. He had a twelve-year association with Continental Bank, Chicago, reporting on their business affairs in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Australia. NASA’s book, Eyewitness To Space, shows twenty McMahon drawings and paintings. He was at Mission Control, Houston, for the first landing on the moon.
In 1960 McMahon did portraits of political figures Adlai Stevenson, Eleanor Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. In 1964 he captured Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, and began a series on political conventions that has extended to that of George W. Bush in 2000. In 1968 McMahon went to New Hampshire to cover the Eugene McCarthy anti-war movement and ended up amid the chaos of Grant Park in Chicago. This documentary-in-art, which consisted of four hundred drawings and paintings, ran on PBS. Similar programs were made for CBS, Chicago, in 1972, 1976, and, 1980, resulting in three Emmys and a Peabody Award.
Irene McMahon was in Selma with her husband and accompanied him to Cape Kennedy. They saw linkage between these two themes that became stories on the new American South. She and their children worked on the films, and she was associate producer of their program reporting on the Chicago Orchestra’s 1974 tour of Europe. The McMahons formed a film distribution company called Rocinante Sight & Sound, named for Don Quixote’s horse, underlining the spirit of their whole operation. As their children grew Irene became a travel writer and collaborated with Franklin on many stories of international magazines and local newspapers such as Pioneer Press in the suburbs of Chicago.