Lili Wronker, Calligrapher and illustrator, is dead at 94


In an ink-and-watercolor diary that showed youthful sophistication, Wronker described her travels, a Hollywood musical she had seen (“The Under-Pup,” starring another teenager, Gloria Jean), blackouts in London and her fears about the widening conflict.

On one page, she drew herself wearing a gas mask. “We got smart new gas mask holders,” she wrote. “I think people look like funny animals when they wear gas masks. I only wished they will never need them.”

For Wronker, the diary was the start of a career as a widely admired book illustrator and calligrapher, with a distinctive hand in writing Hebrew.

“When I create letters or illustrations,” she said in “Love Is a Fine Pen,” a short film about her by Chhaya Bhanti and Terrence Tessaro, “I don’t deliberately analyze why, how or when. The answer comes from within, from instincts, from memory, from past knowledge. The whole process of drawing and writing, to me, is as mysterious as life itself.”

Wronker died Jan. 10 at a hospital in Mount Holly, New Jersey, near her home in Medford, her son, Eytan, said. She was 94.

Wronker was a devout typophile — she was a founding member of the Society of Scribes in New York — whose fascination with the shape and form of letters found creative expression on hundreds of book jackets between the 1940s and ‘60s. They included “Einstein: A Pictorial Biography” (1955), by William Cahn; “Jolly Jingles for the Jewish Child” (1947), by Ben Aronin; and “The Adventures of Ellery Queen: Eleven Problems in Crime Deduction” (1947).

She often also provided the illustrations inside the books.

Her love of Judaism — a reflection of her heritage more than her religious passion — found artistic expression in her Hebrew calligraphy, which appeared in fine-art books and magazines. Her scholarly knowledge of the field led her to record a video about the history of the Hebrew alphabet.

“Her connection to being Jewish was so strong and overflowing, she couldn’t contain it,” Misha Beletsky, the art director of the fine-art publisher Abbeville Press and president of Typophiles, a New York organization devoted to typography and book design, said by phone. “She had so much joy in being Jewish that it permeated her whole life.”

Neil Yerman, a renowned Torah scribe, said Wronker had stood out in the world of Hebrew calligraphers even though that part of her work was not widely published. “She was steeped in the propriety of distinctive calligraphic traditions,” he said in a telephone interview, “and devoted to maintaining the spirit of classical forms.”

Lili Cassel was born in Berlin on May 5, 1924, to Dr. Josef and Edith (Basch) Cassel. Her father was a dermatologist, her mother a homemaker.

Lili was 14 when Nazis violently attacked Jews and their property throughout Germany, Austria and parts of what was then Czechoslovakia on the night of Nov. 9-10, 1938, which came to be known as Kristallnacht. The pogroms prompted her parents to send her and her sister, Eve, to a boarding school in Haslemere, Surrey, about 45 miles southwest of London.

Josef Cassel eventually followed his daughters, living in a rented room in London; his wife stayed in Germany and Belgium for another 18 months. The family reunited in 1940 and emigrated to the United States.

In a diary entry before she left England, Lili painted two girls walking from what appears to be a small village to a skyscraper in the United States. “We are leaving you, the holidays and a country in war,” she wrote, “for a stormy sea and the country of thousand possibilities. We only wish that no mine will undermine our hopes.”

After settling in Queens borough of New York City, Lili received an arts education at Washington Irving High School in Manhattan. She took an unfulfilling job in the promotions department of Time magazine, then spent the rest of her career as a freelance artist.

One of her first projects was illustrating “The Rainbow Mother Goose,” which was named one of the top 50 books of the year by the American Institute of Graphic Arts in 1947.

Wronker would go on to illustrate dozens of other children’s books.

In 1952 she married Erich Wronker, a printer at the United Nations. They built a small side business in their apartment in Queens, where they printed greeting cards and other products.

“We had a 900-square-foot apartment, two printing presses and 10,000 books,” her daughter, Rona Wronker, said.

In addition to her son and daughter, Wronker is survived by a grandson. Her husband died in 1996.

Her passion for calligraphy led her to leave a note to her children about 20 years ago that outlined the lettering she wanted for her gravestone.

“This is nothing to cry about,” she told them. “I just hate ugly lettering.”

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