New York City's Landmarks Conservancy pronounced him a Living Landmark in 1996. Now, alas, he no longer lives. But his drawings do, each one a landmark of the vibrant purity of his exquisite line art.
"His drawings will last for centuries," said Arthur Gelb, former managing editor of the New York Times upon hearing of the death, on January 20 at age 99, of Al Hirschfeld, whose caricatures in theatrical tableaux had defined the newspaper's Sunday theater section for decades.
"Like Daumier," Gelb continued, "Hirschfeld's drawings will be looked at and studied."
If you need to be told that Hirschfeld was the nation's foremost caricaturist (he preferred "characterist")—that his sweeping, undulating line is matchless in supple grace and telling simplicity, that his likenesses of show business personalities and (even) the stray politician is eerily accurate, that his compositions are playful interpretations of plays as well as personages—then you haven't been paying attention for the last seventy-five years.
During most of that period, one name has dominated theatrical caricature in America. Although in the popular conception he stands virtually alone these days, Hirschfeld was the last of a breed that proliferated in the earliest years of the last century, prospered with the burgeoning of magazine journalism, and reached an apotheosis in the twenties and thirties, particularly in the pages of Vanity Fair, which gloried in full-color celebrity caricatures. Hirschfeld emerged from the pack when he began concentrating on theatrical caricatures for New York newspapers in 1926, developing his own distinctive style. And for unadulterated flowing economy of linear expression, no one has ever equaled him. He set the standard. The Hirschfeld style is The Way to draw show business caricatures. There is no other way to do it.
In his portrayal of the cast and ambiance of a stage production or a movie or a tv show, he achieved symphonic compositions of line, mass, texture, and shape, masterpieces in black-and-white, and in rendering action, particularly, his incomparable line achieves its ultimate expressiveness, where single lines coil and spring in imitation of the performers' motion.
Born on the first day of summer in 1903 in St. Louis, Hirschfeld, at the age of 11, was told by his art teacher that "there is nothing more we can teach you in St. Louis." His family promptly moved to New York, and Hirschfeld was enrolled in the Art Students League forthwith. Shortly thereafter he was smitten by the stage and learned to tap dance and play the ukulele.
At 17, he launched a show business career as an errand boy for Goldwyn Pictures Publicity Department in New York. He was soon doing artwork rather than footwork, and by the next year, he was art director at Selznick Pictures. He went to Paris in 1924 to pursue the Bohemian artistic life as painter and sculptor. He shared a studio-apartment with three others, and because it had no hot water, he stopped shaving. He stopped shaving all the rest of his life.
In 1926, he was back in New York, and in 1927, he signed a contract with MGM to do promotional drawings at $15,000 a year, a relationship that lasted 30 years. But Hirschfeld never lived or worked in Hollywood: in the 1920s, the motion picture business had as much presence in New York as it had in Los Angeles.
The blossoming of the American film industry altered the nature of caricature. Until roughly the 1920s, caricature was almost exclusively a weapon of the political cartoonist, and its function was to ridicule the person caricatured. But as caricaturists started producing work for motion picture studios and theatrical ventures, the role of the caricaturist changed: instead of destroying celebrity, he venerated it—even, sometimes, created it.
Hirschfeld's caricatures of the Marx Brothers defined their look. After his posters for their 1935 movie, A Night at the Opera, all other caricatures of the zany trio looked like Hirschfeld's. Even the MGM make-up crew joined in, trying, in their second movie, A Day at the Races, to make the brothers look like Hirschfeld's drawings with Groucho's hair teased to resemble the two triangles Hirschfeld gave him in his caricature.
The Marx Brothers phenomenon was celebrity caricature in microcosm: actors in those years were "glandular actors," Hirschfeld said: "Every gesture is big and sweeping, and they're great to draw." They were larger than life, hugely theatrical personalities, and so, logically, they looked like their caricatures.
The Marx Brothers remained a favorite subject with Hirschfeld all his life—including the penultimate day of it: his last drawing, done on Saturday the 18th, was of the Marx Brothers, a private commission.
Hirschfeld realized that an aspect of the phenomenon of caricature was that the subject could begin to look more like the drawing than he looked like himself. Ray Bolger, actor and dancer extraordinaire, once claimed that his stage appearance was copied from the artist's conception of him.
Hirschfeld's first theatrical drawing was published, almost accidentally, in the New York Herald Tribune on December 26, 1926, and he contributed a drawing every week for the next dozen or so years. For awhile during the thirties, he also indulged a social conscience, drawing for The New Masses, a radical political magazine with Socialist (if not Communist) ambitions.
He and the magazine came to a parting of the ways in a dispute over the way he caricatured Father Charles Coughlin, a right-wing, anti-Semitic radio priest, and Hirschfeld renounced political cartooning: "I have ever since been closer to Groucho Marx than Karl," he said.
Hirschfeld did not begin with the line for which he is now so celebrated. But within a year of his newspaper debut, it was in evidence. Still, by his own account, it was not until he visited the South Pacific island of Bali in 1931 that his love affair with line began in earnest: on the island, the sun bleached out all color, he said, "leaving everything in pure line." By the time he returned to New York, he had abandoned painting to concentrate on black-and-white pen-and-ink rendering. He gave up sculpting, too. "Sculpture," he once said, "is a drawing you trip over in the dark."
Hirschfeld's early inspirations were Al Frueh and Miguel Covarrubias. He shared a studio with the latter in the early days, and it was Covarrubias, Hirschfeld said, who demonstrated to him that caricatures could be designs, abstract shapes arranged in telling configurations.
Barbra Steisand was birdlike in Hirschfeld's drawing—all points, with a wide-open mouth and exotically lidded eyes. Rotund Zero Mostel, drawn as Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof," was a circle of black beard and hair, fierce eyes glowering up at a heaven that didn't comprehend. Phil Silvers was all high forehead, enormous eyeglasses and a tiny curve for a mouth.
Although Hirschfeld claimed he left painting behind, he didn't entirely: he used his pen like a brush, bringing his magnificent line into being not with a single sweeping gesture but with repeated short strokes, one after the other, going over and over the line as he expanded and built it up.
In 1943, he married a noted European actress, Dolly Haas. The same year, he agreed to do his theatrical drawings exclusively for the New York Times. For the next sixty years, he did so, but he never had a contract: he worked on a freelance basis and retained ownership of his drawings, which, it is estimated, number in the vicinity of 7,000 (some of which are on display at www.alhirschfeld.com).
His non-theatrical efforts—renditions of motion pictures, television shows and personalities, politicians and other cultural effusions—were published in virtually every magazine of any significance. Except, strangely, The New Yorker. Strange because Hirschfeld was the epitome of a New Yorker. We are left to conclude that the magazine's notably eccentric and dictatorial founding editor, Harold Ross, had been miffed by a visual prank Hirschfeld played in 1937.
For Life magazine, Hirschfeld produced a series of "photo-doodles," photographs that, with a few strokes of his brush, the artist transformed into other personages. He turned a photograph of Jimmy Durante into Al Smith, onetime governor of New York. To the visage of the autocratic Ross, he affixed a moustache, converting him into Joseph Stalin. He also transformed Mary Pickford into Adolf Hitler, but the only one of his victims who probably took offense was Ross. How else to account for Hirschfeld's being banished from the magazine whose pages he was so obviously suited to grace?
In recent years, though, Hirschfeld drawings have cropped up in the magazine. At long last.
For much of his career, Hirschfeld's artwork was controlled by Margo Feiden, whose gallery had exclusive rights for the exhibition, sale and licensing of his work. In 2000, however, he took her to court in order to assert his right to determine without her consent when and where his creations could be exhibited. He dropped the suit when they negotiated a new contract by which he regained control of his art.
Hirschfeld drawings have been displayed in numerous museums—the Metropolitan, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney in Manhattan, and art museums in Cambridge, St. Louis, and Cleveland, to name a few.
In Broadway's theaters, Hirschfeld was a fixture on opening nights, sitting on the aisle, making cryptic sketches unseen on a notepad concealed in his pocket—"a couple of huge eyes," he said in describing himself, "and a huge mattress" of white beard. "No forehead," he continued; "the forehead that you see is just the hair disappearing."
"It was an honor to be drawn by him," actress Bernadette Peters said. "He did his interpretation of your performance, and each time he drew you, it was different, capturing what you did on stage."
After the play, Hirschfeld would go back to his brownstone in the East 90s and convert his pocket notes into the elegant drawing that would appear on Sunday. He famously sat at his drawingboard on a barber's chair, which he liked, so the story goes, because he can raise and lower the seat to suit his body English. But after seeing one of the photographs of him in one of the book compilations of his work, I suspect there's yet another reason: you can tilt a barber's chair back into a nearly horizontal position, perfect for a quick afternoon nap.
In 1945, momentarily in the grip of fatherly pride, he insinuated into a drawing a little piece of mischief that would become a Sunday parlor game for generations. To celebrate the birth of his daughter, he started hiding the child's name, Nina, in his drawings, thereby inaugurating what he calls the "national insanity" of readers' trying to count the number of times the name appears, sometimes as strands of hair, sometimes as folds in a shirt, sometimes in the filigree of a piece of jewelry, sometimes all the above and more in a single drawing.
When he began the practice, he didn't think anyone would notice. He regarded it as a private, family joke. But when he stopped doing it after a few weeks, thinking the joke had run its course, letters poured in.
"I found myself spending more time answering the mail than drawing," he said, "so I gave up and put it back in. And kept it in."
Hirschfeld was finally persuaded to give his readers a hint: next to his signature, he jotted the number of Ninas in each picture. And the parlor game then consisted of finding as many Ninas as he'd said were there. Once, asked by his editor to find the five Ninas he alleged were in a drawing, he was stumped, for a time, after finding four. When, at last, he found the fifth, secreted in the folds of a fur coat, he exclaimed: "This could drive a person crazy!"
In some quarters, Nina-hunting got serious. The U.S. Department of Defense once used blow-ups of Hirschfeld drawings projected on a screen as an exercise: 100 bomber pilots were given 20 seconds to find the Ninas as training in target spotting.
"The art of caricature," Hirschfeld wrote in the introduction to The World of Hirschfeld, "or rather, the special branch of it that interests me, is not necessarily one of malice. It is never my aim to destroy the play or the actor by ridicule. . . . My contribution is to take the character—created by the playwright and acted out by the actor—and reinvent it for the reader."
Only once, he admitted, did he set out to portray a person unfavorably: it was an ironic depiction of David Merrick, the producer, whom Hirschfeld drew as a demonic Santa Claus. The picture yielded mixed results.
"I did everything I could to make him look bad," Hirschfeld said, "and what happened? He bought the original from me and used it on his Christmas card!"
Except for Santa Merrick, all Hirschfeld's portraits have been affectionate. Playwright Arthur Miller's description is apt:
"People in a Hirschfeld drawing all share the one quality of energetic joy in life that they all wish they had in reality. Looking at a Hirschfeld drawing of yourself is the best thing for tired blood. The sheer tactile vibrance of the lines and their magical relationships to each other make you feel that all is not lost, that you still have a way to go before bed, that life can be wonderful, that he has found a wit in your miserable features that may yet lend you a style and a dash you were never aware of in yourself.
"And he accomplishes these miracles because he serves his secret. In service to that secret, he makes us all seem like a purposeful, even merry, band of vagabonds whose worst features he has redeemed. . . . He makes all these people look interesting . . . because they probably are to him."
Although Hirschfeld is one of the most articulate of artists, he claimed not to be able to explain some of the phenomenon in what he does. Enchanted by "line," he said that he'd tried to find out why it communicates and how, but "I must say I'm no closer to finding a definition for it than I was when I started. All I know is that when it works, I'm aware of it. But how it's accomplished, I don't know.
"I come out of the theater with a lot of abstract little markings that I then translate into line," he continued. "The important thing is that the drawing look a little bit like the actor I'm drawing. There is a lot of trial and error, and a lot of erasing until I can get it as far as I can, before the final inking. It is not a pretty process.
"After 70 years of drawing," he went on, "you have to improve, otherwise you are a dolt. You take a blank piece of paper and create a problem that didn't exist before and then you solve it to your best satisfaction. It is a question of elimination and understanding, of trial and error, and suddenly something happens, an epiphany. I'll look at it and say to myself, "Did I do that?'"
His deference notwithstanding, his discussion of caricature is illuminating.
"I try to capture the character of the play or the individual rather than making a caricature for caricature's sake," he said. "Making a big nose bigger isn't witty."
It's not just a matter of exaggeration, he insisted. (And any one of us who dabbles in caricature knows that is true.) By way of explaining, Hirschfeld once talked about how we all can recognize acquaintances from long distances. They may be dressed differently than we've ever seen them, but we still recognize them. Something about the way they hold themselves, their heads, arms; something about the way they move.
We all have this ability to recognize others. "I don't know what happens there," Hirschfeld said, "but it has nothing to do with anatomy, surely. You can't tell whether he has a big nose or a small nose, big ears or small ears. . . . So what communicates?
"My talent," he concluded, "is to take what exists in everyone—that talent for recognition—and make it palpable to the reader. . . . How this is done, I don't have a clue. I don't know any more about it now than when I started except that, I say, it's the same thing of recognition. I sometimes slave over a drawing, erasing and erasing, and then eliminating and eliminating, and suddenly something on the paper registers with me, and I say, "Hey—that's it! That looks like him!' When it works, occasionally, people see the same thing as I see."
I've never read a better description—however much this one seems to be groping—of what a caricaturist aims for. He aims to make others recognize the familiar in what he draws, and he does it by mysterious alchemy, partly by exaggerating but mostly by making recognizable a somewhat abstracted picture of his subject.
Both his profession and the nation have bestowed honors on Hirschfeld, particularly in the last decade or so. The National Cartoonists Society gave him the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996.
In 1975, he received a special Tony, an Antoinette Perry Award, signaling that the theater world welcomed him not only as an observer but as one of its own, and in 1984, he was the first recipient of the Brooks Atkinson Award.
In 1991, the U.S. Postal Service issued a series of stamps bearing Hirschfeld's caricatures of comedians; and in 1994, he did another series of silent film stars. And if you saved the folder that the former came in, you have a collector's item: no other stamp booklet has had the artist's name on the cover.
In 1996, Susan Dryfoos produced a videotape, "The Line King," which tells "The Al Hirschfeld Story" and also lets us see him at work, stroking that impeccable line into being.
The ultimate honor for the stage-struck artist came last fall when it was announced that on his 100th birthday, next June 21st, the Martin Beck Theater on West 45th would be renamed the Al Hirschfeld Theater. It will be the first time a Broadway theater has been named after a visual artist.
And on the Friday before he died, according to Louise Kerz, an arts historian he married in 1996 two years after Dolly Haas died, Hirschfeld received word that he had been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. On the same day, the White House told him he would be one of the recipients of the National Medal of the Arts. Hirschfeld was undoubtedly pleased, but he said only, "If you live long enough, everything happens."
Hirschfeld's drawings have been collected in several books—including The World of Hirschfeld, The American Theatre as Seen by Hirschfeld, and Hirschfeld: Art and Recollections from Eight Decades. Perhaps the most engaging is the recent Hirschfeld On Line (1999), which includes comments by the artist on every drawing.
He both illustrated and wrote a light-hearted primer of the entertainment world, Show Business Is No Business. It is the first Hirschfeld book I ever owned, and even though he wrote it, I've never read it. I look at the pictures, which include scores that are not caricatures of celebrities but pictures of imaginary showbiz denizens.
Another cast of imaginary Hirschfeld characters illustrates Garson Kanin's Runyonesque Do Re Mi, a fictional expose of the "jukebox gangland world." But in The Lively Years: 1920-1973 by theater critic Brooks Atkinson, theatrical caricatures abound. And all of the members of the famed Algonquin Roundtable appear under Hirschfeld's pen in Margaret Case Harriman's The Vicious Circle.
He collaborated with humorist S.J. Perelman on several projects, including a travel series of articles for Holiday magazine subsequently published as a book, Westward Ha! Around the World in 80 Cliches, and a musical, "Sweet Bye and Bye," which opened and closed on the same night in Philadelphia. Other joint enterprises with Perelman include The Swiss Family Perelman and Listen to the Mocking Bird.
Hirschfeld once compared drawing and writing for publication:
"The artist has a much better, easier chance editorially to express himself than a writer," he said. "I've seen at the Times an editor taking an article by Winston Churchill, who is a great prose writer, and edit it. Scratch out things, rearrange sentences, cut out whole paragraphs, cross things out. As I'm watching, I'm saying, "You know if you ever did that with a drawing, you'd be garroted; no artist would allow you to do that.'
"They may not accept the drawing . . . but they would never take a pencil and rearrange the face and turn it the other way or add something to it. They have more respect for drawings than they have for writing, apparently."
It is widely accepted in show business, as Gelb said, that "you haven't arrived until you've been drawn by Al."
Many coveted the drawing as well as the accolade. Hirschfeld did a full-color caricature of Liberace for the cover of Collier's in 1954. Liberace wanted to obtain the painting, his agent said in a letter to the characterist, and when Hirschfeld replied by quoting a price, the agent fired off a furious response, saying that Liberace owned many paintings of himself done by famous artists, none of whom had ever asked for payment.
Hirschfeld wrote back, apologizing for the misunderstanding and his seeming ingratitude. "I promised faithfully to dispatch the original painting to Mr. Liberace posthaste without payment of any kind, to hang in his living room," Hirschfeld continued, "—on one condition—that you send me Mr. Liberace to hang in mine."
For most of this century, Hirschfeld's pen-and-ink players—some with stars twinkling for eyes, others with whirling pinwheels or blind squints or starkly staring dots—gesticulated extravagantly with tentacle fingers at the end of elastic arms and loped or swirled joyfully across the front page of the theater section or just loitered there. Either way, they created a visual chronicle of American show business in the 20th century, both catalogue and history.
After a play closes, often all that is left of it for the record are a handful of newspaper reviews—and Hirschfeld's drawing. Every public document should be so delightfully witty and affectionate, benignly perceptive as well as amusing.
Click on the thumbnails below to view gallery images: