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Obituary: Al Hirschfeld 1903-2003
posted April 30, 2003
 

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Al Hirschfeld, the lauded caricaturist and beloved New York City public personality claimed by multiple arts communities as one of their own, died January 20 in his sleep at his home in Manhattan's east 90s which he had purchased for a modest sum decades earlier. Hirschfeld's portraits of theater and show business personalities comprised one of the most interesting and only recently appreciated comics projects of the 20th Century: a lengthy, drawn documentary of American Arts.

Albert Hirschfeld was born on July 21, 1903 in St. Louis, Missouri to Ukrainian and German-American parents, Isaac and Rebecca. He had two older siblings -- Alexander, with whom the artist shared the shortened name "Al," and Milton, who died in 1919 during that year's noteworthy influenza epidemic.

imageIn 1915, the Hirschfelds moved from St. Louis to New York City, in part to maximize the opportunities the younger Al would have to develop his art. Hirschfeld joined the Art Students League, but sidestepped most of the available formal training for immediate and modest success working outside the home. He started as an office boy, but soon Hirschfeld found work in the art and advertising departments of several movie companies, many of which kept production offices on the East Coast as the industry moved west. By the dawn of the next decade, still in his teens, Hirschfeld was an art director for Samuel Goldwyn and Lewis Selznick.

Buoyed by an uncle's gift of $500, Hirschfeld spent a year traveling around Europe. With two friends he rented an apartment in Paris for the princely sum of $33 a year. His early interest in fine art had been in sculpture, but he found himself unable to make a living at it. He turned to painting, and in 1931 a trip to Bali and the washing-out effect of its tropical light turned his attention towards seeing the world in terms of lines rather than color. Hirschfeld also traveled to Japan and became enamored of the drawing techniques and general appreciation of art he found displayed in that country.

Hirschfeld began doing illustrations for the theater in 1926. He attended a play with press agent Richard Maney, during which he drew a sketch of the French star Sacha Guidry, making his American debut. After asking for some slight improvements and transfer to a better piece of paper, Maney made sure the sketch was sold -- it appeared on the front page of the New York Herald-Tribune. Six months later, the artist had become a freelancer working with such notables as Alexander Woolcott, who first hired Hirschfeld to do a portrait of himself. The New York Times' Sam Zolotow contacted the freelance artist to commission him to do a drawing of stage funnyman Harry Lauder. Two years later he was invited to deliver his work in person, and soon after that, the editor Lester Markel suggested that Hirschfeld limit his drawing to the Sunday theatre section. Thus began a relationship that would last over seven decades, one marked by Hirschfeld's sublime consistency and graceful line.

With his beard and lively presence, Hirschfeld became a well-known fixture at all but a handful of the important American theatre openings to take place in the 20th Century. He attended shows once in previews with sketchpad in hand, making marks he would later called "misanthropic drawings," but which were understood to be a combination of rough visuals and notations. From these he made the portrait, which was often published before opening night proper, when he would once again be in attendance. Hirschfeld was largely immune to the discomfit or the gratitude that might be aimed at him from producers and stars, and was described by many of his acquaintances as extremely comfortable in his own skin.

Despite his facility and the importance of attending a live performance, Hirschfeld did a great deal of his work in preparatory stages. He preferred to attend rehearsals, speak to costume designers, and consult with the actors themselves about plans for make-up and hairstyles. Working with material at home, Hirschfeld preferred videotapes to photographs, both in his work for theater and with stand-alone commissions. "They're very helpful because that's just as good as having somebody sit for you," he told Comics Journal interviewer Ron Jacobs in 1997.

As the years progressed, Hirschfeld began to eschew crowded ensemble scenes and spotted blacks for a greater emphasis on the line. "I try to get it simpler and simpler as time goes on," he told Jacobs. "The rest is embroidery. When I'm in a rush, I use a lot of detail, but when I have time I try to keep it simple, and that takes time because you know it's eliminating and eliminating and eliminating and get it down to its essence." While Hirschfeld admitted that his stuff was very stylized, but talked about style as both a personal imprint and a limitation. "I try not to copy myself, but I can't help it."

"It is never my aim to destroy the play or the actor by ridicule," Hirschfeld wrote in 1970 of his theatre drawings in particular and the art of caricature in general. "The passion of personal conviction belongs to the playwright; the physical interpretation of the character belongs to the actor; the delineation in line belongs to me. My contribution is to take the character -- created by the playwright and acted out by the actor -- and reinvent it for the reader."

Hirschfeld's portraits were often purchased by admirers or by the subjects themselves, and being selected for a portrait became a status symbol for show business personalities. Artists who had their portrait done by Hirschfeld felt they had finally "arrived." Some went even further: Ray Bolger was one actor of many who felt like he derived his own self-image from how he looked in his Hirschfeld drawing. The theater producer David Merrick used a not completely flattering portrait of himself as a demonic Santa Claus for his Christmas Card one year, much to Hirschfeld's befuddlement. Whoopi Goldberg used a portrait as the symbol for her production company.

One of the rare critics of Hirschfeld's work -- perhaps the only one on public record -- was television show host Allen Funt, who felt that in his portrait Hirschfeld had made him look, "like an ape." Hirschfeld's famous retort: "I had nothing to do with it. That was God's work."

Hirschfeld was well-read and well-traveled, which in the first half of the 20th Century frequently led to a well-formed political consciousness. He found communism appealing, and visited the still-dewy Soviet Union in 1927. Hirschfeld contributed lithographs to The New Masses in the 1930s and wrote a book on his observations of life in Harlem that was published in 1941. He was also a trenchant cultural and social observer for the Times, writing several pieces in the 1930s and 1940s. This body of work included one famous trashing of Walt Disney's full-length motion picture smash Snow White, which according to the Times' obituary he called an example of the "oopsy-woopsy school of art practiced mostly by etchers who portray dogs with cute sayings." The bright lights of arts and entertainment eventually won out over the cultural criticism and politically charged artwork in terms of shaping his career. A confrontation with angry readers over a caricature of Father Charles E. Coughlin hastened the decision. Yet Hirschfeld's art, particularly in book illustration, retained a political outsider's insight. Even the theatre drawings seemed to take special delight in the working man's grace and self-transformation to be found in the art form's greatest personalities.

Hirschfeld spent much of the '30s through the '50s in great demand as a book and magazine illustrator. He illustrated three prominent books in support of text by popular writers on the theater. Hirschfeld contributed art to Accustomed as I Am (Norton: 1942), Insides Out – Being the Saga of a Critic Who Attended His Own Opening (Dodd Mead: 1943), both with John Mason Brown; and the popular Broadway Scrapbook (Theatre Arts: 1947) with Brooks Atkinson. Sometimes the collaborations worked both ways. The playwright and essayist William Saroyan had provided text in support of the largely picture-driven Harlem as Seen by Hirschfeld in 1941, and Hirschfeld returned the favor with illustrations for Sons Come and Go, Mothers Hang in Forever last published in 1976 by Franklin Library. Hirschfeld also worked with Walter Kerr, Edythe McGovern and Margaret Case Herriman, but the author to whom he was most prominently linked was the humorist S.J. Perelman. Hirschfeld illustrated various Perelman articles in Holiday magazine, many of which were later expanded or simply taken from serial form and published as books: Westward Ha! (1948), Listen to the Mocking Bird (1949) and the very popular The Swiss Family Perelman (1950), all from Simon and Schuster.

For Holiday, Hirschfeld also contributed the occasional pictorial essay, a popular feature of the time where an artist would provide a series of drawing, usually a subset of people located in a strange or compelling place. In some ways they serve as a directed precursor to how many comics fans would eventually read the theatrical caricatures. "Types: Fauna of Hollywood as Caught in Their Native Haunts" appeared in January 1949, "Angel Auditions" in early 1951, and "Americans in London" in an issue published in May that next year, Hirschfeld's last piece in the magazine. Hirschfeld also provided many covers to the American Mercury magazine, which allowed him to work in color. Assignments later in his career, such as one drawing Ronald Reagan and George Bush on the campaign trail in 1984, became rare exceptions.

After his relationship with Brook Atkinson, who wrote his reviews in longhand from notes taken during shows Hirschfeld also attended, Hirschfeld's most fortuitous partnership was with S.J. Perelman. Their professional collaborations had roots in their friendship. The mercurial Perelman and the genial but substantial Hirschfeld were one of the better-known pairings in New York arts circles in the post-War era. They collaborated on one of Hirschfeld's only voyages into creating for the stage the kind of work he only received and rendered as illustration: the 1947 musical Sweet Bye and Bye, for which Perelman and his artist friend wrote the book for songwriting team Vernon Duke and Ogden Nash. It closed out of town -- meaning the producers pulled the plug on the show before taking it to New York, an event Hirschfeld famously called "a mercy-killing.

Hirschfeld was friendly with many of the people whose works were boiled down to a few lines under his pen, and offered career advice both good and bad. He pooh-poohed the chances of success for the musical that became Oklahoma! and advised Moss Hart not to adapt Pygmalion into the show My Fair Lady, examples which he would bring up himself in self-deprecating fashion. He had much more success capturing a show's essential nature than he had predicting which ones would hit with the audience. When the Times briefly tried to replace him with photos, readers rose up in anger and had the artist reinstated.

Hirschfeld's first marriage was to a showgirl named Florence Hobby, whom he wed in 1927. But according to writer Richard Corliss in his lengthy reminiscence of Hirschfeld appearing in Time, the artist's "true love? was wife number two, Dolly Haas. Hirschfeld wed Haas, seven years his junior, in 1943. Haas enjoyed a brief but notable career in German film, playing an iconic, world-weary flapper character for many of the directors from that country's cinema who would go on to enjoy careers in Hollywood. Haas would never make a Hollywood movie herself, but would appear in notable roles on stage. Appearing in plays for director Erwin Piscator, she was introduced to her future husband. They were married for 51 happy years until Haas' death in 1994. In 1996 he married Louise Kerz, a longtime whom he had met through her husband Leo, a producer.

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In 1945, the former Dolly Haas gave Hirschfeld a daughter, Nina, who would become the source of one of the longest-running jokes in American art. Upon her birth, Hirschfeld began hiding her name within his portraits, beginning with an off-hand reference in the back of a drawing for Are You With It he was working on the day of her birth. He eventually decided to include the name in every portrait, and by 1950 Hirschfeld was indicating how many there were by putting a number next to his signature. Because the act was never celebrated, for a very long time finding the Ninas was the personal secret parlor game of tens of thousands of unconnected participants. The flourish was eventually lampooned in a New Yorker cartoon and the subject of a song lyric -- and when Hirschfeld's work became the subject of study the Ninas were acknowledged. Because the game was an easy "in" to the work that had little to do with the quality Hirschfeld's art beyond the fact that his line was elegant enough to contain within its folds and curves several instances of writing, many have contempt for the act of finding Ninas. Some argued it a detriment to appreciating the entirety of Hirschfeld's artistic accomplishment. Others have suggested that the Ninas were a deft nod towards Hirshfeld's general playfulness and a key to understanding his devotion to art as entertainment. Most were too busy counting. One unique viewpoint on the Ninas is that they aided pilots in map reading, a claim made by a college professor to Hirschfeld in explaining why he had received a sizable grant to count them in his drawings.

In addition to their appearance in the Times, as advertisements for a show, and as original art, Hirschfeld's portraits were also used to illustrate the publisher Dodd Mead's influential Best Plays of... book series. Hirschfeld began to contribute drawings to the books in 1952 when the highly regarded critic Louis Kronenberger, a contemporary of Hirschfeld's, edited the annuals. In typical Hirschfeld fashion, his involvement with the annuals encompassed the service of several editors. After Kronenberg, Hirschfeld's drawing appeared in concert with Henry Hewes editorial hand. The caricaturist enjoyed an impressive three-decade run by editor Otis L. Guernsey, and more recently was in volumes featuring editorial work by Jeffrey Sweet and Jeffrey Jenkins. Hirschfeld's run also stretched over three publishing imprints. The Best of... series was an important vehicle for Hirschfeld in reaching students and theatre fans from coast to coast, readers who were not exposed to his work in the New York press. Partly through those efforts, Hirschfeld's delicate line became the avenue for many performers to imagine the stars and experience of appearing on Broadway long before they made the pilgrimage to Manhattan's theatre district. Through Hirschfeld, the New York stage kept a small portion of itself in its Golden Age long after the era had passed, if only in the imagination of those who wished to experience it first-hand.

Hirschfeld was a rarity among American artists in that he lived long enough to attend many of the major events celebrating his life and career. He became the recipient of nearly every honor that could be bestowed upon a celebrated artist, many of the more interesting endorsements coming from public authorities. In 1983, Mayor Ed Koch read his name into a public statement of praise in celebration of his 80th birthday, and the Times held a luncheon in his honor. The U.S. Postal service released a five-stamp set of famous comedians featuring Hirschfeld art in 1991, and other stand-alone stamps featuring early show business stars in roughly that same time period. In 1996 the New York Landmarks Conservatory named him one of six "living landmarks" a publicity booth for the artist and the Conservatory.

The American theatre community honored Hirschfeld several times overtly in addition to the general deference he received during public appearances and at performances. He received a special Tony in 1975, the Antoinette Perry award. In 1984, Hirschfeld was the first recipient of the Brooks Atkinson award for lifetime achievement, given to him by the League of New York Theaters and Producers and the American Theater Wing. He was honored at several dinners and functions, including the 1992 benefit of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation, who presented him with a book of portraits from many of the stars he had sketched. In fall 2002, the owners of the Martin Beck Theatre announced their plans to re-name their building after Hirschfeld, an event they would mark on his 100th birthday. Ironically, Hirschfeld was probably one of the few remaining Broadway patrons with personal memories of Beck, one of the great producers of the vaudeville era.

In the latter decades of Hirschfeld's career, the publishing industry that produced dozens of books containing his drawings began to produce several for which Hirschfeld and his body of work were the focus rather than the method of exploration. The World of Hirschfeld (Harry N. Abrams) was published in 1970, while Hirschfeld: Art and Recollections from Eight Decades (Scribners) appeared in 1991. That volume was followed by 1998's In Line with Al Hirschfeld (Katonah), a volume done in relation to a major museum retrospective of which Hirschfeld's art, once considered slight, had become a staple. Hirshfeld's work is in the collections of many museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan, the Fogg Museum in Cambridge, Mass., and the museums of art in St. Louis and Cleveland. Between 1971 and 2000, Madison Avenue's prestigious Feiden Gallery sold Hirschfeld's work, interrupted by the artist firing the gallery and suing its owners in 2000 Feiden, who began work as Hirschfeld's agent in 1969, continued to maintain a professional relationship with the artist. Her gallery sponsors the artist's on-line home www.alhirschfeld.com.

imageHirschfeld became a ubiquitous and unique part of the American cultural landscape, showing up where least expected. He endorsed American Express in 1979 and Absolut Vodka in 1993. In 1996, in conjunction with the release of a major documentary about his life, artists copied a 40-foot-long self-portrait of the artist onto Madison Avenue. The barber shop chair from which Hirschfeld drew his theatre-related art from its purchase in 1927 until its springs started to show through was donated to the Smithsonian. NBC television used his peacock animation for years as their corporate symbol, although Hirschfeld admitted to Jacobs, "I never saw it."

The animation and comics industries paid their own tributes to Hirschfeld. The Genie character voiced by Robin Williams in Aladdin was based on the artist's line work, and was put to similar versatile use in that character's rapid-fire celebrity impersonations. The best-reviewed portion of the disappointing Fantasia 2000 suite of animated shorts was the "Rhapsody in Blue" sequence, done not only in approximation of the artist's style but containing a few Ninas in its cityscape's graffiti. The 1996 documentary by Susan Warms Dryfoos, The Line King: Al Hirschfeld, was well-received and brought Hirschfeld's personality and remarkable presence to tens of thousands of interested audience members. It was nominated for an Academy Award.

Hirschfeld was also claimed by cartoonists, particularly in his final decade, despite the difference that several artists and scholars distinguish between the techniques of cartooning and caricature. Hirschfeld was one of several artists, like the New Yorker artist Saul Steinberg and children's book author Maurice Sendak, whose reputations as comics artists were enhanced by the call to define the medium in terms of how the art was applied rather than what components made it up. Hirschfeld was feted by the National Cartoonists Society in 1996, with many of the nation's top cartoonists paying verbal tribute to Hirschfeld's artistic skill and professional longevity. He was given that year's Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award. Hirschfeld's theater caricatures for the Times were named as one of the top 100 comics efforts of the 20th Century by this magazine in 1999.

His popularity undimmed and the assumption widespread that he might live forever, Hirschfeld continued to work almost until the time of his death. According to Feiden in the New York Times, Hirschfeld worked from 10 AM to 5 PM. Served cookies and tea at 4 PM, Hirschfeld ate with his left hand and drew with his right. Working seven days a week, it is approximated he completed over 10,000 drawings -- and in doing so, defined the way generations of people view a specific part of 20th Century America.

Al Hirschfeld was 99 years old. The city of New York and the world communities surrounding theatre, caricature and comics all marked his passing, and with it one of the last surviving links to vital, grander, sunnier times. He is survived by third wife Louise Kerz, his daughter Nina, and a grandson, Matthew.

Originally published in The Comics Journal #250

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