"He Drew Broadway"
"All I know is that when it works, I'm aware of it. But how it's accomplished, I don't know."
- Al Hirschfeld, of his own work.
B. June 21, 1903. D. January 21, 2003. - A masterful American caricaturist, known for his simple, yet elegant sketches of Hollywood and Broadway stars. It was often said that you still hadn't made it if Hirshfeld hadn't drawn you yet. He worked for longer than most people live, and while his death marks the end of an amazing career, his art will continue to amaze and amuse for generations to come.
Al was born on the first day of summer in St. Louis, Missouri, and it wasn't long before his talents were recognized. Before his twelfth birthday, his art teacher happily informed his parents, "there is nothing more we can teach him here." They soon found themselves in New York City, where Al attended the Art Student's League. A short stint with Samuel Goldwyn Studios doing ads soon led to a position with Selznick Studios, where he quickly became their art director - all before he was 18 years old! Unfortunately, within four years the studio went bankrupt and left the young artist struggling to pay off his employees. A job with Warner Brothers gave him the money he needed, and as a reward, a kind uncle bought him a ticket to Paris. After a few months in the world of Bohemians, he returned to New York ready to begin his career as a painter, when random acts of fate conspired to put him on a different path forever.
One night in December, 1926, Hirschfeld attended the theatre with his friend, Richard Maney, who also happened to be a talent scout. While watching the performance, Hirschfeld idly sketched a small picture of one of the actors on stage, Sacha Guitry on his program. Maney, recognizing the talent, begged the budding artist to redraw the portrait on a clean sheet of paper, which he then took to the NY Herald-Tribune. On December 26, the drawing was published, launching Al's career in a direction he never expected.
"No one 'writes' more accurately of the performing arts than Al Hirschfeld. He accomplishes on a blank page with his pen and ink in a few strokes what many of us need a lifetime of words to say."
--Terence McNally (playwright)
Within two years, Al Hirschfeld was practically a household name. His drawings had appeared in five different newspapers, capturing the essence of theatre-life in New York City in simple strokes and elegant swirls. He soon had an exclusive contract with the New York Times, and the attention of the world.
By the thirties, he had become a rite-of-passage for the rising stars of Broadway - to be "Hirschfelded" was a sure indication of fame as often as it was the catalyst, as evidenced by previously unheard of Carol Channing's sudden popularity when her Hirschfeld appeared in The Times.
The forties marked an important decade for Hirschfeld from both a professional standpoint, as he branched out into books, (illustrating for the likes of S. J. Perelman, Fred Allen, and Brooks Atkinson) and from a personal standpoint, as he married famous European actress, Dolly Haas. Dolly would bring more than just joy to Hirschfeld's life, and in 1945, just two years after they were married, little Nina was born.
Nina is perhaps one of the more famous and curious aspects of Hirschfeld's art. Ever the proud father, Al doodled her name into the background of the piece he was working on for a play (Are You With It). This "harmless insanity," as he liked to call it, expanded into a sort of game he played with his audience, as he hid her name in the folds of a skirt, or strands of hair. To aid his loyal Nina-watchers, he even began including a number beside his signature to indicate how many Ninas he had hidden in each drawing. The military thought enough of his work to use his pictures as a test for bomber pilots - projecting a Hirschfeld onto a screen, and giving candidates 30 seconds to spot all the Ninas. Her name appears in nearly every drawing, lithograph and etching he's done since then, with one notable exception: Nina's Revenge, a piece he and Dolly did together to celebrate Nina's twentieth birthday. There were no Ninas in it - only Als and Dollys.
"People who study Hirschfeld drawings carefully realize that, in addition to being amusing, they are works of art, and many of them masterpieces. In the field of calligraphy, Al is a genius. He is a master of line, perspective and design. The principal museums in America buy his drawings because they are not only vivid records of people everyone knows but also part of the twentieth century. Manners and styles will change. But Al's drawings will remain, like those of Cruikshank, Daumier, and Toulouse-Lautrec, as records of a way of life by an artist who has a point of view.”
Hirschfeld was a modern day Midas
- everything he drew was golden, and he wasn't shy about sharing it. After Nina's birth, he expanded his talents to illustrating books, creating etchings
and even lithographies
. No one could get enough of his unique sense of the human form. He experimented with a few other styles, but always came back to the simplicity of the line. Over the next several decades, his work appeared in magazines, newspapers, and even museums all over the world. It is suspected that there are over 7,000 original pieces by Hirschfeld in existance. The quality of his work did not go unrecognized, either - he received two Tony awards
in honour of his contributions to the theatre, including the "Brooks Atkinson Award
", as well as dozens of other awards and recognitions.
In 1991, Hirschfeld was treated to a never-before-heard-of honour: Not only was he asked to do a series of postage stamps (of famous funny men like Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Jack Benny, Fanny Brice and Bud Abbott and Lou Costello ), but for the first time, the Postal Service allowed an artist to sign his work on a postage stamp - and include the popular hidden Ninas. Hirschfeld's "Comedians" proved to be so successful that they asked him to do it again in 1994, this time for "Silent Film Stars", which was just as well-received.
Unfortunately, 1994 also marked a sad time in Hirschfeld's life. His advisor, partner, and most importantly, wife for over 50 years, Dolly, passed away. Despite the sadness, he moved on, and two years later, found himself in love again, this time with Louisa Kerz, a research historian of the arts, and longtime friend.
"It's not work. Work to me is something you don't want to do, but you have to do it to live. But what I do, I would do whether anybody wanted it or didn't want it."
--Al Hirschfeld on his art
He truly did love what he did, and couldn't stand to be idle. "I never take a day off," he once said. "When I travel, I would always draw. I wouldn't know what else to do." And it shows. Even at 99, he was still drawing every day, and readers of The New York Times
just last month were treated to a classic Hirschfeld of entertainer Tommy Tune
, complete with four hidden Ninas.
His artwork was marked by an economy of line and fluid style, along with the characteristic spiky cross-hatching and graceful poses, and while often imitated, will never be duplicated. Hollywood mourns, and the lights of Broadway have dimmed in honour of his passing. He died in his sleep at age 99.
Hirschfeld's drawings have appeared in The New York Times, of course, and also The New Yorker, Playbill, TV Guide, TV Guide Canada, Town & Country, Playboy, Mirabella, People Magazine, New Masses, Collier's, Life, Time, Look, The Washingtonian, The Los Angeles Times, Business Week, Rolling Stone, Reader's Digest, Print, See, Talk, and so many more museums, newspapers, magazines, and periodicals that naming them all is like counting stars in the sky.
Books written (and illustrated) by Al Hirschfeld:
Manhattan Oases, 1932
Harlem, 1940s? (text by William Saroyan)
Treadmill to Oblivion, ???? (text by Fred Allen)
Show Business is No Business, 1951 Simon & Schuster
The American Theatre, 1961 George Braziller,
Hirschfeld by Hirschfeld, 1979 Dodd-Mead
Hirschfeld On Line, 1999 Applause
Hirschfeld also illustrated the following books by S.J. Perelman
Westward Ha!, 1948
Listen to the Mockingbird, 1949
The Swiss Family Perelman, 1950
and the 1986 memoir of Perelman, And did you once see Sidney Plain?
In recognition of his contributions to theatre, on his 100th birthday (June 21,2003), Broadway's Martin Beck Theatre will be renamed in his honour.
The Line King: the Story of Al Hirschfeld
http://www.alhirschfeld.com/ The Margo Feiden Galleries (exclusive agent for Hirschfeld's work for the last 30 years)
http://www.bpib.com/illustrat/hirschfe.htm - A biography of the late, great Al Hirschfeld.