Al Hirschfeld always hastened past the hoards of fans lining his entrance to the theatre every night. Modest and self-effacing, he seems to have been almost unaware of his enormous following. ‘I consider what I’m doing very important’ he said. ‘The fact that most people don’t doesn’t make any difference to me’. Hirschfeld had the first and last word on New York theatre for nearly 80 years. Heralding the arrival of virtually every show on Broadway with a caricature each Sunday in The New York Times, he has as his legacy the longest-standing eyewitness record of the most elusive of art forms. With seemingly few strokes of ink, he captured all that is enthralling about one genre while demonstrating an unmatchable talent in another. His lifelong fascination with line is what makes his work so fresh and distinctive.
Executed with precision and a gently penetrating but never malicious humour, each work somehow always manages to communicate in those few lines the tone of the production, the mannerisms of the actors, the theme of the play; celebrating the theatre whilst all the time reminding us that it is just theatre.
Hirschfeld’s career began not in theatre but in film, illustrating the pre-publicity material for Selznick Pictures and Warner Brothers in the early 1920s. Artistically, Hirschfeld had already been heavily influenced by his friend and New York studio-mate Miguel Covarrubias (1904-57) whose strong graphic line established him as one of New York’s leading modern caricaturists. It was through him that Hirschfeld first began to appreciate the more serious and satirical possibilities of a genre that he had hitherto rather underrated, and the important insight that caricature didn’t have to be crude or cruel to be successful.
In 1924, a wealthy uncle financed a trip to Paris where the twenty-one year old Hirschfeld lived the eye-opening life of a bohemian artist. From the exposure to Covarrubias’s work, the geometricity of the art he saw in Paris and the earlier influences of such American Jazz-Age artists such John Held Jr, Hirschfeld’s own expression emerged. It was further honed on a trip to Bali in 1932, where the colour in his drawings drained away and he began to fully appreciate the possibilities of black and white line. What he describes as ‘peculiar alchemy’ was in part to do with the climate. ‘There’s something about the sun that takes out all the colour and leaves shadows. There’s very little colour left on the beach and you begin to think in terms of line’.
By this stage, the accident that was to steer the course of his career had already occurred. Looking over Hirschfeld’s shoulder one night in 1926 at a performance of Deburau on Broadway, the show’s publicist Richard Maney saw him sketching in his programme a caricature of Sacha Guitry, the French writer and star of the show. Obviously impressed, he asked Hirschfeld to draw another copy on a clean sheet of paper. The following Sunday the picture appeared in the Herald Tribune. It was the first of what was to become a regular weekly contribution to the paper for the next twenty years. His legendary partnership with The New York Times began just over a year after this incident when the theatrical editor on the paper started telegramming commissions for drawings. The freelance basis of this work continued for another sixty years, and it wasn’t until 1990 that Hirschfeld finally signed a contract with the newspaper with which he is so famously associated.
Following this unanticipated departure, and for the next eight decades, Hirschfeld drew an innumerable array of stars and productions on Broadway. Something about that environment released a curious energy in his work. While this was due, in part, to his already deep-rooted love of the theatre, some have suggested that the artificiality of the stage lighting had a similar inspirational effect on Hirschfeld as the sunlight had had in Bali.
What is certain is that, while he enjoyed the digression, Hirschfeld certainly didn’t imagine it would make him a living. In fact it made him a household name. A familiar face at first nights, he soon became a firm fixture, seeing almost every play and musical that opened. Both his artistic reputation and his public persona grew. Those he drew revelled in his work, frequently buying the originals of the depictions of themselves that appeared in the Art and Leisure pages of The New York Times, and trying to imitate the poses and postures that he gave them.
Owning a Hirschfeld of oneself became an honour second only to perhaps winning a Tony. His subjects became his friends and he was sought after for theatrical advice and opinion by producers. He and his wife the actress Dolly Haas entertained the New York glitterati and gave extravagant parties in their Upper East side apartment. In short, he became a star of the world he had made his habitat. However, he still continued his work for the movie industry, illustrating posters and publicity in the 1930s and 40s; and then, in later decades, when the call for these slowed with the growing demand for photography, he supplied on-set drawings and images to the studios’ publicity departments.
Almost the first thing that people know now about Hirschfeld is that he concealed the name of his only child Nina in his drawings. It was, as Hirschfeld’s archivist David Leopold puts it, ‘the country’s worst kept secret’. Springing out of the sheer delight of the birth of his daughter in 1945, this unlikely trademark created such a frenzy of obsessional ‘NINA-finding’ behaviour on Sunday mornings in New York that it quite bewildered him. Mild-mannered and affable as he was, it was with great bemusement that he related how he wasn’t allowed to stop what he termed as his ‘harmless insanity’ by public demand, and that he was even forced into adding an indication of how many NINAs he had put into his drawing that week by a Nina fan in 1960. To realise how far the New Yorkers had appropriated their favourite cartoonist and Broadway mascot into their lives, one need only read of the incident in which Nina requested that he put the name of her friend Lisa into a drawing, as it was her birthday that week. Within hours of the publication of the picture in The New York Times, the Hirschfeld household was overwhelmed by the arrival of telegrams and flowers congratulating him on the birth of his second daughter. Quite apart from the artwork, though entirely due to it, Hirschfeld the man became something of an irrefutable authority and significant influence on showbusiness America. He was certainly instrumental in defining the look of the Marx Brothers; for example, when the MGM make-up department used his artwork of them as a guide. And his approach to performers in general was widely disseminated when he designed two booklets of stamps illustrating comedians and stars of the silver screen for the United States Postal Service in 1991 and 1994. His work has been emulated by many, not least the animators at Walt Disney. Hirschfeld’s distinctive fluid style full of curves and coils was the inspiration for for their 1992 feature Aladdin, as well as the ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ sequence in the updated version of Fantasia (2000).
As befitting a figure so influential in American theatre, Hirschfeld received two Tony Awards: a special award in 1975 and the first Brooks Atkinson Award in 1984. Just before his death in January 2004, he received a letter from the American Academy of Arts and Letters informing him that he had been elected to the Academy, and news from Washington that he would be one of the recipients of the National Medal of Arts that year. In a characteristically understated reaction he is said to have remarked, ‘If you live long enough, everything happens’. Sadly he didn’t live long enough to see his 100th birthday on which day the Martin Beck theatre on West 45th Street was renamed the Al Hirschfeld theatre.
Given how long he did live, all that he had seen and all he had been privy too, it is no wonder that Hirschfeld and his artwork has become part of American theatrical mythology; from the fame of barber’s chair in which he sat to draw, to the cadillac he drove to every performance. In a demonstration of the reverence in which the New Yorkers hold Hirschfeld, he was named one of six New York City landmarks by the New York Landmarks Conservancy in 1996.
Hirschfeld’s widow, Louise Kerz, a professional theatre historian (who married him three years after the death of Dolly in 1994), has described her late husband as ‘the logo of American theatre’. She was aware of how indispensable Hirschfeld’s work is in the research of early theatre and television saying, ‘Al Hirschfeld is an essential, at times a definitive, original resource in the History of the American Stage. Long before videocameras, it was Al doing the accurate recording of our greatest shows’.