Hirschfeld, Albert (“Al”)

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Hirschfeld, Albert (“Al”)

(b. 21 June 1903 in St. Louis, Missouri; d. 20 January 2003 in New York City), artist and caricaturist, primarily of performers in the theater and film, for many publications, including a seventy-four-year relationship with the New York Times.

Hirschfeld was the last of three sons born to Isaac Hirschfeld and his Ukrainian immigrant wife, Rebecca (Rothberg) Hirschfeld, who owned a candy store in their home. A local artist, Charles Marx, recognized the ten-year-old artist’s talent and took Hirschfeld on sketching expeditions around St. Louis. Eventually Marx suggested to Hirschfeld’s parents that they move to New York City so that the boy could further his studies. On this advice the family sold most of their belongings and took the train to New York in 1914. There they took the subway to the end of the line in Washington Heights, crossed a farm field, and rented the second floor of a home for $4 a month.

Hirschfeld studied at the National Academy of Design, where he hoped to become a sculptor, and at the Vocational School for Boys, which required him to apprentice in a trade in order to graduate. After visiting an architectural sculpture studio on Union Square and witnessing the drudgery of the work, he put away thoughts of sculpture. He later concluded that “sculpture is just a drawing you can trip over in the dark.” While walking on Fifth Avenue, Hirschfeld ran into Howard Simon, a teammate from a local semiprofessional baseball team (on which the young baseball player Lou Gehrig also played) and learned of work at the Goldwyn Pictures Corporation publicity art department across from the New York Public Library. Hirschfeld was soon hired for $4 a week as an office boy. The art director Howard Dietz spotted a Hirschfeld sketch in the trash one day and began giving him assignments for drawings. Hirschfeld soon moved down the street to Universal Pictures, which hired him at $75 per week as an artist.

In 1923 Lewis J. Selznick hired Hirschfeld as the art director for the publicity department of Selznick Pictures (Hirschfeld had been contributing artwork to the company since 1920). The twenty-year-old Hirschfeld hired a stable of artists to work in a studio on Fifty-third Street to meet the needs of the small film studio with a large advertising budget. Selznick Pictures folded the following year and Hirschfeld was left with a stack of worthless promissory notes from the company. Working from a studio he shared with Miguel Covarrubias, a recently arrived young Mexican artist he had met at a party hosted by the writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten, Hirschfeld was hired by the Warner Bros. art department. He worked for that studio until the fall of 1925 to repay all of his creditors and fellow artists. From Covarrubias, Hirschfeld learned of the freedom of caricature and soon was supplying Warner Bros. with both straight drawings and caricatures to publicize their films. Hirschfeld’s first published caricatures, of the silent-film stars Irene Rich and Sydney Chaplin (half brother of Charlie Chaplin) in upcoming films, appeared in April 1925 in the New York World newspaper.

In October 1925, with his debts paid and armed with $500 from an uncle, Hirschfeld left for Paris, France. He took an eight-year lease on a studio on the Left Bank with two Englishmen he had met in a café on his first night there. He studied at Académie Julien and spent much of his time producing representational oil canvases and watercolors of figures and landscapes. Fleeing the cold of his first Parisian winter to North Africa in 1926, Hirschfeld was exposed to the bright light and dark shadows of the East, which would soon change his life. Subsequent experimental etchings—a medium Hirschfeld learned from the artist and instructor Eugene Fitsch at the Art Students League and briefly dabbled with in 1926 and 1927—document his budding attraction to images created exclusively through line.

Hirschfeld supported himself by returning infrequently to New York City to supply drawings to film studios. On one visit in late 1926 he doodled a likeness of the actor Sacha Guitry on his program during a performance. Richard Maney, the show’s press agent, asked for the drawing on a clean sheet of paper, and it appeared in the New York Herald Tribune on 26 December 1926. Hirschfeld considered this caricature the beginning of his theatrical career since it was the start of regular assignments to cover productions. He contributed drawings to the Herald Tribune’s drama page for nearly twenty years. In January 1928 Hirschfeld received his first assignment from the New York Times, for a drawing of the Scottish vaudevillian Harry Lauder.

After Hirschfeld married Florence Ruth Hobby on 13 July 1928, the couple spent six months in Russia. As a Herald Tribune correspondent he interviewed the heads of Russian theater and film, then at their zenith, and wrote short articles (often under his wife’s name) to accompany his drawings. He planned to publish a book when he returned, but the publisher Boni and Liveright lost the sole manuscript, including the drawings.

In 1931 Hirschfeld set sail for Tahiti to live and paint, only to discover that the natives and almost everything else about the culture “seemed imported from Central Casting in Hollywood.” At the invitation of Miguel Covarrubias, Hirschfeld left for Bali. Upon arriving he knew his life would never be the same. “The Balinese sun seemed to bleach out all color, leaving everything in pure line. The people became line drawings walking around,” he wrote of the experience. “It was in Bali that my attraction to drawing blossomed into an enduring love affair with line.” Enchanted as Hirschfeld was by the dramatic shadows of Javanese puppets and the art of the island, his sympathetic reaction to this environment instilled a belief that caricature expressed the magic of a child’s world. Upon his return from Bali in the summer of 1932, Hirschfeld gave up easel painting and strictly representational art to concentrate solely on image in line.

Throughout the 1930s Hirschfeld produced an array of drawings, capturing a steady stream of Broadway shows for at least three New York newspapers in addition to his film work. Readers could often see different Hirschfeld drawings of the same production on any given Sunday in competing publications. The theater works, which appeared in newspapers, were journalistic in their attention to detail, which could be read and lingered over. His film art, seen often on posters, became simpler and more direct. Because it must be seen from a distance, his poster art allowed him only to include the most salient aspects of the figure or scene. In simplifying his compositions, he enriched and intensified them, communicating volumes in a single stroke.

In 1943 a New York Times editor complained that he could not tell what paper he was reading, since so many papers featured Hirschfeld drawings. On a handshake, Hirschfeld agreed to an exclusive arrangement, at least for New York newspapers, with the Times, which allowed for complete artistic freedom. Over the next six decades Hirschfeld’s drawings frequently appeared on the front page of the Drama (later Art and Leisure) section above the fold. In 1990 the paper formalized the relationship with the artist with a written contract.

Hirschfeld’s first marriage ended in divorce. He married the German actress Dorothy (“Dolly”) Haas on 8 May 1943. To herald the birth of their only child, Nina, in November 1945 Hirschfeld facetiously included her name in a drawing for a forgettable musical called Are You With It? The musical’s circus setting allowed him to include among the freak show posters one for “NINA the Wonder Child.” He continued the prank in other drawings for several weeks. When he left her name out of a drawing, he was deluged by mail demanding to know where her name was. For the rest of his career he hid her name “in folds of sleeves, tousled hairdos, eyebrows, wrinkles, backgrounds, shoelaces—anywhere to make it difficult, but not too difficult, to find.” This harmless gesture spawned a ritual of millions of readers who looked for “NINA”s in the Sunday Times. In response to a reader’s request in June 1960 to know how many “NINA”s were in a drawing, Hirschfeld began to add a number next to his name indicating the number of “NINA”s hidden. When there was no number, it meant there was only one “NINA” in the work. Dolly Hirschfeld died in 1994, and Hirschfeld married Louise Kerz on 23 October 1996.

Hirschfeld had a preference for “the glandular actors,” the types that “don’t close a door, they slam it.” Fiddler on the Roof star Zero Mostel, Charlie Chaplin, and musical star Ethel Merman were rich subjects for Hirschfeld’s insightful line. He said his contribution was to take the character created by the playwright and portrayed by the actor and reinvent it for the reader. His signature work, defined by a linear calligraphic style, made his name a verb: to be “Hirschfelded” was a sign that one had arrived. His death of natural causes at age ninety-nine ended an era in the performing arts. He is buried at the Kensico Cemetery in Larchmont, New York.

In addition to his seventy-four-year relationship with the New York Times, Hirschfeld had work appear in fifty editions of the Best Plays series and on numerous posters, book covers, and record covers. He supplied artwork to film studios for more than fifty years and more covers to TV Guide than any other artist. His work appeared on two series of U.S. postal stamps: “Comedians by Hirschfeld” in 1991 (the first to include an artist’s name) and “Silent Screen Stars” in 1994. In 1996 a documentary, The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story, was nominated for an Academy Award. The winner of two Tony Awards for lifetime achievement, he was given the ultimate Broadway accolade on what would have been his 100th birthday in June 2003. The Martin Beck Theater was renamed the Al Hirschfeld Theater. He was posthumously awarded a 2003 National Medal of the Arts.

Hirschfeld’s style stands as one of the most innovative efforts in establishing the visual language of modern art through caricature in the twentieth century. Intuitively he transmuted the negative characteristics of the genre known as caricature into his thumbprint: a joyful, life-affirming line.

Hirschfeld’s work is represented in many public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Library of Congress, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Harvard Theater Collection in the Houghton Library (which has the largest public collection of his work). Along with the ten published collections of his work, Hirschfeld authored several books including Manhattan Oases (1932) and Show Business Is No Business (1951). In addition to the Line King documentary, the best source on his work can be found in his autobiographical essay in Al Hirschfeld, The World of Hirschfeld (1970). A biographical essay by Mel Gussow is included in John Hirschfeld, ed., Hirschfeld: On Line (2000). Information on the vogue for celebrity caricature in the 1920s is in Wendy Wick Reaves, Celebrity Caricature in America (1998), while information on Hirschfeld’s movie work is in David Leopold, Hirschfeld’s Hollywood: The Film Art of Al Hirschfeld (2001). An obituary is in the New York Times (21 Jan. 2003).

David Leopold