All The Best Lines:
Lunch With Al Hirschfeld
The Legendary Caricaturist Not Only Caught The Essence Of The Stars From The Classic Generation Of Hollywood Stars, His Work Has Also Become A Celebrated Snapshot Of An Era
One of the highlights of the “Hirschfeld Century” exhibition at the New York Historical Society is this famous mixed-media drawing for MGM Studios of Laurel and Hardy in bed covered by a riotously-colored blanket made from a collage of wallpaper samples. Image provided by Reel to Real.
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
Sept. 28, 2015 — Al Hirschfeld, late caricaturist of The New York Times, spoke volumes with a single, sinuous line. And he did it continuously – every week, in fact – in a career that spanned an astonishing 80 years.
The inveterate New Yorker came from a rich tradition of distinguished theatrical caricaturists that include Ralph Barton, Al Frueh, Miguel Covarrubias (who had the greatest influence on Al’s style), all the way back to English caricaturist Max Beerbohm in the late 1800s. Hirschfeld's economical drawing style of pure, calligraphic line in black ink is inimitable, classic and as instantly recognizable in its own right as a ballad by Sinatra or a dance by Fred Astaire.
With work enshrined in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, Hirschfeld has become a certifiable national treasure and is considered one of the most important figures in contemporary drawing and caricature, having influenced just about anyone who ever picked up a pen with the intent to doodle.
For generations of Times “Arts and Leisure” Sunday supplement readers, finding Hirschfeld’s “Nina’s” craftily camouflaged in his drawings was as revered a tradition as grappling with the iconic, diabolically difficult crossword puzzle.
Until Oct. 2015, the New York Historical Society (NYHS) is presenting an exhibition called “The Hirschfeld Century: The Art of Al Hirschfeld” which is apropos since the artist chronicled much of the 20th Century. We took in the exhibition which features a trove of more than 100 of Al’s original works shortly after it opened last spring.
The exhibition explores Hirschfeld’s career chronologically beginning with his pre-caricature days at Selznick Pictures in the early 1920s to his last drawings in theater, film, television, music and dance in 2002.
We spoke with David Leopold who curated the NYHS exhibition and has written the definitive book (The Hirschfeld Century: Portrait of an Artist and His Age) chronicling Al’s life and career.
“It was good to put 25 years of research into one place,” Leopold said about his book. “I started working with Hirschfeld in 1990 on an exhibition for the New York Public Library about theatrical illustration. We hit it off and I was asked to organize his archive. He was 86 at the time; I was 25 and thought, ‘Well, the job will last about two years at most because, after all, who lives that long?’ It went on for 13 years.”
According to Leopold, Hirschfeld didn’t draw for immortality but in order to solve graphic questions that he himself created.
“When it gets down to it, people look at Hirschfeld drawings because of the drawing itself,” he said. “Al really created a vocabulary all of his own. He’s not the best at what he does; he’s the only one who does it.
“When we talk about caricature in the 20th century, we don’t talk about anyone else; he is the field,” Leopold continued. “Because his work wasn’t limited to one entertainment genre exclusively (Hirschfeld did movie posters and advertisements as well as theatrical caricatures), it’s a much shorter list of who he didn’t draw.”
The potential endurance of Hirschfeld’s fame can perhaps best be seen in the way millennials react to his drawings.
“They don’t have a visceral response to Carol Channing or Zero Mostel or even Katharine Hepburn or the Marx Bros,” Leopold said. “Those stars are names to them but they don’t have the personal experience that you or I have and yet they are responding to Al’s drawings in a way that perhaps you and I can’t because they are looking at just the drawing and they aren’t clouded by their recollections of seeing the stars on stage or in film when they were younger.”
Back in the late 1970s, we had lunch with Al and his wife, former German actress Dolly Haas, at their Manhattan brownstone home on East 95th street off Lexington Avenue.
In the months prior, we had written to Hirschfeld saying that we would like to meet him; and added almost as a postscript that we also had plans to travel up the Connecticut coast to Old Saybrook to interview Maggie Held, cartoonist John Held Jr.’s widow, for a story later to appear in the arts section of the Minnesota Daily, the student newspaper of the University of Minnesota.
More than any other pop culture artifact, the caricatures and cartoons of Held personified the 1920s – an era of hot jazz and all-night, booze-filled parties where gold-digging flappers Charlestoned their way into sugar daddies’ hearts.
Held’s whimsical watercolors of ship launchings, society parties and the collegiate life of “Joe College and Betty Co-ed” appeared in magazines such as Smart Set, Life, Judge and Vanity Fair and had a flitting resonance that perfectly suited the “live it up now” philosophy of that roaring decade.
“Why don’t you come ‘round for lunch before you go up and see Maggie,” Al said over the telephone in a sonorous voice that betrayed his St. Louis, Mo., roots. “I have something to say about John that you might find interesting for your article.”
A cross between a Sephardic Santa Claus and a majorly cute garden gnome, Al had a pointy beard that looked like it had just been dipped in a can of silver spray paint. It reminded us of the scene in the Marx Brothers movie A Day At The Races when Groucho says to Sig Ruman who towers over him with a similar tapered goatee: “Don’t point that beard at me, it might go off!”
At the lunch was Edward Chodorov, an old friend of Al’s, and his wife. Chodorov was a Hollywood screenwriter (Undercurrent with Katharine Hepburn and Robert Mitchum; Road House with Ida Lupino and Richard Widmark) who was blacklisted in 1953 after being outed as a Communist Party member by choreographer Jerome Robbins.
Al and Dolly really seemed to enjoy the strange bedfellows’ game of mixing two college entertainment journalists with a Hollywood veteran. In fact, lunch was a real “gemütlich” affair, rollicking with anecdotes about the Broadway Theater, movies and just the everyday theatrics of living in New York City. (Dolly’s dramatic soliloquy of the strategy needed to cadge a seat on a crowded cross-town bus during rush hour seemed to rival in meticulous planning the preparations for storming the Normandy beaches on D-Day.)
All the while, Hirschfeld just leaned back in his dining room chair, an impish gleam in his eyes, and observed; something he had been doing, sketchbook in hand, for a half-century from orchestra seats in countless theaters.
Al told us that John Held’s eventual toppling from glory in the 1930s as the country’s most popular cartoonist was due to a technical Achilles’ heel.
“John couldn’t sketch full-length dresses,” Al said. “He was unparalleled in his ability to draw young girls in short skirts, but in the 1930s when long dresses were in vogue, Russell Patterson took over from John as the cartoonist du jour.
“Say,” he suddenly brightened, “would you guys like to see where I work?”
We followed Al from the dining room up several flights of stairs to where he worked on the top (fourth) floor. Along the way we passed a living room that had a fireplace bordered with color tiles of caricatures that Hirschfeld had painted and possibly fired himself in a kiln. On one wall, adjacent to the stairway and partially obscured by a grand piano, was an eight-foot tall mural that Al had painted; a brilliant jumble of stars including, Charlie Chaplin, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Marilyn Monroe and Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
We finally made to the fourth-floor studio where Al’s easel seemed to swallow the room. Pushed up to it was a barber chair that he sat in while working. We thought the odd pairing of an artist’s easel with a barber chair was the kind of thing another famed cartoonist might have conjured – Rube Goldberg to be exact — but Al explained.
“I just find it works best for me especially for large sketches,” he said. “Using the lever on the side of the chair, I can adjust my position whenever I need to and don’t even have to get up.”
One of the highlights of the “Hirschfeld Century” exhibition is Al’s famous mixed-media drawing for MGM Studios of Laurel and Hardy in bed covered by a riotously-colored blanket made from a collage of wallpaper samples. The effect is stunning and to our minds a zany reimagining of another famous picture: Klimt’s “Lady in Gold” portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer which hangs in the Neue Galerie just across Central Park from the NYHS. To give his portrait texture, Klimt labored tirelessly applying gold leaf; for Hirschfeld, it was wallpaper samples. Refined or rough-hewn, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and supreme artistry, wit, and the ability to capture character via caricature is in every Hirschfeld rendering. It was his genius.
In trying to encapsulate Hirschfeld’s legacy, Leopold said: “The names and the shows will fall away, but the drawings won’t.”
Al died at the age of 99 in 2003 at home in his beloved New York City – the end of a long line.
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
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