The Daily Heller: When Al Hirschfeld Lit Up the Great White Way

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From the ’30s through the ’60s and beyond, The New York Times weekly drama section‘s lead review was illustrated by the maestro of theatrical caricature, Picasso of Broadway and only regularly published artist in the Times: Al Hirschfeld. Branded by his ultra-condensed signature, the drawn lines swirled, curved and cavorted over six or eight columns and comically captured the brightest stars of stage and screen, drama, comedy and musica in emblematic black-and-white pen-and-ink print on beige-tinted, yellowing newsprint. Although he was only one of an eminent group of theatrical caricaturists who contributed to the Manhattan dailies and the Brooklyn Eagle, Hirschfeld (1903–2003) was not simply preeminent, he outlived and outworked them all, passing on to the celestial drama desk and still drawing at 99.

During the latter of my 30-plus years at the Times, I assigned Hirschfeld a few special jobs (color covers) for the Book Review, and as souvenirs I received a few of the many prized personalized manila envelopes containing his masterful work that he brought to art directors and editors. The drawings were always returned, yet not so those treasured envelopes. (On the front of the envelope he routinely drew a hand or two, with a finger pointing to the recipient’s name.)

My first week on the job, I witnessed a Hirschfeld ritual: the delivery of his Sunday art. Once a week without any of the fanfare, this notable white-bearded, slightly-hunched-over, caricature-in-the-flesh determinedly strolled down the art department corridor, large manila envelope under his arm, grin peering through iconic whiskers, to the photostat room where our camera operator, Nester Delgado, shot a perfect reproduction so that Al could drive it right back to his townhouse on East 95th Street.

Hirschfeld’s weekly appearances were so matter of fact and I was such a novice that at the time I did not appreciate the magnitude of the gesture of hand-delivering his work. It was like being at Harper’s Weekly when Thomas Nast, the 19th-century father of American political cartoons, dropped off a drawing, turned around and went back home to work.

I must admit that for me Hirschfeld was an acquired passion. When I became a Times art director in the early ’70s, he was passe among us young turks. I admired the legend but had grown tired of the style. That is, until I took off the blinders of a congenitally arrogant 20-something and had my revelation. All the illustrators and caricaturists I admired from the past were his colleagues and friends. Who was I to call him old school when I hadn’t even graduated from one school?

It took a few more years for me to appreciate how truly influential Hirschfeld was as a cultural influence and the newspaper’s “brand”—and what a celebrity he was in his own right. By the time he was 90 years old he was the subject of a marvelous documentary, “The Line King,” by Susan Dryfoos (watch it on TCM this month). A decade earlier, after he was relieved of most of his drawing responsibilities by a new regime at the Times, he had reemerged from the wilderness, where he might have disappeared, had it not been for his resurrection by culture czar and deputy managing editor Arthur Gelb, who championed Al’s talents.

Sometime in 1998 or 1999, I was assigned the unenviable task of finding a possible replacement for Hirschfeld. Despite his continuous workflow, an end was surely inevitable. The big question was whether the Times needed (or even wanted) a new Hirschfeld. I was convinced that once gone, no one could live up to his legacy, so why even try. As it turned out, although a few excellent illustrator/caricaturists were auditioned, none could rule the roost in the same manner—or even come close to knowing what he knew about theater.

This is exceedingly clear in Ellen Stern’s thoughtfully researched and entertainingly written biography, Hirschfeld (Skyhorse), which was published after a delay this past summer. It is a solid job of reporting, and a joyful read, too.

I urge everyone interested in art, caricature, theater, celebrity or simply fascinated by the story of the No. 1 caricaturist of theatrical celebrities, to read this from cover to cover. It is more than a biography of documented facts and intimate tales—it is a grand history of how a talent from the golden age of illustration was as essential to the ethos of dramatic, comic and musical theater as were all the directors, producers and performers themselves.

Fortunately, I was once granted an interview with Hirschfeld. It was insightful, witty and, well, awesome. Stern used some of that recording in her narrative (along with a bounty of other persons’ wonderful recollections). Using what I taped was at the heart of a story I did in the design journal U&lc, where I often wrote about cartoon and caricature (a slightly rewritten version appears below).


THE LINE KING OF BROADWAY (U&lc, Spring 1989)

Since 1925, Al Hirschfeld has been documenting, in pen and ink, America’s plays and players for the drama section of The New York Times. At 85 years of age, this redoubtable artist, with his mane of flowing white hair and long, pointed beard, can still be found at almost any Broadway premiere in an aisle seat making feverish sketches in the dark. He is the last of the Broadway caricaturists, and also the most legendary. The odds are that in the foreseeable future no one will be able to fill the well-worn shoes he slipped into by accident [he worked for another 14 years].

“I never wanted to be a cartoonist,” said Hirschfeld during an interview at his New York studio. “Actually, I started out as a sculptor and then a painter. I don’t consider myself a cartoonist either. You see, a cartoon is something that has a literal idea—a point of view. I’ve done them, but as the years went on I just worried about line and form and space.”

For Hirschfeld, the distinction between the cartoon and caricature is profound. “A cartoon doesn’t depend on the quality of the drawing so much as on the idea. If it’s a good idea, anyone can do it. But a caricature has another quality. The word ‘abstract,’ I suppose, is the only one I can use. Are Picasso, Lautrec and Hokusai caricaturists, graphic artists or painters? They were all caricaturists, in my view.”

After a long stay in Paris during the early ’20s, Hirschfeld began his career as a journalist,
contributing political cartoons to left-wing periodicals, including the New Masses. At one time he was even asked to replace Caesar, the last political cartoonist for the Times. He refused because the constraints of the form worried him: “For me, doing political cartoons was a great responsibility to the reader. You’re influencing a lot of people, particularly young people. And unless you really believe in what you’re saying, be careful.”

Though he had never joined any party, he was an ardent supporter of labor unions and fervent enemy of fascism both here and abroad. And unlike some of his artist colleagues who used pseudonyms to circumvent the reach of red-hunting congressional committees, Hirschfeld proudly signed his name to all drawings. His disillusionment came when one of his drawings—a caricature of Father Coughlin, the Depression-era spokesman for the ultra-right wing—was censored by the left-wing editors of the New Masses. Despite their avowed antipathy towards Coughlin’s racist principles, they deemed Hirschfeld’s drawings as offensive to Catholic unions. The hypocrisy of that, he felt, was intolerable. “I realized that to do political things you have to be able to switch with the times. You can be pro-union one day and anti-union the next. I’m no good at that. I had a point of view about what I wanted to do and say, and I’ve stood by it all these years. Though politics is a field that has not yet been properly mined, it’s not for me,” continues Hirschfeld. “I’d much rather have the villains and heroes made by the playwright. That’s his worry, not mine. My worry is to do a decent drawing, and interpret what the playwright intends to say.”

In 1927 Hirschfeld spent a year in Moscow reporting on Soviet theater. A decade after the revolution, there was still an air of excitement, albeit short-lived, on the streets and on the stage. Under the auspices of Anatoly Lunacharsky, the leading advocate of Russian Avant Garde art, he drew interpretations of the productions by Meyerhold and others, which were printed in the Russian newspaper Izvestia and sent back by boat to The New York Herald Tribune. He also wrote and illustrated a book on Soviet theater, the only copy of which was apparently “lost” by the American publisher Boni and Liveright.

He has trouble remembering when his fluid linear style developed. It was probably sometime in the late ’20s or early ’30s, and was definitely a response to the constraints of the media. “It asserted itself after many years of trial and error,” recalls Hirschfeld. “I discovered that the safest way to reproduce on the toilet paper that newspapers are printed on—which they haven’t improved since the process was invented—was to stick with pure line. I kept eliminating and eliminating, and getting down to the bare essentials. I still do, in a way.”

While plying his craft as a caricaturist for many New York newspapers during the early ’30s, he co-edited, with Alexander King, a satirical journal called Americana, which included contributions by Nathaniel West, e.e. cummings, George Grosz and S.J. Perelman. With Perelman, a “mutual admiration society” developed. They wrote a musical together and, later, a successful book. The musical called Sweet Bye and Bye was their first collaboration, and had lyrics by Ogden Nash, music by Vernon Duke, and sets by Boris Aronson. A great combination, yet a memorable disaster. “Sid and I were the culprits,” recalls a bemused Hirschfeld. “We wrote a musical about the future. Well, you can do that visually. But the thing that didn’t work was the music. How do you write music for the future? I mean, these fellows (the composers), naturally want to get their stuff played. But once you start being satirical about music, you’re out of business.”

Shortly after their flop, Perelman and Hirschfeld had lunch with Ted Patrick, the editor of Holiday magazine, who suggested that the duo travel around the world and record in picture and word their experiences. They agreed, since, “after this stinker we had to leave the country anyway.” And within a week the idea was also signed on as a book for Simon and Schuster. The wonderful expedition lasted two months, and the resulting Westward Ha! became a runaway bestseller.

Hirschfeld did drawings for most of the major American magazines, including Life, The Saturday Evening Post, The American Mercury and TV Guide. For Collier’s he regularly collaborated with John O’Hara, but Hirschfeld was somewhat disillusioned. “His column, ‘Appointment with O’Hara,’ was terrible. Not that O’Hara was a bad writer, but these things were really unreadable. Yet they were apparently so popular with the readers that they raised my fee without me even having to ask.”

Sinecure with The New York Times came in the ’30s when the Sunday editor, Lester Markel, who was annoyed that the artist appeared elsewhere with such frequency, approached Hirschfeld and said, “We’re beginning to look like all the other papers. We would like it if you’d just work for us.”

“So I said, well, all you’ve got to do is cross my palm with silver and I’m your fella. In fact, I much preferred to work for the Times, because in those years the other papers didn’t pay for the drawings; the press agent or producer did. I didn’t have full control, and always felt corrupted by that in some way.”

About his original drawings (made even more distinctive by the camouflaged name of his daughter, Nina, strategically placed in every drawing, often multiple times), Hirschfeld says: “I try to communicate to the reader pretty much what the play is about, if it’s possible. If not, just some kind of witty juxtaposition of lines in itself is reason enough for the drawing.” But Hirschfeld admits that in the early days, “I don’t know why the Times ever printed my drawings. When I look back it was pretty daring, since it wasn’t in their spirit at all.” Fifty years is a long time for people to get used to a radical approach. “Apparently, it’s been accepted,” he says modestly, “and it’s almost become conventional by now.” This, of course, is an understatement. His art is so indelible that one cannot think of Broadway or the old grey Times without conjuring up the curvilinear illuminations of Al Hirschfeld.