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Al Hirschfeld

22 January 2003

The Times


Al Hirschfeld, theatrical caricaturist, was born in St Louis on June 21, 1903. He died in New York on January 20, 2003, aged 99.


Caricaturist who made his name working for The New York Times in the ambient limelight of Broadway


 The last of the Broadway caricaturists, Al Hirschfeld will be remembered for his witty, though never malicious, characterisations of theatrical and film actors, conveyed with exquisite sense of line. When he started out as a theatrical caricaturist in the late 1920s, New Yorkers were being treated to a stew of morning, afternoon and evening papers. Over the years these have dwindled to four, and Hirschfeld was lucky to find a home so early in his career at The New York Times as other publications dropped theatrical caricature as a feature altogether.

 For 70-odd years, Al Hirschfeld's distinctive caricatures of actors were a familiar staple of The New York Times and appeared in publications around the world, while Hirschfeld was a familiar figure at Broadway first nights, usually seated in a front-row aisle seat, sketching in the ambient limelight. Such was the consistency of his output and the sophistication of his style that his illustrations yielded several one-man shows and were avidly acquired by museums.

 Albert Hirschfeld was born in St Louis, Missouri, one of three sons. His father Isaac was a salesman who had met his mother, Rebecca, during a trip to St Louis and had settled there and married her in spite of a language barrier - she was a Russian immigrant and neither of them spoke the other's language. Hirschfeld's talent for painting and drawing was apparent from an early age and when he was 12 the family moved to New York so that he could further cultivate his skills. While attending public schools he was able to study with the Art Students League, and at 16 he became an office boy in a film studio. Within a couple of years, he was art director for David O. Selznick, just then establishing himself as a film producer, and he soon moved over to Warner Brothers.

 However, the lure of Europe was strong enough to make him resign from his job. He studied art in London and Paris. His first journalistic work was a series of political cartoons for left-wing publications such as the communist magazine The New Masses. This did not put him beyond the pale, however, and in 1926, The New York Times invited him to replace its political cartoonist, Caesar. Hirschfeld declined and the Times decided to abandon political cartooning. In 1927 he travelled to Moscow, where he wrote articles about the Soviet theatre, and it was there that he first did theatrical sketches of Meyerhold productions for the Russian newspaper Izvestia. He sent them back to the New York Herald Tribune, which was happy to publish them. Indeed, he wrote and illustrated a book about the Soviet theatre, but the manuscript and pictures were lost by a publisher.

 Sculpture had been an interest since his childhood and in 1928 he had a one man show of his works in this field at New York's Newhouse Gallery.

 In the early 1930s he visited Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia and finally Bali, having been lured there by his fellow caricaturist Miguel Covarrubias. On one of his occasional visits to New York during this period, an article in Variety mocked his newly acquired beard (which turned out to be permanent) by remarking that he had "sprouted a hanging garden on his chin" and made some other joshing comments about him. In a fit of indignation at this blow to his amour propre, he ill-advisedly sued the paper for libel to the tune of $300,000 and received a jury award of only six cents.

 His first caricature for The New York Times was one of the British comedian Sir Harry Lauder but he did not work exclusively for the paper, contributing also to the New York World, the New York Daily Telegraph, and the Brooklyn Eagle. He continued to work for The New Masses but left after it refused to publish his caricature of Father Coughlin, the priest who became a fascist radio demagogue.

 Apart from theatrical caricatures, he sketched New York speakeasies for his book Manhattan Oases (1932) and illustrated William Saroyan's Harlem (1941).

 He was co-editor with Alexander King of a satirical magazine called Americana, which contained work by S. J. Perelman, Nathanael West, e. e. cummings, and George Grosz. Perelman later collaborated with Hirschfeld on the musical by Vernon Duke; the show failed. More successful was another collaboration with Perelman: Holiday magazine commissioned a series of features. These were republished in book form as Westward Ha! (1948).

 It was at The New York Times that Hirschfeld became an institution, which was strange since the paper had never been one to encourage caricature before his arrival. After the birth of his daughter Nina in 1945, every caricature he did contained several hidden renderings of her name, the presence of which were indicated by a number in brackets that followed his signature.

 In 1951 Hirschfeld was the author of a book about Broadway theatre, Show Business is No Business, in which the wit of his text matched the caricatures collected therein. This was followed by later collections of his caricatures in The American Theatre as Seen by Hirschfeld (1961) and The World of Hirschfeld (1970).

 "I try to communicate to the reader pretty much what the play is about, if that's possible," he once explained. "If not, just some kind of witty juxtaposition of lines in itself is reason enough for the drawing." Influenced by Hokusai, Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso, all of whom he considered to be caricaturists in disguise, and by American illustrators such as Charles Dana Gibson and John Held, he drew abiding satisfaction from "the image in pure line".

 He was rarely cruel in his depiction of his subjects but a streak of mild satire was apparent in drawings under the heading of "unlikely casting", which included a portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson and Barry Goldwater in Waiting for Godot.




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