That Old Feeling: The Fun in Al Hirschfeld

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The sadness of realizing there will be no more Hirschfelds is compounding by the prospect of no more new Ninas. So as a tribute to Mr. A. and Miss N., we have concealed her cognomen in and around the text of this column. How many are there? Look at the subhed. How many can you find? That's up to you.


The consensus of those interviewed in "The Line King" is that Hirschfeld was a genial fellow who mingled freely with the subjects he scratched at, or caressed, with his pen. In as much as his illustration would typically be published while a show was in previews, and then he would attend the opening-night performance, he could hardly hide from the producers and angels. But why would he want to? Hirschfeld seemed perfectly at ease with himself, his work and his Great White World. He knew how hard it was to create a good play. In 1947 he had worked on a show — "Sweet Bye and Bye," collaborating with S.J. Perelman on the book while Ogden Nash and Vernon Duke did the songs — only to see it expire out of town. Hirschfeld called it a mercy killing.

Hirschfeld and his boon companion Perelman made an oddly complementary couple. Their mutual friend Philip Hamburger of The New Yorker recalled that "Sid would go into depression, and then he would become very excited. And I've never seen Al go very far off course. He's a pretty steady pilot." He had to be, considering that he and Mood-swing Sid spent nine months circling the globe for the series of Holiday magazine articles that became the book "Westward, Ha!" Perelman, in a paean to his pal, described Hirschfeld as "a pair of liquid brown eyes, delicately rimmed in red, of an innocence to charm the heart of the fiercest aborigine, and a beard which could engulf everything from a tsetse fly to a Sumatra tiger. In short, a remarkable combination of Walt Whitman, Lawrence of Arabia, and Moe, my favorite waiter at Lindy's."

Like any good waiter, Hirschfeld would offer advice to theater producers. Once or twice he advised them to close what he considered an inauspicious show. He urged Lawrence Langner to shut down a musical called "Away We Go!" (it did all right as "Oklahoma!") and begged Moss Hart not to take the fruitless job of staging a musical based on Shaw's "Pygmalion" ("My Fair Lady"). But his generosity of spirit compelled him to help out struggling theater folk. He had gone to Bali in the late 40s and made a silent movie of the dancers there; on his return he showed the footage to Rodgers, Hammerstein and designer Jo Mielziner, and they incorporated some of his research into their show "The King and I."

He couldn't have felt as simpatico with more recent "hardware" musicals — all those flying chandeliers and whirring helicopters. (He pointedly left the chopper out of his "Miss Saigon" drawing.) But Hirschfeld was no Luddite; he was ever open to the Next Thing. As Anais Nin apostrophized to a lover in "Henry and June": "There will never be darkness because in both of us there's always movement, renewal, surprises. I have never known stagnation." Hirschfeld was anti-stagnation too. Like his thin pen-lines, he was lithe, blithe and on the move.


In Paul's Rudnick's play "Jeffrey," a gay priest gives the title character a little lesson in art as theology: "Here's how you see God. He's a Columbia recording artist. ... You got your idea of God from where most gay kids get it — the album cover of ?My Fair Lady.' Original cast. It's got this Hirschfeld caricature of George Bernard Shaw up in the clouds, manipulating Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews on strings, like marionettes. It was your parents' album, you were little, you thought it was a picture of God."

To many lovers of drawing, Hirschfeld was a divine manipulator — not the God, but a god. Museums, which had once deemed the cartoon inadmissable to the Pantheon of seriosity, mounted retrospectives of his work. "The Line King" brought his amicable wit to a new audience. Disney animator Eric Goldberg, who had based his Genie in "Aladdin" on Hirschfeld's protean line design, paid elaborate tribute to the Master in the recent update of "Fantasia." The Goldberg variation on "Rhapsody in Blue" was a smartly syncopated homage that crawled with furtive graffiti: a few Ninas, a "Goldberg" apartment house and, everywhere, the word Doug (a tribute to Disney layout artist Doug Walker).

And at the end, the creator of an inadvertent history of 20th century entertainment was ready for the 21st. In "The Line King" we see him fiddling with computer drawing. At first he resists; then he gets the gang of it. "I suppose it's possible to control," he says of the mouse-pen. "It just requires another lifetime to do it, that's all." And he was game for that next lifetime. "Living is an art, you know, it's not a science. You make it up as you go along." Maybe Hirschfeld, who made it up while sitting in a barber chair in front of a drawing board, left a bit of his capacious spirit to inspire the rest of us. We can see it in his wrily amused smile. We can trace it in the joy of Hirschfeld's seraphic graphic art.

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