That Old Feeling: The Fun in Al Hirschfeld

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We thought he'd be around forever. After all, he'd been around forever: 82 years as a professional artist, 76 years as a chronicler of the theater. All that time, he'd never been inactive; never given up or given in. Al Hirschfeld had not only made it to 99, he seemed a cinch to hit 100. The Broadway establishment certainly thought so: it had set aside the day of his centenary, five months from now, for a ceremony renaming the Martin Beck Theater for him, with the guest of honor surely in attendance. (Who was Martin Beck? The man who built the Palace Theatre. And the Martin Beck.)

Hirschfeld also had genes and the stars on his side. He was born on the longest day of the year (June 21, 1903) to a mother who lived to 91 and a father who lived to 93 — a father who, Hirschfeld said, invented the term "senior citizen." In America, or the more empyrean realm of art, few citizens were more senior than Al, none more youthful, cogent, articulate or productive. Over the years, his witty hand had fashioned some 12,000 drawings.

So it was with surprise, as well as a sigh, that the entertainment community greeted Hirschfeld's death last week. (Of what? Surely not of old age!) Obituarians too easily write that one man's passing marks the death of an era, but it can be written in Al Hirschfeld's case that this is the death of two or three Broadway eras. He came to his calling — caricaturist to the stars — in the 20s, when Broadway was the face of American sophistication and sizzle. He was there when Gershwin presented "Porgy and Bess," when Tennessee Williams drove his "Streetcar," when "Guys and Dolls" and "Hair" and "Phantom" opened. And he was there as Broadway launched yet another season inattentive to the young generation, inadequate for the old. Hirschfeld outlived not only most of the people he drew but, really, the medium itself.

People still go to first nights in their tuxedos and evening dresses, but these are duded-up dinosaurs; today's theater opening is the latest in a series of wakes. At one of these poignant occasions, filmed for Susan W. Dreyfoos' vivacious 1998 documentary "The Line King: Al Hirschfeld," fellow cartoonist Jules Feiffer rightly opined, "The only glamour left in the theater is what Al brings to it. And he is to what he does what Astaire was to what he did. Al has the same effortlessness, the same grace, the same wit, and that lighter-than-air quality." True enough. Hirschfeld put motion and emotion in all his still-lifes, infused buoyancy and elan in a weighty Sunday newspaper — The New York Times, whose Arts and Leisure section he had adorned and, heaven knows, enlivened for three quarters of a century.


If Hirschfeld was using an obsolete art (what newspaper printed drawings any more?) in the service of an obsolescent one (who goes to the theater?), his work never grew senescent. His hand was as firm and supple as ever, the late drawings an ever-more assured symphony of fine lines. "Draw lines, young man, many lines," the old painter Ingres had advised Edgar Degas in the 1850s. That's what Al did: kept filling the page with many lines, many people, lots of furniture, until the image was as cramped as the cabin in "A Night at the Opera."

The Hirschfeld's lines had snap and swing — movement, like a jump-rope at top speed. Millions of lines over 80 years, and not one had an inappropriate stroke. There was drama in the contrast of those black lines on a white page — a bit less when it was reprinted on the Times' gray newsprint. Which is why you should look at his work in book form: the handsomely illustrated autobiography "Hirschfeld On Line," or, for about the price of a manicure, the Gotham-glorifying "Hirschfeld's New York" and the all-movie "Hirschfeld's Hollywood."

At his death, this comic muralist had left the fullest scrapbook of a century dominated by entertainment. He drew, and drew out the spirit of, thousands of celebrities from high art (Toscanini, Natalia Makarova) and popular art (Anna Magnani, Natalie Wood). Through his pen, inanity became animate, and the captious craft of caricature was raised to character study.


Caricaturists, whose pen is meaner than the sword, are supposed to believe that cruelty is an inalienable right. Hirschfeld didn't hold to that creed. Or maybe his pen and his personality were too ebullient to be bilious; the Nast or nasty drawing, he seemed to think, didn't demean the subject so much as the artist. He had an inability to find the jugular in a entertainment figure. He did go for the jungular, exaggerating facial features and specializing in a kind of reverse anthropomorphism: he turned men into beasts. To Mickey Rooney, Bert Lahr and Zero Mostel, he gave outsize snouts. Many women he saw as birds: Lynn Fontanne, Katharine Hepburn and others are long-necked swans. He was drawn to larger-than-life, larger-than-art figures, from the vaudeville clowns Weber and Fields to later, self-distorting creatures like Jerry Lewis and Roberto Benigni (naturally).

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