Artist Crossed the Line From Drawing to Characterization

Times Staff Writer

Al Hirschfeld, whose spare yet incisive drawings captured the essence and memorialized the stardom of hundreds of Broadway and Hollywood performers over an astonishing eight decades, died Monday. He was 99.

Hirschfeld, who had been in good health, died in his sleep of natural causes in his New York City home.

Margo Feiden, whose Margo Feiden Galleries in New York City has represented Hirschfeld since 1969, said the artist had worked all day Sunday, drawing a client in his studio.


“The world has lost its premier artist of line. Not only for our time but for any time,” Feiden said. “He was not a cartoonist and not a caricaturist but a characterist. What he sought to do was go well beyond skin-deep.”

The artist would have agreed with her.

“Caricature has always been looked upon as something inferior. Early caricaturists derived their humor from exaggerating anatomical defects,” Hirschfeld told Mel Gussow for the 1999 book “Hirschfeld On Line.”

“If somebody has a big nose, they’d make it bigger, which I don’t think is witty. Big heads and little bodies -- I don’t know what is so funny about that.”

Feiden said one of Hirschfeld’s “most wonderful drawings” was a sketch of Jimmy “The Schnoz” Durante without any nose. “He didn’t exaggerate to get a likeness,” she said. “He sought to go deeper than the anatomical features.”

Playwright Arthur Miller once said: “People in a Hirschfeld drawing all share the one quality of energetic joy in life they wish they had in reality. Looking at a Hirschfeld drawing of yourself is the best thing for tired blood. He makes us all seem like a purposeful, even merry band of vagabonds whose worst features he has redeemed.”

Lauren Bacall, an actress drawn frequently by the artist, has called Hirschfeld a “national treasure.” His fellow New Yorkers designated him a “living landmark.” His wife of six years, Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, a former museum curator, called him “the logo of the American theater.”

Few of Hirschfeld’s subjects disliked the artist’s whimsical portraits with the signature flowing lines, spiky cross-hatching and camouflaged mentions of the name of his daughter, Nina. But when Allen Funt of television’s “Candid Camera” complained that Hirschfeld had made him look like a monkey, the artist rejoined, “God’s work.”

Hirschfeld produced more than 7,000 drawings, many of which have appeared regularly in the New York Times since Jan. 28, 1928, the New Yorker magazine since 1993 and in a plethora of books over 70 years -- among them “Show Business Is No Business,” “Hirschfeld on Hirschfeld,” “The World of Hirschfeld,” “The American Theater as Seen by Hirschfeld,” “Hirschfeld’s New York” and “Hirschfeld’s Hollywood.”

The nonagenarian’s art has been exhibited in galleries from Paris to Los Angeles, including the National Portrait Gallery and the Library of Congress in Washington, New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills.

Hirschfeld’s drawings have graced two books of postage stamps, one in 1991 on comedians including Jack Benny and Laurel & Hardy, and another in 1994 on such silent film stars as Rudolph Valentino and Buster Keaton. Framed Hirschfeld portraits line the walls of Sardi’s, the Broadway restaurant off Schubert Alley where Hirschfeld liked to dine with actors after the theater.

A documentary film about the legendary artist, “The Line King” by Susan W. Dryfoos, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1997 and later adapted by PBS for telecast on its “American Masters” series. Broadway awarded Hirschfeld a special Tony for theater caricature in 1974.

Although Hirschfeld is revered as the iconic chronicler of Broadway, he actually began his career in the movie business in New York and even had an influence on some modern filmmakers. By the time he published his first theatrical drawing in 1926, he had already worked in publicity and advertising for Goldwyn, Selznick, Universal, Pathe, Fox, First National and Warner Bros.

Those long-forgotten beginnings were revisited last year, with the release of the artist’s critically praised “Hirschfeld’s Hollywood,” co-published by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, which exhibited many of the works covered in the book. It includes more than 100 posters, billboards, murals, paintings and drawings focused completely on Hollywood. Still attuned to the modern motion picture community, although he rarely went to the movies, he drew nominees for the 2001 Academy Awards for the New York Times.

When Disney was making the animated feature “Aladdin” in 1992, Eric Goldberg, who supervised animation of the Genie, told the Los Angeles Times that he had sought inspiration from Hirschfeld’s drawings. “I look on Hirschfeld’s work as a pinnacle of boiling a subject down to its essence, so that you get a clear, defined statement of a personality.”

The film’s supervising animator, Andreas Deja, added that Hirschfeld’s work “teaches you fluidity, appeal and simplicity.”

Hirschfeld, invited to the Disney Studios to observe the animators, demurred, saying that, although he was flattered, he “didn’t invent the line: That simplification that communicates to a viewer goes back to the cave drawings at Altamira.” (The reference is to prehistoric drawings in a cave in Spain.)

Often accused of being a workaholic, Hirschfeld drew every day, seven days a week, whether traveling or in his home studio, sitting in his beloved old barber chair beside his drawing board. But work?

“I don’t consider that I work, you know. It’s something I like to do,” he told the AARP Bulletin in 1999. “The fact that they pay for it and reproduce it, that’s gravy.”

Not surprisingly, that AARP publication, which is circulated to people older than 50, asked Hirschfeld the secret of his robust longevity. The steak-eating, Jack Daniels-drinking, exercise-eschewing Hirschfeld replied with one word: “Genes.”

Hirschfeld never drew at night, reserving that time for convivial dinners and attending the theater.

Among his theatrical friends was Carol Channing, whom Hirschfeld said he drew more than any other single subject. The actress lined the walls of her home with his drawings of her and even credited the artist with making her a star.

Hirschfeld first drew Channing for a New York Times story about unknowns who were stopping shows in 1948, when she did just that as a flapper in Broadway’s “Lend an Ear.”

“He captured everything I was thinking,” Channing told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. “His drawing focused attention on me.”

Hirschfeld countered: “She invented herself. All I did was take advantage of what she invented.”

One of the artist’s whimsical trademarks began as a celebration of the birth of his only child, Nina, in 1945. He incorporated a poster promoting “Nina, The Wonder Child” into a drawing he did of a circus scene for the Broadway show “Are You With It.” Afterward, he inserted the name into several drawings, shaping the letters as strands of hair, wrinkles or folds in costumes, or fringe on lampshades.

Figuring he had properly announced his offspring, he stopped the camouflage trick after a few weeks -- only to receive a barrage of protest mail. So “Nina” became as ubiquitous as his matchstick signature in Hirschfeld drawings, and “finding the Ninas” became an intellectual parlor game. After 1960, the artist helpfully provided, right beside his signature, the number of the Ninas he had hidden in each work. The record for a single drawing is believed to be 40.

Born June 21, 1903, in St. Louis in a house without electricity, gas or running water, Hirschfeld began drawing sketches of his teachers at age 5. He was nicknamed “Flash” because he could draw the portraits so quickly.

A mentoring St. Louis artist, Charles Marx, advised Hirschfeld’s strong-willed Ukrainian-born mother to get the youngster to New York City for better training. So, in 1915, she packed up the family and moved there.

Hirschfeld, who enjoyed playing the piano throughout his life, grew up playing the ukulele and tap-dancing -- sometimes for pay. But he also became enchanted with vaudeville and attended every live show he could. He played semi-professional baseball, attended the Art Students League and drew pictures of everything he encountered -- actors, street scenes, even his own appendectomy.

As a teenager, he began his career by cleaning brushes for the artists in Goldwyn Studios’ art department for $4 a week; by the time he was 18, he was art director of Selznick Pictures.

Financed by an uncle, Hirschfeld sailed for Europe at 21 and set up a Bohemian studio, supporting himself by tap-dancing and, because there was no hot water for shaving, growing the beard he kept ever after. He studied painting, sculpture and watercolors, using many from a period spent in Spain and Morocco for an exhibit seen in Paris, New York, Chicago and St. Louis.

Returning to New York in 1926, he went to a play “Deburau” with a publicist friend and drew the star, Sacha Guitry, on his program. The friend said that if Hirschfeld could put the drawing on clean paper, he could sell it to the theater section of the Sunday Herald Tribune.

Sketches from the plays he regularly attended soon began appearing in the New York Times, the Brooklyn Eagle, and other New York newspapers, as well as the Herald Tribune until its demise.

Married in 1927 to chorus girl Florence Ruth Hobby, Hirschfeld spent a year in Moscow as theatrical correspondent for the Herald Tribune. Later he traveled and sketched in Tahiti and Bali, where he began, in his words, “to see in lines” and adapted his use of black and white. He first met comedian Charlie Chaplin in Bali, where the star bought four of Hirschfeld’s watercolors -- financing the artist’s trip home.

Hirschfeld was on the way to New York’s City Hall to marry actress Dolly Haas in 1942 when he suddenly remembered he had never divorced his long-estranged first wife. He got the divorce, conceding to the only available grounds -- adultery -- and married Haas. Their marriage lasted 52 years, until Haas’ death of cancer in 1994.

In 1945, they had Nina; in 1947 they moved into the Manhattan townhouse Hirschfeld occupied until his death.

The artist and the humorist and writer S.J. Perelman were close friends, bons vivants who traveled the world. They collaborated with Ogden Nash and composer Vernon Duke on a monumental flop of a play in 1946, “Sweet Bye and Bye,” after which Hirschfeld vowed never to write another play.

“It died in Philadelphia,” he always joked about the show, “and the four of us had to leave the country for a while.”

Hirschfeld and Perelman scored far greater success with their world travels -- tales and illustrations -- for Holiday magazine in 1947, which they turned into a best-selling book the next year, “Westward, Ha! Or, Around the World in 80 Cliches.”

Another friend was drama critic Brooks Atkinson, with whom Hirschfeld attended plays and collaborated on the book “The Lively Years,” published in 1973. The artist illustrated “Harlem,” written by William Saroyan in 1941 and now a collector’s item, and “Treadmill to Oblivion” by Fred Allen.

In addition to his prodigious work depicting theater, Hirschfeld drew portraits of such political figures as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, of businessmen and ordinary citizens who could pay his fees.

“To capture a John Paul Getty is just as interesting as trying to capture Chaplin,” he once said. “They’re both problems to be solved.”

Hirschfeld, even approaching his centennial, attended theater three or more times a week, usually driving his old blue Cadillac and parking on the street. When he went to previews or dress rehearsals, he took notes -- “hieroglyphics,” he called them. The actual portrait would be drawn later in Hirschfeld’s home studio in the comfort of his barber chair.

“I try to put down as accurately as I can the things that are visually exciting to me: certain movements of hands, the way the actors sit, cross their legs or look at each other,” he once explained. “Sometimes costumes help.”

His wife, Louise, described in 1999 what it was like to watch Hirschfeld attending a play: “I glance over and see a face completely entranced with the actors. There’s a slight smile, but absolute attention is being paid to the stage. It’s something akin to a state of reverence -- Al’s love affair with the theater.”

In addition to his wife and daughter, Hirschfeld is survived by one grandson.