Mel Gussow of the New York Times wrote this about Al Hirschfeld a while back: “He shows no signs of letting up, or losing his creative edge…He is, in fact, at the very top of his form.” Al was ninety-five at the time. Four years later, with no hint of slowing down, and honors and tributes—piles of them—cluttering his drawing table, he retired in the only way he knew how: he died. A day earlier he’d been informed that he had been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. I trust that there’s no causal link here.
Al was born in St. Louis in 1903 at the start of the century he helped define. Apparently, his mother took one look at his artwork and moved the family to New York, where the Art Students League and the National Academy of Design were of some help, but, more importantly, it was the friendship he struck up with the young and brilliant caricaturist Miguel Covarrubias. They shared a studio and many interests: Harlem and its renaissance, the emerging jazz age, the post-World War I newly revitalized theater. And travel. Al studied in Paris, but claimed he learned about line in Bali, where he observed the sun bleaching out all color, and came to realize that line, pure line, was all that remained.
And it was this life-long love of line, plumbing its depths and nuances, that led to the elegant caricatures that became an artifact of our Sundays, outlasting all but a few of the subjects and venues caricatured.
Arthur Miller once said, “People in a Hirschfeld drawing all share the one quality of energetic joy in life that they all wish they had in reality. Looking at a Hirschfeld drawing of yourself is the best thing for tired blood. The sheer tactical vibrance of the lines and their magical relationship to each other make you feel that all is not lost….”
One might see on any given Sunday in the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times, a dot of an eye, a swirl of a hairdo, a flick of a nose, a gap of a mouth, a sinuous, rubbery hand, and what first stopped the eye posing as caricature had, as you looked at it, transformed itself—and ourselves. Al’s drawing had become not a comment on the show, but the show itself, live theater made out of newsprint—and we, the readers of the Sunday Times were not readers anymore, we were the audience, with front-row seats, in the Al Hirschfeld theater, which, in truth, opens only officially this June, on Broadway; it’s been in place for us to applaud for more years than many of us in this room have lived. One just had to flip to Arts and Leisure to find oneself in it.
Which may be the reason why occasional, newly appointed Arts and Leisure editors would periodically start off their jobs trying to replace Al. They did not take lightly their section’s loss of identity. Al stole Arts and Leisure right out from under them.
Al’s line, much talked about, much celebrated, undeniably brilliant was, in a sense, a red herring. The line, no doubt, helped, but it wasn’t the line that made Al great, it was his vision, and behind Al’s vision, his soul.
His stunt, week after week after week after week, was to put on his stage someone else’s show (theoretically) and in his display, give us glamour without sentiment, wit without malice, satire, so precisely denoted, that for all time afterwards we were less likely to recall the actor’s face than the Hirschfeld caricature. Zero Mostel became the Hirschfeld caricature. Ray Bolger told Al that he studied the drawings of himself dancing and tried to imitate them. And will the real Carol Channing, Louis Armstrong, and Leonard Bernstein please stand up?
Al drew to a beat. Repose did not exist in his work. The line flowed like music, the bodies every bit as important as the heads—waltz, foxtrot, shimmy, shake. Comedy, drama, musical—it never mattered. It was all turned into high-styled gesture. Even an arched eyebrow became a dance. Imagine! Even the backgrounds looked choreographed.
And in his final years—the last fifteen or so—like Picasso in his late drawings, Al’s art was refined to pure essence.
What remains of glamour in our theater is not to be found on Broadway, but only in Hirschfeld’s art. His grace, his elegance, his wit, and his irony remind us of a time when audiences seemed only to go to plays on opening nights and in formal dress. Al’s art captured more than likenesses, it captured a culture. He was to caricature what Fred Astaire was to dance.