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  • His "show" has been Broadway's longest extended run, pleasing audiences from New York to Des Moines and beyond for 82 years. His works have had the largest "draw" in theatrical history. The artist is no ordinary song and dance man, but Al Hirschfeld, whose witty, slightly caustic, warmly celebratory, right-on-the-mark caricatures have been pleasing audiences since 1925.

    From the pages of The New York Times, he has gone on to grace Playbill covers, show logos and book covers. His caricatures are highly sought by Broadway insiders and gallery prices for his originals soar into the high five figures. Hirschfeld bound collections have been featured in such books as Hirschfeld By Hirschfeld (Dodd, Mead & Company), Hirschfeld's World (Abrams) and Show Business Is Not Business (reissued by DaCapo Press).

    Mr. Hirschfeld was born June 22, 1903 in St. Louis. He passed away Monday [January 20, 2003] at age 99.

    At age 12, his family relocated to New York. Recalled the artist, "I studied art until my instructor told my parents, 'There's nothing more we can teach him.' I loved drawing and pursued it starting in my early teens. My first real jobs were in movie studio art departments when New York had the first film colony." He said he never had the urge to be a "real artist" until he was 21. "But, when I got it, I went to Paris and, like any good American Bohemian, settled on the Left Bank. Those were Halcyon years. I grew a beard (that evolved into his now-famous Shavian look), wore wooden sabots, corduroy pants and lumberjack shirts."

    Mr. Hirschfeld explained that his work "suffered from a serious lack of talent. But I was experimenting, and enjoying myself. And I was in Paris!" Eventually, he found watercolors more amenable, "but that phase never went beyond flirtation." He says that his real satisfaction as an artist "was drawing images in pure line form. I constantly challenged my control over it - how I could draw one line juxtaposed against another to cause such moods as anxiety, frustration, joy - with the addition of a meaningful line to cause happiness."

    While doing a program drawing of French actor Sacha Guitry, Mr. Hirschfeld said he became "thunderstruck" at his theatrics and began doing things he hadn't planned. The caricature founds its way into The New York World. Not long after, he began receiving commissions from the Times, becoming the longest-running contract employee in the paper's history. And a theatrical legend.

    In 1943, Mr. Hirschfeld married his second and late wife, Dolly Hass, one of Europe's most famous and beautiful actresses who also made Hollywood and Broadway appearances before retiring. Two years later, while he was in Philadelphia on an assignment, Dolly went into labor. He rushed back to New York, "where, after viewing our dog-tagged daughter, I returned to my studio to draw her as best I could under such nervous circumstances." The show he had been requested to sketch by New York Times drama columnist Sam Zolotow had a circus theme, "so on an imagined poster I drew an infant reading from a book and I printed her billing as Nina the Wonder Child.'"

    And that's how another theatrical legend and an engaging game began. Mr. Hirschfeld "engaged in the harmless insanity of hiding Nina's name at least once in each caricature." Finding the Ninas in his Times sketches became as popular a pasttime as doing the crossword puzzle. "Though I began putting only one Nina in each, people kept saying they were finding more," said Hirschfeld sheepishly. "One reader asked if I could make his weekly task easier by putting the correct number of Ninas in a corner. So I obliged, right next to my signature."

    Hirschfeld's thousands of caricatures cover all aspects of the arts: theater, film, TV, music, even politics. The artist said he does not intentionally present his subjects in unflattering portraits. "Except twice!" he noted with glee. Those are: the anti-Communist crusader and U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy (whom he showed extinguishing the Statue of Liberty flame) and legendary Broadway impresario David Merrick as a satanic Santa Claus. "Ironically," he laughed, "Mr. Merrick nevertheless purchased it and used it on his Christmas cards." In another swipe at Merrick, he drew him shooting ducks with the names of theater critics on them. "Merrick loved that one!"

    Mr. Hirschfeld said, "I'm not sure whether my drawings are caricatures, a term these days which seems to imply a putdown or a malicious distortion. This is never my intention. 'Caricaturist' is a description of what I do, but I think of myself as a 'characterist.' Is a painting a drawing or a caricature? There is no language for aesthetics. I'm happy to say that no one thinks they are being made fun of in my drawings. Some of my subjects have told me they tried to imitate my interpretation of them. My goal is to convey a message of what the subject is thinking for doing."

    The artist was presented with a special Tony Award in 1975 and in 1984 was the first recipient presented with the Brooks Atkinson Award, named in honor of the late and respected Times drama critic.

    Mr. Hirschfeld worked from the back rows of theatres during rehearsals and previews, but alwasy maintained a daily routine in his studio from daybreak to often late at night creating work from his antique barber chair. Working in the dark confines of theatres led him to develop a system of hieroglyphics. "I jot down that so-and-so's eyes are like fried eggs," he explained, "or that so-and-so has hair like spaghetti [Bernadette Peters]. Once I get back to the studio, this helps brings back the image."

    Theater has changed, Mr. Hirschfeld observed. "Performers used to be bigger than life. Now they don't look any more theatrical than people on the street. The Carol Channings, Ed Wynns, Eddie Cantors and Ethel Mermans used to invent themselves onstage. They were remarkable. Dietrich's eyebrows, [Mary] Pickford's curls and Streisand's nose and mouth could establish instant recognition."
    He added that he gets less enjoyment from theater now. "The bravura in acting is gone for the most part. Actors try to imitate life rather than interpret it. And the way plays and musicals have been faring lately, the drawing has often lasted longer than the show."

    Are some faces more difficult to draw than others? "No. What takes time is getting the drawing of the subject down to the very simple."
    The greatest advantage of his work, extolled Mr. Hirschfield, "is that it's not work! I am fortunate. I do what most people aspire to do: have fun and get paid for it."

    The artist learned on Friday that he had been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He will also be one of the 2003 recipients of the National Medal of Arts. When he learned of that honor, he told Mrs. Hirschfeld, "It just goes to show that if you live long enough, everything happens."

    This June the Martin Beck Theatre on West 45th Street will be renamed the Al Hirschfeld. Mr. Hirschfeld is survived by his daughter Nina and his long-time friend and third wife, Louise Kerz, whom he married in 1996.


    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

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