Always Leave Them Smiling: The Art of Al Hirschfeld


by Ellen Stern

Unless you’re blind or a LeRoy Neiman collector, it’s impossible for you to gaze at the perfection of the line that flows so smoothly from the crow’s pen, with a work by Al Hirschfeld (1903-2003). Cyclic, dominant arabesques, sinuously elongated and twisted bodies, never a graceful line – nearly every Broadway star, from the first Sacha Guitry to the last Tommy Tune, is rendered with heartbreaking valid similarities midway between design and portrait.

Eighteen years after her death, Ellen Stern wrote a book, simply titled “Hirschfeld,” that encompasses the art of the man who is widely recognized as the greatest cartoonist of the 20th century. There is no small honor for an artist as versatile as a Swiss Guard: But specializing in medicine, football and caricature seems to come at a price. Hirschfeld glorified theatergoers almost exclusively, and so inimitably he never heard their footsteps. (He’s the only genius cartoonist he’s not. Take art beyond theatrical personalities, and here’s the late David Levine, whose dark, witty, elegant ink-line drawings stand out.)

As the author recounts, Al Hirschfeld moved to his hometown of St. He came to New York from St. Louis as little more than a kid who loved to paint. He loved it so much and was so good that at the age of 18 he became art director of Selznick Pictures and cut his teeth to illustrate movie posters. He sold his first newspaper cartoon at the age of 21 and never looked back. Hirschfeld spent the next three quarters of the century steadily improving his position. He died shortly after his 100th birthday. And he used it every day, working with such fierce devotion that Hirschfeld’s oeuvre is now collected in 10,000 drawings.

He just got more successful as he matured. But Hirschfeld is hardly content to sit in that seedy old barber’s chair, isolated from the wider world, in the East End airspace. As much as he loved art, it wasn’t enough to give up on life’s other pleasures, as Stern said. For example, he starts traveling abroad as soon as possible. He is a talented watercolorist and dreams of a serious painting career. A sympathetic uncle gives him $500 to study art abroad and he leaves.

Paris, 1925: Hirschfeld and a few friends rent themselves a studio.

He enjoys the wrath of 20s Paris. Immigrant writers, artists and musicians around – St. The kind of people rarely found in St. Cost of living makes cheap seem expensive; Hirschfeld’s share in a year’s rent is $33. Then winter turns the studio into a living refrigerator. A short vacation in the southern climates, then back to New York, piling up homework for the movie and the stage. So much for his painting career.

Credit…Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Hard, almost non-stop work smoothed out the cartoons. They lost their baby fat. He spent most of the ’30s ruthlessly carving every drawing to its purest form. He was now married and zealously involved in the social caravanserai in Manhattan. A short romance with the fairy tale of Russian Communism; World travels that find him in Bali at the same time as Charlie Chaplin spark a quick friendship; writing a theatrical flop with another friend, SJ Perelman: Hirschfeld’s life was as full as a Broadway show. At the age of 90, he was still keeping his busy schedule. Maybe God gave him a break: An octopus doesn’t have a shaky drawing hand and a dull imagination.

Writing for New York magazine and GQ, Stern doesn’t shy away from the flaws and failures behind that grumpy face and Moses beard. Hirschfeld’s first two marriages create too much friction, leading to ugly standoffs; and third, it produced to German-born actress Dolly Haas her only child, Nina, whose name has become a game: locate those sneaky boots that Hirschfeld hides her in every new drawing. Nina was not amused. The selfish, emotionally distant Hirschfeld resisted the role of the father. Nina reacted ambivalently to her being excluded from her love. Stern traces his life ruined in detail in this never-jelly father-daughter relationship.

Hirschfeld worked in colour: over a hundred TV Guide covers; no cultural snob, it. But this aspect of his work is eclipsed by the more famous black and white cartoons in The New York Times. He avoided imposing personal judgments or prejudices on his work and did not call himself a cartoonist because he thought he allowed criticism and ridicule. (He favored the “characterist” who mercifully never clings to Interrobang and Esperanto.) The passionate humanist liberal Hirschfeld almost never lent his name or reputation, even to immediate good causes. Barricades are difficult to set up when trying to portray the charm of “My Fair Lady” or the brio of “Hello Dolly!”. or the ludicrous comedy of “Something Funny Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

Stern’s book has been extensively researched and his prose is lump-free. It was clear that he stayed up late to do his homework. (How did he come up with the fact that Hirschfeld didn’t just play semi-pro baseball in his early New York days, but also played with Lou Gehrig?) Good for him, good for Al Hirschfeld that will never happen again. Even before the pandemic, the elegant theater environment in which he grew up had dried up and evaporated. Broadway is becoming a suburb of Hollywood. People no longer dress for an evening at the Rialto. And it’s a very safe bet that a miserably small fraction of those who will soon be roaming inside the Al Hirschfeld Theater will be able to tell you who Al Hirschfeld is.


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