Through Hirschfeld’s Eyes

PrintPrintEmailEmail
 

They are not a particularly remarkable pair of eyes: chocolate brown, droopy-lidded, shaded by thick salt-and-pepper brows.

 

They are not a particularly remarkable pair of eyes: chocolate brown, droopy-lidded, shaded by thick salt-and-pepper brows.

But what they look like doesn’t matter; how they see does. They are the eyes of Al Hirschfeld, now ninety-five, the artist whose lithe and graceful caricatures have enlivened the pages of The New York Times for more than seventy years in a unique chronicle of the American theater. Hirschfeld’s eyes transform a performer so penetratingly that the individual comes to resemble the drawing rather than the other way around. And the process remains as mysterious to him now as it was when he began drawing as a child.

His life today seems to be as crammed as ever with new plans and projects. The past, he insists, is of no interest to him whatsoever. Yet his memories include the Paris of Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway and the New York of the Algonquin Round Table.

Bearded, slight, and a bit bowlegged, Hirschfeld dresses in jumpsuits and wears his years lightly. He scurries about his four-story brick townhouse on New York’s Upper East Side, only occasionally using the electric banister chair to ride to his top-floor studio. A confident (some friends say harrowing) driver, he cruises around Manhattan in a Cadillac Brougham and drives himself to Boston or Philadelphia to see tryouts of Broadway-bound plays. He remains an enthusiastic traveler, six months older than the airplane, who declines to fly. Widowed in 1994, when his wife of fifty-two years, the actress Dolly Haas, died of cancer, he has since married a long-time friend, the theater historian Louise Kerz.

He works seven days a week. Perched in a barber chair he bought more than a half-century ago from a now-defunct shop in the Chrysler Building, he leans over a battered drawing board for hours at a time. He has attended virtually every triumph and turkey on Broadway for seven decades, and the drawings he has made of the stars of these countless stage productions, as well as of major films, operas, and radio and television programs, may very well remain the most indelible images of them for future generations. “To be a star on Broadway is to have one’s name in lights, yes, but it is also, and more significantly, to be drawn by Hirschfeld,” wrote Brendan Gill, the late theater critic for The New Yorker .

Hirschfeld readily acknowledges his artistic indebtedness to the great Mexican caricaturist Miguel Covarrubias, with whom he shared a studio in New York during the 1920s; to the Jazz Age cartoonist John Held, Jr., The New Yorker ’s Al Frueh, and the Japanese graphic masters Harunobu, Utamoro, and Hokusai; and even to Javanese shadow puppets. He also credits a 1931 visit to the island of Bali for ending any interest he once had in painting and sculpture. The intense Balinese sun, he has written, “seemed to bleach out all color, leaving everything pure line.” From then on, he says, his “attraction to drawing blossomed into an enduring love affair with line.”

 

Whenever he goes to the previews of a show, he carries an eight-by-ten-inch sketchbook with a supply of pencils taped inside its cover. Sketching in the dark, he will fill about half the pad with quickly jotted drawings—“hieroglyphics” he calls them—with such enigmatic notes as “fried eggs for eyes,” along with brief character, costume, and scenery descriptions. When he returns home, he studies his scribbles and blends his sketches, notes, and memory into a drawing. Although he continually strives to simplify, his style has remained remarkably consistent and instantly recognizable to generations of newspaper readers and theatergoers.

“Exaggeration of a feature, distorting reality, is not my idea of caricature. My problem is doing this in the simplest line.”

And even those only casually acquainted with his work know that ever since his daughter Nina’s birth fifty-two years ago, he has subtly woven her name into most of his caricatures. Hunting for the Ninas has become a pastime for countless admirers. Once, incredibly, it inspired a sixty-thousand-dollar research project by the Army, which sought to train bomber pilots to spot camouflaged targets by having them scan rapidly flashing slides of Hirschfeld drawings for the hidden Ninas .