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Through Hirschfeld’s Eyes
FOR SEVENTY YEARS HE HAS DEFINED HOW WE SEE THE WORLD OF THEATER
July/August 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 4
When you went to Paris in 1924, you had no idea of becoming a caricaturist—or even of what to wear when you got there.
Yes. My father had never been to Europe, and his idea of Europe was from the comic strips—you know, Alphonse and Gaston, who wore striped trousers and cutaways. And that’s what he gave me—a cutaway coat and striped pants. I never opened that trunk in all the years I was in Paris. All I wore were corduroy pants and wooden sabots and a lumberjack shirt. I shared a hundred-dollar-a-year apartment in the Rue Vavin with two English fellows I met the first night I was in Paris. We just put a cloth over my trunk and used it as a table.
I know you tend to dismiss the nostalgia for Paris in the twenties, but you seem to have made the most of it. You knew Hemingway there, didn’t you? And he was not one of your favorite people, right?
That’s true. I thought Hemingway was a bully. I wasn’t unfriendly with him, but I just had no great regard for him, except as a writer. I don’t mean to demean him in any way, but I didn’t think he was very much, really, as a human being. Most of the people I liked are not household names, but there was a great camaraderie, and you got to know everyone there. I met S. J. Perelman in Paris in ’26 or ’27, and we became great friends across a lifetime.
And your acquaintances included Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, and F. Scott Fitzgerald?
Yes. Gertrude Stein, of course, was the great provider for all these people. When you were hungry or cold, you could go to her apartment and warm up and have tea. And Alice Toklas, who lived with her, was also charming and wonderful to young artists. They were both very nice.
Now on one of your trips to New York, in late 1926, you saw a Broadway show and discovered your profession—although you didn’t know it at the time. How did that come about?
I went to the theater with Dick Maney. It was his first show as a press agent, a French production starring Sacha Guitry. I wasn’t interested in it, and during the performance I just nervously began scribbling on the program, and Dick looked at it, thought it looked like Guitry and had some of the qualities of the production we were looking at, and suggested that I do a drawing on a clean piece of paper and he would take it around to the papers and see if he could place it somewhere. Lo and behold, the following Sunday, big as life, there it was in the Herald Tribune , on the front theater page. I was flabbergasted. The next week the Tribune called and asked me to do a drawing on assignment. And it just grew.
I did drawings for Alexander Woollcott, at the old World , and the Telegram , the Telegraph , the Brooklyn Eagle . Then suddenly I got a telegram from The New York Times , asking me to do a drawing of Harry Lauder [the Scottish performer who gave as many “farewell” performances as Sarah Bernhardt]. And then it went on, these telegrams. I’d get a telegram from the Times every week or two. I never saw anybody at the paper.
In 1927 the Herald Tribune sent you to Moscow to draw and write about the Soviet theater and film industry, and you stayed for nearly a year. You subsequently did what some might call leftist lithographs for The New Masses . Did your time in Moscow and work for The New Masses cause you any trouble later, during the McCarthy period?
No, not at all. They never called me. It was very strange. I was never a member of the Communist party, although I thought it was the savior of the world at the time. But when I went back to the Soviet Union in '36 with Brooks Atkinson [the Times theater critic], I realized it was a swindle. That’s when I lost interest in politics. When I say that since then I have always been closer to Groucho Marx than to Karl, I’m not joking.
It seems 1927 was a milestone year for you in more ways than one. In addition to the months you spent in Moscow, you married your first wife, Florence Hobby, a chorus girl in Earl Carroll’s Vanities , and sort of settled in with The New York Times as your personal paper of record.
The Times said they didn’t like having me work for the other papers and said they wanted my drawings exclusively. I told them, “Just cross my palm with silver and I’m your fella,” and on the basis of a handshake agreement, I began doing theatrical drawings for the Times alone. That handshake arrangement remained in effect for more than sixty years. Just a few years ago they decided that we ought to have a contract, and so now we do.