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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
If Paris in the twenties had Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein, New York had the Algonquin Round Table, and you also knew all of the ladies and gentlemen who sat there, didn’t you?
Oh, yes. Robert Benchley was a marvelous, wonderful fellow. And Heywood Broun wrote an introduction to one of my art books. The Round Table was a logrolling society, you know, everybody calling everyone else a “genius.” But there was a camaraderie among artists and writers then that seems to have disappeared. It seems to me that nowadays artists and writers confine themselves and don’t like to share what they do with anyone. Back then everybody you knew you praised. Most of the Algonquin group were egocentric, but they helped each other.
You had some memorable encounters with James Thurber elsewhere.
Yes, I used to see him at parties, where he would play tricks with his glass eye. He had lost an eye as a child. He had a collection of glass eyes, and as the evening went on, he would change them, with each one becoming more bloodshot. At about two o’clock in the morning, he’d put one in, and it would be a little American flag! It was a shocker. You’d look at him, and there’s a little flag flying there in his eye.
Wasn’t it around this time that you got to know George Gershwin?
I met him over at [the writer] Howard Dietz’s. Dietz was very friendly with the Gershwins, and I became very friendly with them. Gershwin lived on Riverside Drive. There was his mother and Ira and his sister, Frances, and his sister-in-law, Leonore. I think I was the one who introduced George to Oscar Levant, who was one of the great interpreters of his music and became his close friend. I first saw Levant performing at a small caf» called the Club Duv», at Waverly Place and Sixth Avenue. I was impressed by him and took George there to see him.
In 1931 you decided to leave all of this and go to Tahiti with your wife to pursue oil painting and watercolors.
And that very romantic adventure broke up the marriage.
You didn’t think much of Tahiti either, did you?
No, I thought it was a tourist trap. I wrote to Covarrubias, who was living with his wife in Bali at the time, that the native life in Tahiti looked as if it had been imported from central casting in Hollywood. He wrote back that I should come to Bali, which is in what was then known as the Dutch East Indies. He and his wife had returned home by the time I got there, but Bali was everything they had said it would be. Bali changed the way I saw the world.
“The whole star system is gone . . . the extroverts, the exploded ventricles, the bigger-than-life performers—they’re gone.”
Didn’t you see Charlie Chaplin there?
Yes, he helped me get off the island. He came through on a roundthe-world cruise with his brother, Sydney. I had known him before, had done some drawings of him when he was in Path» films, so I went to the ship and asked him to come out to my compound for dinner. He was very pleased, since he didn’t know anyone on the island, and he and Sydney came, and we became very friendly. He was marvelous. This was 1931, and there was no electricity on the island, so he was not known there. I think it was the only place in the world he wasn’t known. When he discovered that no one knew who he was, he wanted to see if the people there would laugh at the same material he used in his films—and they did. Some native children did some dances, and after one of the dances he got up and did an imitation of one of the dancers, and they just screamed with laughter. He then proceeded to put the pith helmet that he carried with him on his head, and it sprang crazily into the air, as if it were alive. The natives howled, thinking his hat was possessed by the devil. When they were shown how simple the trick was, they tried desperately to snap their turbans in the air in the same way. They were enchanted with him. They called him “the funny man.”
He also turned out to be an art patron.
Yes. I had been wondering how I would earn the money to return to America. Chaplin bought up all my watercolors, and that gave me the fare home.
Back in New York by 1932, you resumed the theatrical caricaturing you haven’t stopped since. The differences between Broadway then and now are profound, aren’t they? How do you decide what shows to preview and draw now, and how did you do it then?