Basically, it's a matter of perception, Al Hirschfeld will try to tell you, and everybody has that. "To communicate to the viewer the response I have is what I do," he begins simply. "I don't know how it's done, but sometimes a kind of alchemy takes place, and it works.
"Say you recognize a friend a block away. It's raining, you have only a back view; the guy's wearing a new suit -- but, with all the billions of people who inhabit the earth, you recognize him. How? This is a talent not peculiar to me. It's a common phenomenon. Everybody has that great talent of recognition. They dismiss it as nothing, as just being natural and normal, but it is a strange and wonderful talent."
You can try this at home if you like, but the truth is Hirschfeld often forgets he's a genius. When he creates recognition with a line, he is on a plane with Astaire in motion and Sinatra in song. He is Broadway's premier caricaturist -- and has been, the better part of this century. With a bold stroke here and a perfectly placed line there, he can plumb the heart and soul of a play and its players. Generation after generation of theatre luminaries have taken a ticket and lined up to have themselves properly Hirschfeldized, and he comes at them with a thicket of unruly, squiggly lines -- some of them waving out the word Nina (which he introduced into his drawings in 1945 to herald the arrival of his daughter and which he kept in the act as a brain-teasing parlor game); frequently he plays fast and loose with their physicalities, but always the result is the same: that word again, recognition. A Hirschfeld drawing is theatre as surely as Shubert Alley or a Sardi's martini.
"Sometimes, it works in words," The Master allows. "The most important man in theatre is a playwright. Without him, there is no theatre. I try to capture what he tried to capture, only I do it with lines, and he does it with words. It's the same impulse. The catalyst that sends me to a blank piece of paper is the same impulse he went through writing the play."
Hirschfeld's special perspective on Broadway is unique in the business. Not only does it go deeper than that of any other living professional, it has gone longer as well. The man marked his 95th birthday last month, and 72 of those years have been spent sketching the passing parade of The Great White Way. "I suppose I should act 95, but I don't feel 95," he says. "I never thought about my age until recent years. I'd always been the youngest person wherever I went. I got used to that because, as a young man, I was associated with much older people. I was art director of Selznick Pictures when I was 18. I was always 'that young kid.' My intimates called me Babe in those days. Suddenly, I'm no longer the youngest man in the room. I'm old -- not just old, either. I'm the oldest wherever I go. I went to an old folks' home not long ago to give a lecture, and I was the oldest one there."
At 17 Hirschfeld made his first career move, running errands in the art department of Goldwyn Pictures for four dollars a week. Howard Dietz, who ran the department (and would later run MGM's where Hirschfeld free-lanced a good 20 years), spotted the young man drawing in his spare time and asked him to draw an ad. "It was like James Montgomery Flagg, that kind of crosspatching drawing. I had no opinion about it. Back then, I wanted to be a painter or sculptor, and this was a way of making a living."
His switch from advertising to editorial caricaturing occurred -- "like most of the things in my life, by accident" -- in 1926 when he accompanied a publicist friend, Richard Maney, to see Sacha Guitry in a play. Maney noticed Hirschfeld making rough sketches on the Playbill during the performance and, impressed, suggested that he transfer the drawings to a clean sheet of paper, and he would peddle them to the various newspapers around town. The following Sunday Hirschfeld debuted in The New York Herald Tribune. A few weeks later, Arthur Fallwell (who ran The Trib's drama department) phoned to see if Hirschfeld would be open to other assignments. A simple Yes! "'We don't pay for it, however,' he told me. 'The producer pays for it. You just bill the producer. It's ten dollars a column. We'll give you four columns.' For a year and a half, I did drawings not only for The Trib but also for The Telegram, The Mirror-Post and The Brooklyn Eagle."
The New York Times, which has been Hirschfeld's primary base since the late twenties, finally put its oar in via a telegram from Sam Zolotow, requesting a drawing of Harry Lauter in one of his "farewell" tours. Hirschfeld did as directed and left the drawing with The Times's doorman. "This went on for two years. Except for that doorman, I never saw a human being at The Times. Then one night, at intermission at the Belasco, I was introduced to Zolotow, and he said, 'You're the most mysterious man on the paper. Nobody's ever seen you. When you come again, I'll introduce you to the fellas in the drama department.'" The "fellas" were George S. Kaufman, drama editor, and Brooks Atkinson, drama critic.
Theatre has received a vast portion of Hirschfeld's artistic focus, but he has also ventured into music, movies, dance, TV. "I love to do dancers because it gives me a chance to get great action, and I don't have to bother about brevity. I can have them flying in space. I can release them.
"Ray Bolger used to say he copied my drawings. And I said, 'Ridiculous, Ray, I just do what you're doing -- only it's a little further.' He said, 'Well, that "little further" is what I'm trying to get. I always have your drawings right in front of me when I dance.'"
Movies have done much to perpetuate the Hirschfeld mystique. He was the inspiration for the genie in Disney's Aladdin (a sweet homage from a new generation of animators he has influenced) as well as the subject of Susan W. Dryfoos's Oscar-nominated documentary, The Line King. Currently, you can find his life in the theatre -- almost 1,000 drawings, lithographs and etchings -- playfully passing in review throughout three floors of The Margo Feiden Galleries (699 Madison Ave., N.Y.C.). Come November, Feiden will mark her 30th year as Hirschfeld's representative. A month before that, Applause Books will publish Hirschfeld on Line, a book of new or never-before-collected drawings with a running commentary from the artist himself.
Hirschfeld and his wife of 52 years, German actress Dolly Haas, made a distinguished pair of first-nighters their whole marriage. Their presence lent class to the occasion, and when she passed away in 1994, many feared -- given his devotion to her -- he'd be lost to grief.
He surprised them. After a respectful interval, Hirschfeld resumed his opening-night rounds0with an old friend on his arm, Louise Kerz, whose late husband Leo produced Rhinoceros. The Hirschfelds and the Kerzes had been a frequent foursome for 35 years, and eventually the surviving couple decided to tie the marital knot.
"Dolly prepared me for continuing," Hirschfeld says. "That was the great gift she gave me, the ability not to forget her but to live on. It's working very well, really."
At 95, it seems to be working like gangbusters. Happy birthday, Mr. Hirschfeld, and many happy returns.
-- By Harry Haun