The Art of Making Art

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Remembering theatre caricaturist Al Hirschfeld
A self-portrait by Al Hirschfeld.
A self-portrait by Al Hirschfeld.

At 6 o'clock on the evening of Monday, January 13, 2003, Al Hirschfeld — an artist whose pure, clean line has for more than seven decades penetrated straight to the essence, the heart of the matter, as concisely as Matisse's — sat hard at work, in his barber chair in his studio on the top floor of the fine old brownstone on Manhattan's East 95th Street that Jed Harris, the David Merrick of an earlier era, had advised Al to buy back in 1947.

On the drawing board before him was a West Side Story that he was at the moment developing into a lithograph on request of gallery owner Margo Feiden, his longtime commercial representative, with whom he'd had a falling out a couple of years ago, and then, before it went to trial, a falling back in.

Just to Hirschfeld's right on the studio wall was a sign that read: "REMEMBER: IT WAS AN ACTOR WHO KILLED LINCOLN." Where had he acquired it? "I think in one of those sneezeparlors" — the sort of grungy practical-joke shops that used to inhabit pre-Disney 42nd Street.

Another sign, "VIETRO FUMARE," came out of some restaurant, Hirschfeld thought. "Whenever a restaurant would open, I'd rush to see if they had anything" — anything worth stealing — "in the men's room." In a bathroom of this very house there were two framed sheets of U.S. postage stamps well worth stealing — Hirschfeld's Comedians and his Silent Screen stars, issued back when the postage was 29 cents.

Al pushed himself back from the drawing board and waited to be grilled about his life and times. "What more can you possibly want to know?" he said. Well, Mr. Hirschfeld, when did you start work today?

"Eleven o'clock."

And you've been at that drawing board straight through until now, 6 PM?

"Yup. And I'd be going through to 6:30 if you weren't here."

How many days in the week do you work?

"Uhhhh . . . seven."

"I mean," Louise Kerz Hirschfeld threw in, "we sometimes do go out."

"Very rarely," he muttered. "I try to avoid it."

The man who worked those seven days a week was born June 21, 1903, in St. Louis, Missouri. He had traveled from his brownstone to Broadway's opening nights for 55 years, first with wife Dolly Haas, whom he lost to cancer in 1994, then, since 1996, with wife Louise. The journey was by car, for many years a big blue 1983 Cadillac, thereafter a trim new Lexus, always with Al himself at the wheel and parking wherever he saw fit. ("The last time he drove," Louise Kerz Hirschfeld said, "was last year, when we had dinner in SoHo . . . are you laughing?") As Albert Hirschfeld, chauffeur and artist, sat there in his barber chair on January 13, 2003, he was 99 years, six months, and 31 days old. On June 21, 2003, the Martin Beck Theatre will be renamed the Al Hirschfeld Theater, in honor of his 100th birthday and lifetime output of unparalleled brilliance.

What would the 12-year-old newly arrived kid in Washington Heights have thought if someone had told him a Broadway theatre would someday — 88 years later — bear his name?

"That anyone who said that was out of his mind. It didn't occur to me, even when they" — wife Louise and co-conspirator Arthur Gelb — "told me they were going to do it."

Had he tried to stop them?

"No. I was pleased, flabbergasted, overwhelmed . . . You know, when Michael Myerberg [the producer who brought Waiting for Godot to these shores] had the idea of renaming I forget which theatre [it was the Mansfield, on 47th Street] to the Brooks Atkinson, he came and asked me: 'What do you think Brooks would say?' I said: 'I think he'd be flattered. Why don't you call him?' Then Brooks called me to say he was very pleased."

Al Hirschfeld first met Brooks Atkinson, the gentlemanly drama critic of The New York Times — too gentlemanly to dig Waiting for Godot, as it happens — when in 1928 the young Hirschfeld, sporting a reddish brown beard he had grown during six months in Paris, delivered by his own hand one of his theatrical drawings to the drama desk of the Times. The two men would become fast friends and stay that way for the rest of Atkinson's life.

"Brooks never went into Sardi's, you know," Hirschfeld said all these years later. "He never got to the paper until 11:00 PM or 11:30 and the edition went to press at 1:30. He wrote in longhand, giving it page-by-page to a copy boy, and by the time he finished, the paper was out. I never knew how he did it."

When it comes to theatres named for people, Al Hirschfeld in his time knew quite a few of those people.

"Eugene O'Neill? Sure. He used to go to the Onyx Club, on 52nd Street, to listen to Ammons and Johnson play stride piano, and I'd go with him. Yes, he used to drink, but not a lot. He could hold his liquor. I must have drawn him, oh God, five or six times . . . The Gershwins? I knew them in the Village. That's when George was playing in the orchestra pit of George White's Scandals at the Apollo on 42nd Street."

Al never knew Martin Beck ("though his granddaughter wrote me a very generous letter, I must say") or Henry Miller or Edwin Booth (1833-1893), but, oh yes, he knew David Belasco (1853-1931), the impresario and playwright dubbed "the Bishop of Broadway" for his priestly garb. "A pontifical man. He believed he was David Belasco. I once did a series of drawings of 'Unsung Heroes' in the Trib, and I found this doorman at the Belasco who was also a lighting expert. I asked: 'How come Belasco takes credit for the lighting?' and the fellow said: 'He takes credit for everything.'"

Yes, Al knew the Shuberts, all of them. Did he like them? "That well I didn't know them." Ethel Barrymore? "Well, yes, I knew her. Drew her many times. Never knew her on a social basis." Helen Hayes? "A dear friend." Richard Rodgers? "Knew him very well. We had dinner quite often. Had dinner once with him and . . . " He broke off, tried to remember, went for his address-and-phone book, couldn't find it, waved a hand in general direction of where phone book should be and said crisply: "Everybody in it's dead anyway."

The Martin Beck became the Martin Beck in 1924. Hirschfeld "probably saw everything that ever played there" from Captain Jinks (1925) and The Shanghai Gesture (1926) to its most recent tenants. "Except for the opening last year of Man of La Mancha," Louise interjected. "Al was sick that night and didn't go." From his barber chair, Al grunted one word: "Fortunately."

It's been estimated that Hirschfeld did 10,000 to 12,000 drawings over his lifetime. Any idea, the artist was asked that day, how accurate those figures may be?

"Good question. If you work every day for many years, it adds up."

He climbed slowly off the barber's chair and reached for the walker that would take him to the first of two "escalators" — moving seats, actually — that conveyed him down to the living room. Moving painstakingly on his walker, he said: "You go on ahead. It takes forever."

It was now a little past 7 PM on a Monday in January. One week from today, on Monday morning, January 20, 2003 — five months and one day short of his 100th birthday — a great American artist named Hirschfeld would rest dead in his bed in that house on 95th Street. A painter and singer named Tony Bennett, on hearing the news, would urge the Metropolitan Museum of Art — where the flag had dropped to half-mast — to schedule an Al Hirschfeld retrospective.

It doesn't take forever, Al. I only wish it did.

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