Al Hirschfeld, whose exuberant caricatures have immortalized the stage luminaries of the age, visited Paris recently. His absence had been a long one and he was eagerly making an inspection tour.
He is 82, his imperial whiskers are white, but his bright eyes are as observant as ever and, like his drawings, filled with friendly fun. He walked the Paris streets with a boulevardier swagger, seeking familiar places. Some of the old haunts, he found, have vanished and others have a new look.
"Paris has changed outwardly in some respects, but less for the worse than any other place," he reported. "It still has its irresistable allure and excitement, and its beauty is unimpaired."
He crossed the Atlantic - by ship; he does not like to fly - to attend an exhibition of his work at the National Theatre in London, chronicling 60 years of alert playgoing in many countries. Notables of the British theater turned up to see them. The show (his first on the grand scale in Britain, though his cartoons have been appearing in British publications for decades) was an immense success.
Then, "being just across the Channel, I had to see Paris again," he said. This visit brought memories of his first, in 1923.
A generous uncle, impressed by the young Hirschfeld's budding talent, insisted that he study at the Academie Julian. The youth was given $500, a one-way ticket to France and much advice. The all-knowing uncle told him that every Frenchman who was neither a general nor an apache always wore a cutaway and striped trousers. The nephew was tailored for this custom and cautioned to sport the outfit on every occasion.
"When I got to Paris I noticed people were staring at me," he recalled. "They thought I must be a diplomat on his way to an embassy reception, or maybe Adolphe Menjou on holiday from Hollywood. I soon changed into sweater and corduroy pants."
On his arrival, a friend was to meet him at Gare St. Lazare, but the boat-train was late and the friend could not be found. A fellow passenger gave him the address of a hotel in Montparnasse. He taxied there, to find only a door with a sign above it. He rang, and the door was opened by the manager, who handed him a key, told him to carry his luggage to the third floor and asked him what time his ladyfriend was due.
The bewildered guest, sweating and cursing, struggled upstairs with his bags. When he reached the second landing the stairway light went out and he continued his climb in the dark. In his attic room he resolved to book return passage as soon as a travel bureau was open, but meanwhile he had $500 and he would take a gander at Paris by night.
It was 2 A.M., but Paris was a late town then. He went around the corner to the Select cafe. At the bar was the friend he had failed to find at the station, talking to two young painters. One was Roger K. Fuse, later a celebrated scenic designer. The four stayed up until dawn, and the three artists agreed to share a studio.
Hirschfeld made the first sale of his work to The New York Times, a cartoon of Buster West, an American dancer appearing at the Ambassadeurs, a cabaret for which Cole Porter wrote revues and where the Spanish sensation Raquel Meller sang.
"Montparnasse was a lively and crazy place then," Hirschfeld remembered. "Goofs from every state in the union told you they were writing great novels and painting masterpieces. The crowd was composed of countless phonies, but there were a few with genuine talent. I met all the now-legendary figures. The Japanese painter Foujita was a fellow student at Julian's. He always had a white kitten on his shoulder. Hemingway hung out at the Dome. He was writing his first stories. I thought him a boastful bully, always getting into fist fights. It was probably a pose. Poses were struck everywhere to get attention. Every cafe terrace had its quota of freaks pretending to be geniuses."
Hirschfeld's caricatures of Parisian stars such as Sacha Guitry, Charles Dullin, Louis Jouvet, Mistinguett, Maurice Chevalier and Florence Mills began to appear regularly in U.S. papers and were to be seen on the walls of Joe Zelli's supper club in Montmartre, where theatrical Paris gathered. The New York World invited him to depict the Broadway scene on the recommendation of its drama critic, Alexander Woollcott, Hirschfeld now spent his winters in Manhattan and his summers in Europe, traveling widely; in 1927 he covered Moscow theater for the New York Herald Tribune.
Early in the Depression, his work became a feature of the Sunday edition of The New York Times, illustrating Brooks Atkinson's weekend reviews. He and Atkinson soon became fast friends, and they collaberated on a theater book, "The Lively Years" (1973).
Hirschfeld was born in St. Louis. His family moved to New York when he was 12 and he began theatergoing by seeing Sarah Bernhardt at the Palace. At 17, he was hired by the publicity wizard and lyric writer Howard Dietz to help publicize the movies presented by Lewis Selznick, father of David O. The Selznick company went out of business despite Hirschfeld's and Dietz's efforts, and Dietz became public-relations chief for the new Metro_Goldwyn-Mayer; he devised its trademark, the roaring lion with the inscription "Ars Gratia Artis." He urged his young helper to join him, but Hirschfeld wanted to see Paris.
He confessed that years later "I took one false step, when I went over to the other side of the footlights. That was when I designed the scenery for the musical written by S. J. Perelman with lyrics by Ogden Nash and a score by Vernon Duke. It sounded like a good prospect, but it was a dreadful mistake. Its book was about the future. That was in 1947.
"How can anyone predict the future, and above all the music of the future? The disaster was called 'The Sweet Bye and Bye' and it opened and closed forever after a Philadelphia tryout. I didn't dare go back to New York, or even stay in the United States.
"Perelman and I were contemplating suicide when I ran into Ted Patrick, the editor of Holiday magazine. He listened to our sad story and proposed, since we wanted to get out of the country, that we go around the world in 80 days and do a series of articles for his magazine, Perelman writing and I drawing what we saw. He would pay all expenses, and offered us a high salary. We marched at dawn." The result was the 1949 book "Westward Ha."
His old colleague Atkinson died last year, so Hirschfeld now holds the record for attending Broadway first-nights. There is a permanent display of 60 years of his work at the Margo Feiden Galleries in New York.
His traveling and theatergoing companion is his wife of 42 years, the Berlin-born actress Dolly Haas. She was the ingenue in the first film to be directed by William Wilder. Her presence in Eric Charell musicals and light comedies delighted the hard-to-please critic Alfred Kerr, oracle of the German stage in the pre-Nazi era. In London, D. W. Griffith selected her to play the Lillian Gish role in a remake of "Broken Blossoms"; the film was completed by Johann Brahm. Later Haas was in Hollywood films and was seen on Broadway in "Lute Song" and with John Gielgud in "Crime and Punishment." She has retired now, but she admitted that, before one of her husband's exhibits opens, "I still get first-night jitters."