Mae West, her skirt raised a few tantalizing inches above her ankle, throws a flirtatious glance at Orson Welles. Mildly amused, Jack Benny folds his arms and smirks. In a nearby corner, Zero Mostel sits in all his majestic corpulence, glowering. A beaming Judy Garland, her cap at a rakish slant, does a few quick jazz steps, then juts out a hip.
No, we're not in some magical realm of Hollywood past, where famous ghosts rise up and mingle with the living. We're in an art gallery, looking at flat, black and white drawings hanging on wood-paneled walls. But even though Jack Benny and pals are confined to the two-dimensional prison of paper, they seem to move and breathe as if alive, to gesture with a vitality and flair all their own.
It's really no mystery at all. They're Hirschfelds.
Al Hirschfeld has been creating caricatures of stage and screen stars for more than 60 years now. He has become as much of an institution as the glitzy, glamorous Great White Way itself, as synonymous with Broadway as klieg lights and opening nights. In a world of fly-by-night fame and overnight flops, he is a constant.
It all began back in 1923, when the young Hirschfeld sold his first caricature to the now-defunct World magazing. Two years later, he sold a caricature of Sir Harry Lauder to The New York Times. Since then, his renderings have become a mainstay of that paper's Arts and Leisure section. His drawings have also appeared in manifold publications over the years - Vanity Fair, Vogue, The Saturday Evening Post magazines to name but a few - and his work in in the permanent collections of several museums, including New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art.
It's hard to put a precise finger on the man's genius. it's not that his caricatures merely look like the stars they're intended to portray. They go way beyond that. At the risk of sounding metaphysical, they seem to, well, capture the idea of them.
Standing in the cozy, warmly lit Margo Feiden Galleries in a fashionable section of Manhattan, surrounded by some 2,000 of Hirschfeld's drawings and etchings, one is tempted to divine the secret behind his technique. It doesn't seem so much a method of exaggeration as it does one of creative substitution. Ruth Gordon, for example, has two stars for eyes. Carol Channing, arms entwined in a feather boa, has two tiny dots for a nose. An impish Red Skelton has a criss-crossing patchwork design for beard stubble. But does this really explain how he captures the essence of a person?
Perhaps it's best to leave the hypothesizing to art scholars, and just enjoy. His caricatures cover every inch of gallery wall space, with hundreds more filling wall holders. A large majority chronicle the history of Broadway, the classic shows as well as the long-forgotten. One wall holds work done in color for TV Guide magazine covers - a befreckled Arthur Godfry, a pea green Alfred Hitchcock. In a separate room hang political caricatures Hirschfeld did in the '40s and '50s, including a startling interpretation of the late Sen. Joe McCarthy. Dressed like the Statue of Liberty, he is dousing her torch in a bucket of water.
A quick taxi ride across town brings you to an idyllic four-story brownstone, where the man himself lives and draws. Hirschfeld and his wife of 43 years, actress Dolly Haas, bought the brownstone in 1947 for $27,000. "It's the only sensible thing I've ever done," he says.
At 83, Hirschfeld is a wellspring of good sense, a master of the wry phrase, with a mind as sharp as an X-acto knife. A bit round about the middle, his only exercise involves running up and down the four flights of stairs "like a mountain goat." His life is filled with rehearsals, the theater, of course, and frequent out-of-town previews. To do his magic, he makes quick sletches, jots down notes, then goes home to "correlate it all into some palatable design." His caricatures of actors is on-going Broadway shows appear in Friday's Times, those in about-to-open shows in Sunday's.
He welcomes a visitor to his studio while dressed in a bright blue jumpsuit, green sweater, red socks and well-worn house shoes. (Perhaps working predominately in black and white has given Hirschfeld a penchant for colorful attire.) With his sterling white hair, he brings to mind a very distinguished, well-mannered Santa Claus.
He sits down at his drawing board, in the same barber's chair he's had for 50 years, and sorts through the mail. The only light in the room filters in from a big picture window, which holds an expanse of gray Manhattan sky, a few tree-tops and a brick wall undergoing construction. (One can imagine Hirschfeld gazing out of it while hard at work, trying to conjure the curve of a nose, the arch of an eyebrow.) The muted sound of cranes and jackhammers creeps into the room, which is comfortably cluttered with keepsakes, cans full of pencils and paintbrushes, books, pots of African violets, posters and theater memorabilia.
"It's been a process of elimination," he says, explaining the evolution of his style. Hirschfeld began as a sculptor, then experimented with painting, then switched to lithographs and etching. From there he pared it down to "pure line."
"The magic of a single line, what it can do or say to the viewer...That's what I've been trying to do."
When you ask him which people are the hardest to draw, he responds, "it depends." When you ask him how he determines whether a drawing should be simple or complex, he responds. "it depends," adding that the simple ones generally are harder than the more complex.
"In this type of work there are no hard, fast rules," he says. "You learn by trial and error. You set your own problems, decide what's right, what's wrong. Someone will say, 'You can't have a line going into the corner.' It's an anarchical profession." he pauses. "With certain rules and limitations of course."
But beyond such concrete observations, Hirschfeld admits there's something just a little bit mystical about what he does.
"It's the whole business of capturing an image, and communicating that image to somebody else. Everybody has a talent for recognition. You can recognize somebody you know a block away, even if they're wearing a new suit and you can't see their features. There's something mysterious about it, yet we just slough it off. It's a great talent billions of people have. I translate that talent into another medium, I translate it into line."
He was born in 1903 in St. Louis, Mo. When he was 11-years-old, a teacher told his parents there was nothing more she could teach him about art in St. Louis. So the family moved to New York, where they knew absolutely no one. They found a frame house for $4 a month, and Hirschfeld enrolled in the Art Students' League.
When he was 17, he became art director of Selznick Pictures, where he worked for several years until the company went bankrupt. Hirschfeld had loaned a good bit of money to David Selznick, which was never paid back.
"After that, my uncle asked me what my plans were for my future. I told him my plans were to never work for anybody again regardless of what happens."
The uncle decided a trip to the Continent was in order. He gave the young artist $500, a tidy sum back then, and bid him adieu. Once in Paris, Hirschfeld hooked up with two English fellows, a poet and a scene designer. The three rented a cold water flat, complete with outhouse.
Not exactly luxury accomodations; still, the artist gets a romantic lilt in his voice when he talks about those days.
"Dinner in a good restaurant was about 24 cents. A cup of coffee in our little bistro was only a quarter of a franc. it was a wonderful time for a young artist to live. You could take a couple of years and discover what you were about. I don't know how a young artist today does it, with Soho lofts running, what, about $2000 a month?"
He did caricatures of Parisian theatrical stars, and enjoyed the Bohemian life. In 1927, he journeyed to pre-Revolution Russia, where he covered Moscow theater for the New York Herald Tribune. ("It was an interesting time, compared to the corruption now. The theater was really first-rate, then it deteriorated. Something like what happened when the WPA - Work Projects Administration - clamped down on American theater. Government intervention in the arts is always dangerous.")
He changed milieaus once again in 1931, this time to the isle of Bali in the South Seas. The strong, tropical light prompted him to strip away all but the essentials in his work. "It made a big change in my way of seeing," he states simply.
And what exactly is his "way of seeing?" A host of adjectives come to mind: witty, inventive, crafty, intuitive, economical. It's a style that has occasionally found its way into the written word. In 1951, Hirschfeld penned "Show Business is No Business," his deliciously dry, wildly funny look at the theater industry.
Other sojourns away from the sketch pad have not fared as well. "Sweet Bye and Bye," a musical Hirschfeld collaberated on in 1947 with S. J. Perelman, Ogden Nash and Vernon Duke, died a quick and merciful death in Philadelphia. "That one took a couple of years out of my life," he says, chuckling. "We had to leave the country afterwards." Luckily, the old Holiday magazine had just invited him and Perelman on a worldwide tour to write and sketch their findings for a travel story. The result was "Westaward Ha!" a book that became a best seller.
"That evens it out somehow, I guess..."
People have tried to duplicate Hirschfeld's largely inimitable style through the years. As a rule, he is not big on coaching proteges. Style is something you discover on your own, says Hirschfeld.
Besides, there just aren't that many practicing celebrity caricaturists anymore, asserts Hirschfeld. And with good reason, he adds.
There's no outlet. Theater is becoming smaller than life rather than larger than life." A walk out on the street, he says, can occasion eye-popping amazement than any star-studded review. "It's like a muscial comedy out there, with girls in all this makeup wearing underwear and leather boots, with crazy-looking hair stuck up like a porcupine's."
For the last 17 years Hirschfeld has been represented by the Margo Feiden Galleries. A bright, dynamic woman who flies planes in her spare time, Feiden met Hirschfeld at one of her gallery shows.
"After all these years, I can translate English into Hirschfeldian," she says.
But even she has a hard time enunciating just exaclty what it is he does. How does he do it? How does he - with a slope of a line, a jut of a chin, a point of a finger - so eloquently define a human soul?
"I've been trying all my life to discover what it is I do," says Hirschfeld, shifting in his barber's chair. "I still don't know."