Past Articles

What's New on the Rialto

Hirschfeld: The Biography
by Ellen Stern

Book Review by Mark Dundas Wood

Early in her recent Hirschfeld: The Biography, Ellen Stern provides an anecdote from the 1930s that neatly illustrates the tremendous influence of theatrical caricaturist Al Hirschfeld's drawings. The artist had provided images for posters and other advertisements heralding the Marx Brothers film A Night at the Opera, and Stern notes that stylists at MGM used those sketches to sharpen the visual image of the brothers themselves. They "reshape[d] Groucho's mop of hair into what Hirschfeld has made it: two winglike triangles flying out from a center runway."

Hirschfeld's work was so compelling, Stern notes, that celebrities had begun "looking like their caricatures, rather than the other way around." Later in the book, Stern tells of one disgruntled subject of a Hirschfeld drawing who, upon first seeing the sketched image, told the artist, "That's not me." Quipped Hirschfeld: "It will be."

His influence on Broadway and beyond remained potent throughout most of the 20th century, and even briefly into the 21st. Even now, his self-portrait brightens Manhattan's theatre district, glowing on the marquee of the 45th Street playhouse that bears his name. (The Martin Beck Theatre became the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in June of 2003—the year of the artist's centenary and just months after his death.)

Stern became interested in her subject upon interviewing Hirschfeld for a 1987 profile that would appear in GQ magazine. The subsequent full biography has had a long birthing, but it proves to be worth the wait. The book will be of value not only to theatre-lovers but also to anyone with an interest in the social and cultural currents that flowed in New York City between the Jazz Age and 9/11.

The author chose to relate Hirschfeld's history in present tense. This works fine, at least most of the time, to lend the storytelling an aura of immediacy. (Occasionally, when she writes from a 2020s vantage point in the same passage with scenes from the 20th century "present," there can be a slight hiccup of confusion.)

Stern races and then slows the narrative in a way that can feel slightly erratic at points. For instance, she covers the first 22 years of Hirschfeld's life-his childhood days in his native St. Louis with his Jewish immigrant family; his time in New York City as a teenage art director for movie-maker David Selznick; his courtship of showgirl-turned-writer Florence Allen (née "Hobby"), the woman who would become his first wife—all in a mere 32 pages. She then applies the brakes and spends the next 22 pages describing an eight-month trip abroad that young Al made in 1925-26. But this seemingly herky-jerky approach actually makes sense: Hirschfeld's bracing adventures in Paris and Morocco were important episodes that helped shape the cosmopolitan approach he would take in his art and in his lifestyle. Stern shows him refining his creativity overseas, turning out "charcoals, watercolors and etchings of the marketplaces, musicians, even the weather." It will be on a later trip,to Bali, Stern posits, that he'll discover his idiosyncratic and celebrated "line."

For a while, Hirschfeld aspired to a career in the so-called fine arts; he even tried his hand as a sculptor at one point. And, early on, he used his talent in support of leftist political causes, as an illustrator for such publications as New Masses and Peace in Our Time. Later, he became disillusioned by the corruption he sensed during a trip to Stalinist Russia. His political leanings were never completely abandoned, however. During the Red Scare years, he once drew Senator Joseph McCarthy in the act of extinguishing the flame of the Statue of Liberty.

It turns out, the artist rather quickly (and quite gladly, it seems) found that sketching celebrities was his true calling. There was some confusion in his own mind early on, however, about just what his drawings were. Sometimes, Stern says, he embraced the word "caricature" and at other times he insisted that the works he created were instead "character drawings." In fact, in his sketches spotlighting theatrical productions he seemed more interested in the character being played than in the actor doing the playing. His frequent portrayals of Carol Channing—one of his most beloved subjects—demonstrate this aspect of his work. "If it's Lorelei Lee, Hirschfeld gives her eyes like doorknobs and a mouth full of lips," Stern notes. "As Dolly Levi in bouffant and feathers, her eyes are buttons, her smile a boulevard."

Hirschfeld's second (and longest) marriage was to German-born actress Dolly Haas, whom he married in 1943. At about this time, he made an exclusive handshake deal with the New York Times for his theatrical sketches. This gave him some security: he no longer had to juggle freelance assignments for the Sunday editions of other New York City dailies. (He would continue to produce non-theatre-related drawings for other outlets, including Collier's, Seventeen, and TV Guide.) In 1948, he, Dolly, and their young but already celebrated daughter Nina moved into a three-story building (plus basement) on Manhattan's East 95th Street, where they were to enjoy many years of work and fun. Al and Dolly became consummate entertainers, hosting countless dinners and parties over the decades.

His life in the 1940s was not without some routine-relieving "capers," including a collaboration with co-librettist S.J. Perelman, lyricist Ogden Nash, and composer Vernon Duke on a futuristic musical called Sweet Bye and Bye (1946), a project that made it to New Haven but never saw the lights of Broadway. Stern writes of this theatrical catastrophe with flair. But she seems cautious when it comes to the question of some less-than-savory escapades: Hirschfeld's possible extramarital entanglements, most notably a purported long-term involvement with actress Paula Lawrence, who had been his girlfriend in the mid-1930s. Stern addresses the rumors, but never fully confirms their veracity.

The author, unsurprisingly, devotes considerable ink to the whole "Nina" situation. For the uninformed: directly after his daughter's birth in 1945, Hirschfeld began hiding one or more instances of the name "NINA" among the lines of his drawings. What started as a lark became a phenomenon, which—according to Stern—was great fun for most everyone but Nina herself. (One other party who considered this Highlights for Children puzzle for adults to be a misstep was cartoonist and playwright Jules Feiffer. "I thought it demeaned the work, from the level of the art that it truly was, to have this gimmicky stuff in it," he told Stern.)

The relationship between Nina and her parents was certainly strained. "I do not believe I was ever an adult to my father," the adult Nina confessed to Stern in an interview for the book. Her remark becomes particularly unsettling when juxtaposed with Stern's observation that Nina's childhood pals adored Hirschfeld precisely because he treated them like adults rather than kids. It seems odd that, in passages about Nina's troubled adolescence and early adulthood, Stern gives us many quotations from Nina's former childhood playfellows and not much input from the daughter herself. Perhaps the grown Nina didn't wish to share too much about those painful years.

Much of the last part of the book is devoted to Hirschfeld's turbulent relationship with Margo Feiden, who promoted his work and sold it from her Greenwich Village gallery. Stern was able to interview Feiden, allowing her to tell her side of the story regarding the tumult that grew between Hirschfeld and herself. But Feiden does not come off especially well. (One unidentified newspaper art director described her to Stern as a "viper.")

The squabbling with Feiden was only one of the troubles that plagued Hirschfeld in his later years. His health declined. Nina's personal life became increasingly unstable. She latched on to unpromising love interests and tore through a couple of unhappy marriages. Things weren't rosy on the career front, either. As early as the 1970s, the Times periodically looked for ways to phase out their association with him, though his work remained popular with the public.

Bereft after the passing of Dolly in 1994, he married Louise Kerz, a long-time friend, in 1996. The new marriage seemed rejuvenating. It brought some welcome happiness to the last part of his life—and it brings some upbeat moments to the final pages of Stern's book.

Hirschfeld: The Biography seems admirably researched. However, there are glitches and irregularities with the book's index. For instance, it directs readers looking for Hirschfeld's "marriage to Dolly" to page 160, though the Haas/Hirschfeld wedding is described on pp. 152-53. Searching for Hirschfeld wives #1 and #3 is like looking for a "NINA" in a Hirschfeldian haystack. Florence is indexed not under her original surname "Hobby" nor her married name "Hirschfeld" nor her stage name "Allen," but under the variant "Allyn." Louise can be found under "Cullman," the name of her post-Hirschfeld husband.

Another drawback for some readers: although there are several pages with photographs and other illustrations, there's scant representation of the artist's work included. Perhaps permissions for use were not granted.

Such quibbles aside, the book is a pleasure. Stern's descriptions have color and verve, yet she avoids pretentiousness and hyperbole. The following passage—describing how Hirschfeld's love of music informed his artistry-nicely illustrates her skill for artful phrasing:

"No one's dancers—from shimmy to jeté to Fosse hip thrust—are more sensuous, with ribbon limbs, sinuous hands, and bodies arched like parentheses. No one's trumpeters toot more gaily, or skaters skim on more lyrical blades. The brooder, rogue and spinster flow no less."

It's to the author's credit that she frequently matches her descriptions of Hirschfeld's artistry with such graceful prose. It's as though she has found the very sort of elegance he'd summoned when preserving—as if in amber—the ephemeral magic he observed in actors and other performing artists.

Hirschfeld: The Biography
By Ellen Stern
442 Pages
Skyhorse Publishing
Publication Date July 6, 2021
ISBN: 978-1510759404
Available in Hardcover and Kindle Edition