Caricaturist Hirschfeld dies at 99

Al Hirschfeld's pen and ink drawing of the cast from the television series "Star Trek: Voyager," is shown at the The Margo Feiden Galleries, LTD., Monday in New York. Al Hirschfeld, whose graceful, fluid caricatures captured the essence of performers and politicians for most of the 20th century, died Monday. He was 99.

(AP Photo/Al Hirschfeld/Margo Feiden Galleries LTD
Published: Tuesday, January 21, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 20, 2003 at 11:25 p.m.

NEW YORK - Show-biz caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, whose curlicued, pen-and-ink drawings captured the biggest stars of Broadway and Hollywood, from Charlie Chaplin and Ethel Merman to Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld, died Monday. He was 99.

Hirschfeld, whose drawings were first published in the 1920s, died in his sleep at his home in New York, said his wife, Louise. He had been at work as recently as Saturday, drawing a sketch of the Marx Brothers for a commission.

``He was a dancer with a pen. He absolutely danced. All his drawings have incredible movement,'' said director and performer Tommy Tune, the subject of Hirschfeld's most recent drawing in The New York Times, in December. ``He caught my spirit, and I was very, very touched by it.''

The artist, an urbane man with white hair and a Santa Claus beard, never analyzed his beloved style, which always included the name of his daughter, Nina, hidden in the fluid, graceful lines for readers to find.

``All I know is that when it works, I'm aware of it. But how it's accomplished, I don't know,'' he once said. ``Through trial and error you eliminate and eliminate and get down to the pure line and how it communicates to the viewer. The last drawing you do is the best one - it should be.''

Hirschfeld was a fixture on Broadway's opening nights, and theater performers prized his drawings as works of art. He immortalized them all - Mary Martin, Carol Channing, Gwen Verdon, Bernadette Peters and scores of others.

``It was an honor to be drawn by him,'' Peters said Monday. ``He did his interpretation of your performance. And each time he drew you, it was different, capturing what you did on stage.''

Joel Grey owns two Hirschfelds, including one of his performance as the master of ceremonies in ``Cabaret.''

``There was tremendous art and wit in his work and underneath it all, his drawings had tremendous humanity,'' Grey said. ``They weren't vicious. He made them brilliant and provocative but without being destructive - and that's quite a feat.''

For nearly 70 years, Hirschfeld's theater drawings appeared in the drama pages of the Times. Arthur Gelb, the newspaper's former managing editor, recalled getting the drawings when he was in charge of cultural coverage.

``I would get the drawing and unwrap it and immediately it was like a magnet for reporters and editors,'' Gelb said. ``Everyone wanted to see what Al had wrought. It was like unwrapping a Daumier, and I think he will last as long as Daumier.''

Hirschfeld's work appeared in many other publications, too, from Playbill to TV Guide. His drawings are in the collections of several major institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, both in New York.

The artist also received a special Tony Award, in 1975. This June, Broadway's Martin Beck Theatre will be renamed for Hirschfeld.

Adding Nina to his work started as a joke, but soon became a tradition, with ``NINA'' appearing, often three or four times, in hard-to-spot places in each drawing. To help readers find them, Hirschfeld put a number next to his signature if there was more than one ``NINA.''

``When I started it, I didn't think anybody would notice,'' he said. ``It was one of those family things, and after three or four weeks, I thought the joke had worn thin and I stopped it.

``And then the letters started coming in. I found myself spending more time answering mail than drawing, so I gave up and put it back in. And kept it in.''

Albert Hirschfeld was born June 21, 1903, in St. Louis. The family later moved to New York, where Hirschfeld studied at the Art Students League. His first job was as art director for a movie studio. He studied painting, drawing and sculpture in Paris and London during the 1920s.

During a trip back in New York, a friend of his showed one of his sketches of an actor to someone the friend knew at the New York Herald Tribune. That led to assignments for that paper, and, a short time later, from the Times.

His work was a picture-book chronicle of pop culture, with drawings of luminaries such as George and Ira Gershwin, Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, Benny Goodman and Count Basie, Luciano Pavarotti and Maria Callas, Barbara Streisand and Liza Minnelli, even Bruce Springsteen and Madonna.

``I never take a day off,'' he once said. ``When I would travel, I would always draw. I wouldn't know what else to do.''

In 1991, he received a unique tribute from the Postal Service, which for the first time put an artist's name on a booklet of stamps and allowed hidden writing on a stamp - ``NINA,'' of course.

The stamp booklet featured Hirschfeld's drawings of comedians such as Jack Benny, Laurel and Hardy and Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. He followed that up in 1994 with a series of stamps honoring silent film stars such as Rudolph Valentino and Buster Keaton.

He was the subject of a 1996 feature-length documentary, ``The Line King.''

Who will take Hirschfeld's spot in the Times?

``Al is irreplaceable,'' Gelb said.

Added Peters: ``It's going to be hard not seeing him on opening nights any more, coming down the aisle. He was part of our theater heritage.''

Hirschfeld's first wife, actress Dolly Haas, died in 1994. Two years later, Hirschfeld married Louise Kerz, an art historian. He also is survived by his daughter and a grandson.

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