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Hirschfeld Is Drawing in the Dark

November 15, 1998

NEW YORK (AP) _ Al Hirschfeld abhors the spotlight, a strange aversion for a man who has spent more nights at the theater than he has at home during his 95 years.

Then again, his best work is done in the dark.

For nearly three-quarters of a century, the artist has captured Broadway’s most famous faces and the drama and humor of the theater from his seat in the audience.

His influence stretches far beyond Times Square. In the pages of newspapers and magazines, on posters and billboards Hirschfeld has chronicled the celebrity culture of the 20th century; from Artur Rubenstein to Leonard Bernstein; W.C. Fields to Jerry Seinfeld; Bill ``Bojangles″ Robinson to Bob Dylan.

It began in 1926 with a doodle. A press agent noticed Hirschfeld scribbling while watching the French actor Sacha Guitry perform. The agent told the artist he’d try to place the drawing in a newspaper if Hirschfeld would put it on clean paper.

The image appeared the next day in the New York Herald Tribune. The following year he was assigned by The New York Times to draw the comedian Harry Lauder ``in one of his interminable farewell performances,″ recalls Hirschfeld, who would find his permanent home in the Times’ Arts and Leisure section 17 years later.

Constance Rosenblum, the section editor, calls Hirschfeld’s decades of work inspiring. ``His imagination is always vivid, his hand steady and he always has a sense of humor,″ she says.

Inspired by the work of Charles Dana Gibson, whose ``Gibson Girl″ defined the Edwardian era, and of John Held, who dreamed up the Flapper, Hirschfeld created his distinctive niche at a time when mass circulation publications and the art of caricature were in their heyday.

``You look at him and you think he sprung from the brow of Zeus,″ said Wendy Wick Reaves, curator of prints and drawings at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. ``Actually, it was a vibrant tradition of which Hirschfeld was a part.″

``He stood out because there was an Art Deco elegance to his work,″ said Reaves, who assembled a recent exhibit on the caricature art of the 1920s and 30s, including eight works by Hirschfeld. ``There was the quality of black playing against white, and that was quintessentially his own, a sense of movement. He understands motion. That set him apart.″

Hirschfeld’s drawings seem to leap from the page: Carol Channing’s toothy grin. The Marx Brothers hamming it up. The cast of ``Rent″ performing a frenetic ensemble number.

``I just try to find someone’s little idiosyncrasies, the ones that define their character,″ the artist said.

He resists the term caricature to define his drawings. ``It’s become demeaning. I never thought a big nose or a big head on a small body was funny,″ he said, adding that he does not editorialize. ``I simply put down visually what the playwright intended. If it captures that, then it’s successful.″

A trademark is the presence of Hirschfeld’s ``Ninas.″ Since the birth of his daughter Nina 53 years ago, he has woven her name at least once into every one of his 7,000-plus drawings.

``I did it to herald her arrival on this earth, and I haven’t been able to stop,″ he said. Finding the Nina in a Hirschfeld in the Times has become a popular Sunday pastime and at one time was used as a Defense Department training tool. ``The Pentagon used it to teach pilots how to read maps and spot targets. It’s gotten crazy,″ he said.

Reminiscing in the fourth-floor studio of his Upper East Side townhouse, Hirschfeld says he can’t remember a time when he didn’t have a pen in hand.

Growing up in St. Louis, he was influenced by an artist who supported himself drawing price tags for a department store. The two would sit and sketch the landscape from a levee on the Mississippi River. ``He told my mother if I didn’t get out of St. Louis I’d be drawing price tags for the rest of my life, too,″ Hirschfeld said.

When he was 12, his mother packed up the family and moved them to New York. ``We had $5 when we arrived at Grand Central station and took the Amsterdam Avenue train to the end of the line. Then we started walking back down (Manhattan island) until we found a place to rent for $4 a month,″ he said.

His mother, Rebecca, worked in a department store and was the family’s principal breadwinner. His father, Isaac, was a nurturing parent, he said, but was unable to hold a steady job. He sometimes picked up day work firing the starting gun for a harness race track or umpiring baseball games.

During his teen-age years, Hirschfeld studied painting and sculpture at the Art Students League and got his first taste of the theater at vaudeville shows. He worked in the art department at Goldwyn Pictures before being named art director at Selznick Pictures at age 18. Later, he spent a few years at Warner Bros.

In 1924, with a $500 gift from an uncle, he sailed for Paris, joining the American expatriate colony there where literary luminaries held forth in the cafes.

Gertrude Stein, he recalls, was warm and always offered a good meal, but Ernest Hemingway ``was a bully. He loved to fight but he always picked on people half his size.″

``It was a great time to decide what to do with your life, whether you settle on this,″ he said, gesturing at his cluttered studio, ``or whether you wanted to open a delicatessen.″

His snow-white hair and beard frame deep-set eyes that convey both the wisdom of a near centenarian and a young man’s sense of wonder. He shared his stories from a vintage barber chair mounted behind his well-worn oak drafting table. Scattered across the table are his Venus pencil, India ink, erasers and brushes _ tools to solve, as he puts it, the problems the blank paper creates.

``This is where I enjoy myself,″ he says. ``I don’t play golf. I don’t exercise. I sit here and I draw. That’s what I do.″

In the just-completed stack of drawings: several private commissions, including one of the Seinfeld gang.

The price for a Hirschfeld piece begins at $750 for a limited edition lithograph, according to Nancy Dann of Margo Feiden Gallery in Manhattan, which represents the artist. Private commissions start at $7,500, plus $1,500 for each additional person, she said.

Hirschfeld goes to the theater three or four times a week, motoring downtown in his Cadillac with his wife, Louise Kerz, for opening nights. He married the 61-year-old theater historian in 1996, two years after the death of Dolly Haas Hirschfeld, an actress and his wife of 51 years. A brief first marriage ended in divorce.

A 1996 feature-length documentary, ``The Line King,″ told about his life, but in person Hirschfeld does not dwell on the past. ``I’m not interested in what comes next or what was before,″ he says. ``I’m interested in the here and now.″

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