“Artists are just children who refuse to put down their crayons.”
Al Hirschfeld often claimed that he was not a celebrity, just a man who saw celebrities in unique ways. Despite his denials, his drawings in the New York Times made him a Broadway fixture for decades and a star in his own right. He drew world-famous caricatures of the biggest names of stage and screen, which were often coveted by the stars themselves. His amazing talent allowed him to travel the world, but his start was right here in the Show Me State.
THE EARLY YEARS
Albert Hirschfeld was born on June 21, 1903, in St. Louis. He and his two siblings were raised in the area just north of Forest Park where he was heavily influenced by the arts. His family moved to New York when he was twelve where he continued his love affair with the arts. He was so enamored with the culture that he enrolled at the Art Students League and became the artistic director at a motion picture studio at the age of eighteen.
Hirschfeld eventually worked his way into a job at Warner Brothers, but he longed to study overseas. So when he was 21, he headed to Paris to expand his understanding of the world and perfect his craft. During his trips home from Europe to visit family, he often caught a few plays. On one particular trip in 1926, he went to a show and sketched a picture that changed his life forever.
RISE TO FAME
Hirschfeld and press agent Richard Maney attended a show starring a French actor named Sacha Guitry. Hirschfeld took out his program and drew a picture of the woman. Maney was so impressed by the drawing that he asked if Hirschfeld
could reproduce the drawing on a clean sheet of paper so Maney could reprint it in the newspaper. When the picture appeared in the New York Herald-Tribune, Hirschfeld was suddenly a working artist! Newspapers across the city were clamoring for his drawings, with stars even begging for their own pictures to be drawn. His popularity continued to climb when the New York Times came calling in 1929. He remained at the Times for the rest of his professional life.
SHOW ME SUCCESS
For the next seventy years after joining the Times, Hirschfeld was a staple on Broadway and at opening nights all over the city. He perfected his craft of drawing in the dark during the shows in a very intricate manner. He used a system of notations that allowed him to create the caricature in perfect detail after he left the show. The drawings became a status symbol for many Broadway and Hollywood stars, and his works were as much a part of the show as the performance itself.
His daughter, Nina, was born in 1945, which began another phase of his artwork that was closely watched by loyal fans. He inserted her name into the lines of almost every drawing after her birth. In fact, the one time he failed to include her name in a drawing, people were so upset that they overwhelmed him with responses about the omission. From that point on, the number of times her name appeared in drawing was printed in a corner of the picture, which made the drawings a “word search” game for loyal fans.
Hirschfeld racked up accolades and honors from people all over the world, including a special Tony Award for his depictions of stage actors. A film documentary about his life also garnered an Academy Award nomination. He wrote several books and collaborated on a musical called Sweet Bye and Bye, but his lasting legacy will always be that of the Playbill on Broadway. He died in his sleep at age ninety- nine, as a true star that made his living drawing other stars. It is rightly pointed out by one Broadway critic that “there are just two forms of fame on Broadway: seeing your name in lights, and more significantly, to be drawn by Hirschfeld.”
*The New York Landmarks Conservancy named Hirschfeld as one of six people considered New York City Landmarks.
*In 1991, Hirschfeld designed a booklet of stamps for the U.S. Postal Service showcasing comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Jack Benny and Fanny Brice, and Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.