NEW YORK, Jan. 22 (UPI) -- Internationally renowned caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, a man who lived life to the full, got his wish by working up to the day he died earlier this week but failed in his desire to reach 100 years of age.
Hirschfeld died at 99, just five months short of the June 21 birth date that would have made him a centenarian.
They are going to rename the Martin Beck Theater on Broadway for him on that date anyway with all the fun and ceremony he had been anticipating with almost boylike eagerness in the last year of his life.
On the day of his death, Hirschfeld worked at his drawing desk seated in the old barber chair he had used for more than 50 years in a studio on the top floor of the cozy brownstone town house that was his home on Manhattan's upper East Side. As usual, he was turning out a caricature, this one of the Marx brothers, for The New York Times.
After dinner and some television, the old artist retired to his bed and died in his sleep. His health had not been as good as he would have wished in recent years due to infirmity in one of his legs and he had been reduced to getting about in a wheel chair. But none of that mattered to Hirschfeld if he could still work -- and he did, every day, seven days a week.
This man, who was officially named a New York Landmark in 1996, began life in St. Louis but moved to New York with his family when he was 12. He studied at the Art Students League and began his career as art director for Selznick Pictures. A Broadway press agent saw a caricature Hirschfeld had done on his program at French showman Sacha Guitry's New York premiere and showed it to the New York Herald Tribune drama page editor.
And, as they say, the rest is history. The Tribune published the Guitry caricature on its front page, inspiring the drama editor of The Times to commission Hirschfeld to do a caricature of Scotch singer Harry Lauder for his newspaper. That was in 1926 and Hirschfeld had worked for the Times ever since, an arrangement sealed with a handshake, never a contract.
"Al" as he was universally known, liked to boast to his friends that he had seen more Broadway theater than any other living person and attended more opening nights -- usually with dinner afterward at Sardi's restaurant at his favorite corner table. He was an immediately recognizable celebrity due to his fulsome white beard and playful dark eyes under heavy black eyebrows.
Early in his career, Hirschfeld devised a shorthand that made it possible for him to draw in the dark during the performance of a play or a musical but he also worked from sketches made at dress rehearsals. He was good at both solo portraits and group sketches and the best of his work is in the Harvard University collection. His most recent exhibit was at the prestigious Pierpont Morgan Library only a few months ago.
Generous in his friendships, nothing pleased Hirschfeld more than to play host with his wife, Dolly Haas, a figure in the Berlin theater before Hitler's ascendancy, at intimate European-style suppers at their home for the who's who of the theater world. When Dolly died, ending 52 years of marriage, Hirschfeld didn't mope around like most old widowers but proposed to and was accepted by a lovely widowed friend, Louise Kerz, an arts researcher and historian, who filled his final years with happiness.
Al and Dolly had a daughter, Nina, who became a part of Hirschfeld's caricature legend. He spelled out her name in the loopy intricacies of his fine-line drawings either once or several time, and his viewers -- who were legion all over the country -- made it a game of seeing if they could find the "Ninas." He put a numeral beside his signature to indicate how many "Ninas" were in the sketch.
As art goes, Hirschfeld was a fine caricaturist who was able to catch a likeness with a few deft strokes, but he found his style early in life and never changed it much. Some critics might say he was an artist who didn't grow stylistically, but what he did was done with such perfection that he didn't really need to grow. Collectors who pay thousands of dollars for his original drawings seem to agree to that.
There is an art gallery on Madison Avenue, run by an old friend Margot Feiden that deals only in Hirschfelds. The prices will be higher than ever now that he is gone.
In the course of his 10 decades, Hirschfeld won two Best of Broadway Tony Awards, was nominated for an Academy Award, designed five stamps for the U.S. Postal Service honoring great American comedians, and wrote a shelf of books, including one on Broadway personalities and another on Hollywood stars. He also was the subject of a prize-winning film documentary, "Hirschfeld on Line."
In the week before he died he was informed of two more honors, according to his wife. He had been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the nation's highest cultural honor, and selected to receive the National Medal of Arts at the White House later this year. A gala benefit for the Actors' Fund will be held June 23 at he newly named Al Hirschfeld Theater in his memory.
Hirschfeld will have a private funeral on Friday.