Caricaturist Al Hirschfeld dies at age 99

Jan. 20, 2003 at 3:14 PM
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NEW YORK, Jan. 20 (UPI) -- Al Hirschfeld, whose caricatures of the great and near-great of the theater were as entertaining as trying to find his daughter's name scribbled among the lines, died Monday. He was 99.

Hirschfeld died at his home in New York. A cause of death was not immediately released.

Hirschfeld, who was born June 21, 1903, earned a special Tony Award for his drawings of theater people. His work appeared often in The New York Times and after his daughter Nina was born in 1945, he included her name among the scribbles that made up the artwork. Finding the "Ninas" in given drawing -- and Hirschfeld made more than 10,000 caricatures in his career -- became a welcome game for Hirschfeld's many admirers.

Hirschfeld once told a visitor to the studio on the top floor of his Manhattan townhouse: "I complete two or three drawings a week and work seven days a week because I have nothing better I want to do." He continued to work to his death.

He was best known for his illustrations on The New York Times' theater pages but he also turned out posters for Broadway shows and drew for TV Guide and many other publications.

"I can draw in the dark and even draw in my pocket on subways so as not to bother anyone," he said.

On the occasion of his 85th birthday in 1988, a major retrospective exhibition of his work was mounted at the Margo Feiden Galleries in New York, where his caricatures are regularly on sale for $350 to $15,000. More than 100 portraits were on display, from Albert Einstein to Madonna. A few dated back 1923 when Hirschfeld sold his first caricature to World Magazine when he was 20 and fresh out of the Art Students' League, where he studied lithography and sculpture.

"Sculpture is really a drawing you fall over in the dark," said Hirschfeld.

"I gave it up when I got interested in painting, then I got into drawing by an accident that catapulted me into my insatiable appetite for pure line, for distillation, for bringing things down to the simplest form, the essence. It's impossible to describe, but it does communicate what I'm trying to say to the viewer."

The distillation goes hand in hand with distortion. Ski noses, rabbit teeth, weak chins, big ears, bushy eyebrows, moustaches, big bosoms, anorexic arms, rubber legs and expressive hands were all grist to Hirschfeld's mill.

"There are people who are easier to do than others, especially the actors and actresses that have invented themselves -- Carol Channing, Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers -- and they are fast disappearing, with maybe only Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand left," he observed some 15 years ago.

"The stars who created their own personalities stayed around longer in the star system, so they were easily identifiable," he said.

"In today's theater and movies, actors don't stay around long enough to have an identity. They are in two or three plays or three pictures and are gone. People like Helen Hayes, Jimmy Stewart and Lillian Gish had such long careers that I drew them when they were young and over and over again through their lifetimes, so that they have begun to look like my drawings."

Sam Zolotow of The New York Times drama department bought a drawing of Harry Lauder from Hirshfeld in 1925, starting the artist's long association with that newspaper. He created more than 3,000 drawings for the Times.

All of these caricatures have the name of his daughter, Nina, hidden in them, sometimes several times. Tens of thousands of Times readers nationwide play the "Find Nina" game weekly.

While Hirschfeld was an avid theatergoer, he usually sketched the stars of the show at a rehearsal or an out-of-city tryout.

"When I get my sketches back to the studio, I put them into some cohesive form in India ink," he said. "I make notes on the sketches like 'fried eggs for eyes' and 'polka dot ties.'

The market for drawings, especially the publications market, dwindled dramatically in recent years, Hirschfeld said. He said he worried about young people who want to get into the field and when they ask, he discourages them.

"The one thing a young artist doesn't need is advice," he said. "He needs money. Talent is a drug on the market. Everyone is talented. Art is no way to make a living. Don't judge by the big prices for art. Only a few artists get them.

"When I was young, we didn't worry about economics, but now at 24 artists are worrying about their Social Security and retirement benefits."

Albert Hirschfeld was born in St. Louis. He married Florence Ruth Hobby in 1927. They divorced and Hirschfeld Dorothy Dolly Hass in 1943. She died in 1994. He married Louise Kerz in 1996. He is survived by his third wife, his daughter and a grandson.

Hirshfeld produced a number of books of his work and illustrated collections of humor by S.J. Perelman.

He received a special Tony award for theater caricature in 1974.

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