In Memorium: Al Hirschfeld

RAY SUAREZ: For more than 75 years, Al Hirschfeld captured the lives and personalities of the theater through his drawings primarily in the New York Times. Hirschfeld drew everything from magazine covers to postage stamps, but he's best known for his newspaper drawings of performing artists, the Marx Brothers, Barbra Streisand, Meryl Streep. Hirschfeld died at his home in Manhattan on Sunday. He was 99 years old. Here to tell us more about Hirschfeld and his art, Mel Gussow, a cultural writer for the New York Times and a friend of Al Hirschfield's. Mel Gussow, it seems when you look over what Hirschfeld drew, it was everybody who mattered in the 20h century. He saw them and drew their picture.

MEL GUSSOW: It's really strange. You know, once a show closes, what remains sometimes, the show is filmed but it really resides in reviews and articles and so on. But mostly what we remember about theater comes from Al Hirschfield's drawings. As you say, for more than 75 years he chronicled the theater and he captured those great personalities as well as the plays themselves. He was a master of his kind and certainly was extraordinarily valuable to the theater and to the life of the arts generally in America.

RAY SUAREZ: And he seems to have been so distinctive that once you saw a drawing you knew it was a Hirschfeld, maybe perhaps not knowing his name. But you know it's that guy. You knew who it was probably as well.

MEL GUSSOW: Well he really patented his style. He discovered his calling back in 1926 and never stopped doing it. He kind of perfected his line, the line by the way is terribly important to all of Al's work because he could distill, condense the whole personalities, as we say, of a person through the drawing of a line so that you would see perhaps a dancer in motion and it would be one great swirl which would represent that figure as he or she crossed the stage. And there was no missing in an Al Hirschfeld drawing. There were really no imitators. He was his own genre, his own definition.

RAY SUAREZ: One of the things that we associate with caricaturists is the exaggeration of a trademark, a physical attribute or a certain costume or the sweep of hair or the nose, but Al Hirschfield's caricatures, though they might have exaggerated something famous about a person never seemed mean.

MEL GUSSOW: Well, in a strange way, he really didn't like the label caricaturist. He preferred "characterist" – feeling that the word character somehow meant that at some point the artist was making fun of the subject. That's not what Al did. There was a great, oh, geniality, cordiality, almost a benignness about some of the work even though it was terribly funny for that, he would exaggerate a gesture or some feature on an actor or an actress or dancer or singer but he wouldn't really make fun of them, that the whole idea was to arrive at the quintessence of the character and not really to take off from them.

RAY SUAREZ: Remind us about how challenging it is to work in a newspaper. I mean using the newspaper as a form meant that you didn't have the most exacting detail, a range of colors or even that much size to work with.

MEL GUSSOW: Correct. Well he really worked with pen and ink. He did many drawings and paintings in fact very early in his career in full color. But it really was black and white. In a strange way, the New York Times, the Arts and Leisure section served as his own sort of exhibition hall every Sunday because there were those pictures often on the front page and they would tell us what was going on and what was worth remembering, what was worth seeing on Broadway and also in the other arts. It turned out that newspapers were in fact a great medium for him, which is not to say that his work is not pure art in every sense of the word. And it is in fact exhibited and owned by many major museums across the country.

RAY SUAREZ: He also managed to live so long and work so long within that long life that he chronicled a tremendous chunk of American cultural history.

MEL GUSSOW: You know, he was born in 1903 which as I remember, as I read, that was when Wilbur and Orville Wright first took their plane off the ground. To go through the entire century and during that time talk about and write about, draw all those great artists that… it lives on because also he… you must say that even late in his life he had a tremendous quality of being vigorous and alive to new experiences. He always wanted to see new things, new plays, to enjoy the new actor bursting on stage, somebody like Bill Erwin when he first made his mark really thrilled Al because it was like discovering Charlie Chaplain all over again – that despite his advancing years, he never let up on his thirst for the new, the new experience.

RAY SUAREZ: And it wasn't just the theater — we're talking about a man who drew musicians and TV stars and all kinds of people involved in the arts one way or another.

MEL GUSSOW: Well, he also, you know, had a… another aspect of his career was that he did many politicians. And one of his favorite subjects, probably as much a favorite as Charlie Chaplin, was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom he drew many, many times — that he did deal with public figures as well, but I think he lost his heart to the arts. I mean, he's a man who was stage-struck very early and stayed that way for the rest of his life. Stage-struck in that sense meant not just the theater, but also, as you say, movies, television, music; he was wonderful on drawing conductors and dancers and instrumentalists of various kinds.

RAY SUAREZ: He was a distinctive looking character himself, wasn't he?

MEL GUSSOW: Oh, he certainly was. I mean, he sort of grew into his face, and he had this kind of almost Santa Claus image later in life with his long, white beard. He was a great presence, and I think that when we realize that he was in the theater, for one thing, it made us realize that the theater would continue; as long as Al Hirschfeld was there, we always would have a live theater. And I think somehow actors probably looking down at the audience might just spot him and feel that this was… I mean, he represented theater, in a sense, and certainly his image was one that really lasted such a long, long time and will continue on, I think.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, it's just a few weeks short of what would have been his 100th birthday. In June he'll have a theater named after him on Broadway or near Broadway?

MEL GUSSOW: That certainly is the ultimate accolade to have a theater. The Martin Beck Theater is going to be renamed the Al Hirschfeld Theater. And I think it's actually long overdue. I wish it had been done in his lifetime, and of course, we fully expected it to be done in his lifetime. But to have his name on the marquis, to be able to say, "tonight we're going to the Al Hirschfeld," or tonight we're going to the Hirschfeld to see "Guys and Dolls" or "My Fair Lady," whatever the show would happen to be, I think that in itself lends a certain excitement. He, more than anyone I can think of, deserves to have a theater named after him.

RAY SUAREZ: Did he realize– I guess he did. There was a kind of parlor game. Even if you never got to Broadway yourself or saw the people he drew, you could look for the Ninas.

MEL GUSSOW: That started back in 1945 when his daughter Nina was born. Almost offhandedly he put the letters n-i-n-a into one of his drawings and then suddenly it caught on. And he, at one point, decided to put the number of Ninas that were in the drawing by his signature, so we'd have two, three, four, five, whatever there would be. And it did, indeed, become a parlor game. People would try to count how many Ninas… not have count but have to find the Ninas.

I remember once actually being with him and talking to him about a drawing he had done of a revival of "Guys and Dolls." And he had said there were five Ninas– the number 5 appeared on the drawing. And I said, "well, al, can you show me where those five Ninas are?" And he went through one, two, three, four, and he couldn't for the life of him find the fifth Nina. And then he looked very, very closely, and there in Faith Prince's mink, in her coat, her fur coat, he found the fifth Nina. And he says, "this could drive a person crazy." Well, I think it did, but also it was great fun. It was a great sort of Sunday game that people played to find those Ninas.

RAY SUAREZ: Mel Gussow, a pleasure to have you with us.

MEL GUSSOW: Thank you.