Hirschfeld's magic touched Baltimore

January 23, 2003|By Neil A. Grauer

AL HIRSCHFELD knew Baltimore - and loved it. The feeling was mutual.

Mr. Hirschfeld, the legendary theatrical caricaturist and chronicler who died Monday at 99, came to Baltimore for decades to see pre-Broadway tryouts. He would sit in the darkened theater and sketch on 8-by-10-inch notebooks, then return to his Upper East Side townhouse in New York and turn his "hieroglyphics" into the astonishing, lithe and sparkling drawings that captured not only the personalities of the performers but the spirit of the shows.

Mr. Hirschfeld thought Baltimore was very theatrical. "That whole Harborplace complex is very attractive, and the food in Baltimore is sensational," he told The Evening Sun in 1988.

He and his second wife, Dolly Haas, a German-born actress, had special reasons to be fond of Baltimore. They were married here in 1943, while she was appearing in a show at the old Ford's Theater. They remained married until her death in 1994. In 1996, he wed Louise Kerz, who, with her late husband Leo, another German M-imigrM-i who was an acclaimed stage and film designer and producer, had long been friends of the Hirschfelds.

Hope Quackenbush, the original managing director of the Mechanic Theatre, described Mr. Hirschfeld as "the greatest interpreter of the theater in any art form of anyone I know."

"His caricatures are the essence of any show and always have been," she said in 1988. "We're so excited when he's in the house. He is a star to us. ... He's unique. I don't know of anyone who compares to him. ... If we were like the Japanese, we'd call him a national treasure."

The trustees of the Johns Hopkins University echoed that sentiment in 2001, when they commissioned Mr. Hirschfeld to do a color caricature of retiring board Chairman Michael Bloomberg, then the newly elected New York mayor. Mr. Bloomberg was delighted with the result, which showed him in his Hopkins robes, standing in front of Gilman Hall.

As a newspaper reporter more than 21 years ago, I met Mr. Hirschfeld when I took advantage of the publication of a collection of his theatrical caricatures to interview him. I wanted to meet the Broadway legend whose incomparable drawings in The New York Times had fascinated me since childhood.

Mr. Hirschfeld's exquisitely refined line portraits of actors, writers, singers, musicians and dancers - indeed, of prominent figures of every stripe - did much to shape their public image for most of the 20th century and likely will endure well into the 21st. He did not like the word "caricaturist," which usually is associated with political or social lampoons, but instead preferred a word of his own devising - "characterist" - to describe the magic he wove with deceptively simple lines.

Mr. Hirschfeld went to Hollywood in 2001 because the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences had organized a mammoth exhibit of the movie-related drawings that he had begun creating in 1921. He consented to interrupt his seven-days-a-week work schedule and attend a reception to mark the exhibit's opening.

Mr. Hirschfeld graciously agreed to let me accompany him on what was an astounding trip. Mr. Hirschfeld was an incomparable conversationalist. He had known everybody. He had played semi-pro baseball with Lou Gehrig shortly after World War I; he had been a chum of Charlie Chaplin and the Marx brothers; he had gone to speakeasies with George Gershwin. He lived in Paris in the mid-1920s and had known Hemingway and Fitzgerald, as well as taken tea in the apartment shared by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

He had seen every triumph (and turkey) on Broadway for the past 75 years and drawn its most legendary performers, from Lunt and Fontaine to Harvey Fierstein. But he was thoroughly up-to-date with the latest TV shows (he did many covers for TV Guide).

Mr. Hirschfeld readily admitted that he didn't know how he achieved the graphic marvels he created every day. He said he simply tried to reduce the people he saw to as few lines as possible and that, with luck, it worked.

"As time goes by," he'd say, "the people begin to look like the drawing." He confessed that this explanation sounded like - and was - some form of alchemy. "I've tried to rationalize how I arrive at what I arrive at, and I'm no closer to it than when I began," he said.

We were the lucky beneficiaries of his sorcery, as will be the generations who follow us.

Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore-based writer and caricaturist.

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