Al Hirschfeld: Man of a Thousand Faces

Approaching the century mark, Al Hirschfeld, master of the celebrity caricature since the Coolidge administration, gets the bicoastal treatment with two new books--and accompanying gallery shows highlighting his work devoted to New York and Hollywood.


Katharine Hepburn was especially on the mark when she described the impact of seeing herself wittily and precisely caricatured by artist Al Hirschfeld. "It tells the whole story--terrifying," she said.

Hirschfeld has been terrifying and delighting Hollywood's and Broadway's biggest names for almost 80 years. When he first began publishing his drawings, after spending much of the early '20s in Paris studying art and living la vie bohème, Calvin Coolidge ruled the Oval Office, Hirschfeld's friend Charlie Chaplin was the biggest movie star in the world and such Algonquin wags and Hirschfeld intimates as writer S.J. Perelman set the standard for satiric humor. Today, in the era of George W. Bush, Tom Cruise and Howard Stern, Hirschfeld perseveres and prevails.

Flying in the face of our penchant for the computer-generated and the digitally enhanced, his astonishingly assured ink-on-paper illustrations, strike one as comfortingly anachronistic, resolutely classic. Which may explain why Hirschfeld's instantly recognizable caricatures are as admired and in demand today--not only in the pages of the New York Times but also by private collectors--as they were when he began producing them.

Though he was born in America's heartland--St. Louis, Missouri--he has always derived his greatest inspiration from the frantic heartbeat of the metropolises that anchor the coasts--New York and Los Angeles--and his pen has immortalized some of the most famous faces of Broadway and Hollywood, from John Barrymore and Lillian Gish to Nathan Lane and Julia Roberts.

This fall, the cities that provided so many of Hirschfeld's subjects are the focus of two new books of his work. Hirschfeld's New York includes not only dozens of the artist's caricatures of Broadway stars, but also cityscapes depicting Harlem, Times Square and other landmarks of his adopted hometown, where a companion gallery exhibition will be on display at the Museum of the City of New York through January 27. Meanwhile, Hirschfeld's Hollywood: The Film Art of Al Hirschfeld, which includes more than a hundred star portraits, movie posters, promotional billboards and other artwork, will coincide with an exhibition at L.A.S Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, through January 20.

While it is tempting to view these events as hat-tipping, career-capping long good-byes, the 98-year-old Hirschfeld, who still sees every show in New York, still contributes illustrations regularly to the Times and, most telling of all, still drives a car in Manhattan, remains as bold and energetic as the whimsical caricatures that made his reputation.


James Douglas