Al Hirschfeld’s Comedians
America's King of Caricature Laughs With Us
It’s good to be the king, especially if you were Al Hirschfeld, “The Line King,” who reigned for eighty years as America’s greatest caricaturist. Generations of leading men and women from stage and screen comprised his court but jesters were clear favorites. Comedians, he said, “looked like their caricatures.”
In 1934, when MGM signed the Marx Brothers to star in Night at the Opera, the first of six planned films featuring the comedy troupe, the studio brought in 31-year-old Hirschfeld to design the promotional campaign. “When Al drew them a funny alchemy happened,” writes Hirschfeld biographer David Leopold. “The Marx Brothers started to look more like Al’s drawings, rather than the other way around.” In fact, Groucho Marx’s stylist subsequently coiffed his hair to mimic the caricatures. Laurel and Hardy had received the same treatment in 1930, when MGM launched a series of films starring the vaudeville duo. Hirschfeld took a binary approach: “To me,” he said, “they always looked like the number ten.”
During the 1930s, Hirschfeld was in high demand and Depression-proof. In addition to his prolific poster work for MGM, he began his epic 74-year run with The New York Times in 1928, just one year before the stock market crash. He had joined the fledgling MGM art department in 1927, working with the designer and illustrator John Held, Jr., whose celebrated flappers defined the decade. He soon found a kindred spirit in Miguel Covarrubias, the Mexican-born caricaturist who took New York by storm with his colorful abstract style. Hirschfeld developed his own unique linear approach, eschewing the realistically rendered “nose, ear, and throat” drawings produced by conventional illustrators, increasingly absorbed by the “problem of placing the right line in the right place.” In 1932, Hirschfeld traveled with Covarrubias to Bali where Hirschfeld met and befriended Charlie Chaplin and experienced an epiphany: “The Balinese sun seemed to bleach out all the color, leaving everything in pure line. The people became line drawings walking around.” Chaplin’s visit in the midst of a world tour completely charmed Hirschfeld, who had caricatured the Little Tramp in 1927 for the film Sunnyside, produced by Pathé Pictures: “It was then that I realized that the mustache, baggy pants, and oversized shoes were of no more important than the type of quill used by Shakespeare or the frame on a Picasso.”
Hirschfeld doubled down in his devotion to the spirited, irrepressible linear style for which he has become internationally renowned. He proclaimed himself a “characterist,” intent on expressing both the appearance and the spirit of a performance. Every Sunday, New York Times readers witnessed his brilliance and clamored for more. The stars themselves appreciated his work. Actor Ray Bolger was thrilled by his airborne appearance in Hirschfeld’s rendering of Where’s Charley? from 1949. Hirschfeld mused at the time that gravity imposed no limits on his art. If anyone defied gravity, in both senses of the word, it was multi-talented song-and-dance man Danny Kaye. In 1953, during a performance at the Palace, Hirschfeld portrayed Kaye as a dancing fool, suspended in the midst of a typically frantic dance, looping lines roped around him like a lasso capturing a rogue calf.
In 1945, Hirschfeld added a new wrinkle to his already forensically challenging caricatures. Upon the birth of his daughter Nina, he began to incorporate her name into his published caricatures, cheekily hiding the letters amidst the complexity of lines forming his composition. Once he started, fans wouldn’t let him stop. Amateur art sleuths and connoisseurs might spend hours on a Sunday attempting to locate the hidden word(s). The feature became so popular, Hirschfeld added numbers to help NINA-hunters locate their prey.
After World War II, Hirschfeld continued his work for The New York Times, but increasingly created caricatures and art for television as the new medium burgeoned. He made his own mark with weekly color caricatures in the ubiquitous TV Guide, one of the nation’s most widely circulated periodicals. Old hoofers like George Burns and Gracie Allen, Sid Caesar, Lucille Ball, and Bob Hope (the latter first portrayed by Hirschfeld in 1932), were still in the mix and reached much larger audiences.
Small-screen stars soon became household names. Comedians and situation comedies were television’s bread and butter, driving network ratings from a popular audience eager for humor and entertainment in the post-war era. Hirschfeld’s best friend, humorist S. J. Perlman told his readers, “The main obligation is to amuse yourself.” Americans pursued happiness and Hirschfeld helped.
He took on a new generation of comic actors led by Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, Woody Allen, Bob Newhart, Godfrey Cambridge, and Don “Get Smart” Adams, among many others. He caricatured Matthau and Jack Lemmon for the film version of The Odd Couple, a duo as unlikely as the fat-and-thin-man pairings of Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello he knew from the 1930s. He drew the cast of The Bob Newhart Show and a generation later the ensemble of neurotic goofballs known as Seinfeld; from a show about nothing he created something: a graphic tribute to the talented cast unified and embraced within his inimitable line. In 1991, the United States Postal Service issued its own take on Hirschfeld’s comedians with a signed stamp series featuring Fanny Brice, Jack Benny, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy.
Over the years, many of his subjects described the experience of being drawn by The Line King. Nobody articulated the sensation better than Carol Channing, whose comedic performances simply dazzled the artist. She first appeared in his work in 1949 for her performance in Lend an Ear, but came into her own during the 1960s with her sensational run in Hello Dolly! and numerous televised variety specials. She claimed Hirschfeld’s caricatures made her a star: “All of the sudden,” she recalled, “everybody came to see it. Well, who’s that? We’d better go see it if Al Hirschfeld thinks that much of it.” In the way of Hirschfeld, and those he admired, Channing came to imagine herself as a caricature: “It was eerie to be Hirschfelded,” said the Broadway star. “You’d look at the drawing and think, ‘I didn’t know he knew what I was thinking. How did he know?’”
He just knew. And laughed.
Harry L. Katz is an author and art curator living outside Boston, Massachusetts.
Illustrations courtesy of
The Al Hirschfeld Foundation