Set aside a month or two to absorb this book. It isn’t that it is extremely lengthy, its just 350 pages measuring 9″ by 12″. But most pages should be viewed and contemplated as a separate experience. If you rush through you will miss a great deal as the magic of a Hirschfeld drawing is how its simplicity carries so very much meaning. Hirschfeld had a wonderfully observant eye and he was incredibly skilled and highly imaginative in his use of a line to communicate he saw.
Don’t read the book cover to cover.
Instead, take a lengthy first visit by reading the informative fifteen page biographical sketch by Mel Gussow and thumb through the rest to familiarize yourself with the layout of the book.
For the next visit, read Louise Kerz Hirchfeld’s five page sketch of what life was like with Hirschfeld in the later stages of his lengthy career. She was his third and last wife, accompanying him to theater night after night, and witnessing his creative process.
After that, check out the single page comments by a few of his subjects, including a fascinating article by the most famous of all his subjects … his daughter Nina, whose name he hid in nearly all of his drawings after her birth in 1945, making a NINA the object of treasure hunts through his lines as well as treasured symbols of fame for those he drew over the next half century.
Only after you have enjoyed these familiarization visits to the book should you begin the routine that will give you the greatest enjoyment. Pick the book up frequently, open it to the first page you haven’t yet read and examine both the drawing or drawings on the page and read the short comment by Hirschfeld himself. If you confine yourself to just a few pages for each visit you will find that you come away with much more than if you simply look briefly at each in a mad dash through the drawings. There are such treasures to be unearthed by close examination!
The book includes the first Hirschfeld ever published – the sketch of actor Sacha Guitry he doodled on the playbill when watching him in the play “Deburau” in 1928. The press agent sitting next to him asked for a clean copy so he could put it in the Herald Tribune. That led to a request from the New York Times for a sketch it could use, and they published his work from then on.
There may be a hundred faces to contemplate in the audience he included in his 1948 drawing of Times critic and long time friend Brooks Atkinson, while his drawing of 1956’s My Fair Lady captures details of set, costume, scene and character as well as representing fine caricatures of Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews.
You should linger over his sketch of Jack Lemmon in 1979’s “Tribute” or study his drawing of Barbara Streisand in 1964 in Funny Girl studying her reflection in a mirror – the “reflection” being a photo of Fanny Brice in the mirror. Note how he sketches 1991’s Miss Saigon without a helicopter or compare his view of 1947’s Death of a Salesman with Lee J. Cobb to his equally perceptive rendering of the 1984 production of the same play with Dustin Hoffman.
Movies get their own treatment as well. Spend a good deal of time with his 1954 “History of the Movies.” If I count it correctly, you’ll find portraits of 87 once (and some still) famous faces in that one drawing. How many can you identify? Once you finish with that, turn the page and you run smack up against his 1954 “TV Personalities” with its panoply of portraits from Steve Allen to Arthur Godfrey, and Kukla, Fran and Ollie, Howdy Doody and Ed Sullivan. In the color pages you will find a black line sketch of Blake Edwards being visited by a colorful “Pink Panther.”
Not all the subjects are theatrical. There’s a panorama titled “History of the American Communist Party, 1939” which could reward an hour’s scrutiny.
So much of Hirschfeld’s finest work is the result of a very few exquisitely placed lines that it is a bit surprising to see how he can communicate chaos or explosive energy with a jumble of lines that look like scribbles. His drawing of Zero Mostel and Eli Wallach in 1961’s “Rhinorceros” is an example. So few lines for Wallach but so many for Mostel who Hirschfeld’s commentary describes as a “snorting, stomping rhinoceros.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, look at his drawing of Ben Turpin, whose body, arms and legs consist of just ten lines. It took just a few more to add hands, head with facial features, hair and hat, but the essence of it all is the four main lines of body and limbs. Similarly, his Barishnikov captures the dancer’s legs in action in a mere five lines.
Study the pages slowly until you get to “Tony Award Nominees, 1998” which is the final sketch in the book. Note that it’s signature is “Hirschfeld 4” indicating that he has concealed four NINAs in the drawing – can you find them?