The Line King Al Hirschfeld Comes Home for a Visit

Article excerpt

LONG, long time ago, when he was a wee lad in St. Louis, Al Hirschfeld wanted to be a sculptor. In a way, that's what he became.

"A sculpture," said Hirschfeld, "is really a drawing you fall over in the dark."

Al Hirschfeld is probably the best-known "drawer" in the world. His show-business caricatures appear every Sunday in The New York Times Arts and Leisure section, often on the front page, and his sprightly portraits of famous actors and actresses have been reproduced millions of times in recent years on U.S. postage stamps. Hirschfeld, who is 93 years old and shows no signs of slowing down, will make a rare return visit to his hometown of St. Louis this weekend, in connection with screenings at Webster University of the Oscar-nominated documentary film, "The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story." His appearance is co-sponsored by the St. Louis Jewish Film Festival. Hirschfeld will appear at a reception from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Saturday in Webster's Cecile R. Hunt Gallery, 8342 Big Bend Boulevard, to be followed at 9 p.m. by a showing of the movie in Winifred Moore Auditorium, 470 East Lockwood Avenue. The movie will also be shown, without Hirschfeld, at 8 p.m. Friday and Sunday. An exhibition of Hirschfeld's drawings will be at the Hunt Gallery until June 21. Al Hirschfeld was born June 21, 1903, in a house on Sarah Street a couple of blocks north of Page Avenue. He was the youngest of three brothers. His father, Isaac, was a salesman. His mother, Rebecca, ran a candy store, as well as, one gathers, the Hirschfeld family. The Hirschfelds later moved to Kensington Avenue in the West End and young Al attended Dozier School, a few blocks from home on Maple Avenue. He was already an artist. "I started drawing as soon as I was old enough to pick up a pencil," he recalled. As a child, he studied art with Charles Marks, a St. Louis painter who made his living drawing advertisements for the old Stix, Baer and Fuller department store. When Hirschfeld was around 11 or 12, Marks told his mother that the boy was too talented to stay in St. Louis. "He thought I had a gift for drawing," Hirschfeld said in a telephone interview from his home and studio on the upper East Side of Manhattan. "He took a liking to me, and I took a liking to him. He convinced my mother that I would have a better chance to exploit this foolishness of mine in New York." So Rebecca Hirschfeld packed up the family and moved everyone to New York. "My mother and father had an unusual arrangement for that time," Hirschfeld recalled. "She was the breadwinner. She worked in department stores, and he took care of the family." Among the gifts Rebecca and Isaac Hirschfeld bequeathed to Al was longevity: his father lived to be 93, his mother 91. For a few years after the move, young Al kept in touch by mail with kids he had known in St. Louis; kids, he recalled, named Prendergast and Cabanne. "I would tell them about the difference between the way they shot marbles in St. Louis and New York, that sort of thing. But pretty soon, that stopped. You know how kids are. I've been a New Yorker ever since." He said he no longer has any relatives here. Shortly after the move to New York, Al's mother took him to the theater, and a lifetime obsession began. "I was enchanted by the stage, particularly by vaudeville," he said. "Every Monday afternoon, I went to the Palace Theatre." As a teen-ager, Hirschfeld studied at the Art Students League, and by the time he was 17 or 18 he was art director for a movie company, Selznick Pictures. In 1924, when he turned 21, he followed other American artists and writers to Paris. He and another expatriate artist shared an unheated cold-water studio. Shaving was difficult so he grew a beard. He has had it ever since. In 1926, shortly after he returned from Europe, he began drawing performers on a free-lance basis for the New York Herald Tribune, but he continued to paint. …