Volume 19 • Issue 4 | June 9 - 15, 2006

A landmark in more ways than one

By Jerry Tallmer

Detail of Al Hirschfeld’s movie-star mural, which adorned the entrance of the old Fifth Avenue Cinema, at 12th Street, when the writer of this article first moved into the Village after World War II.
In London, England, you can hardly walk more than one or two blocks without being greeted – better yet, refreshed – by one of hundreds of white enamel disks on historied walls throughout the city that in blue-black lettering convey some such information as “Richard Brinsley Sheridan, playwright, occupied these premises from 1780 to 1792.”

It is one of the niceties that give London a leg up, as the Brits say, on our own metropolis, where at this moment I can think of only one such memorial site I could walk you to, the weathered bronze plaque beside the door of the old building on Barrow Street where Lou Gehrig once lived.

But now, though it is not white, there is an enamel disk by the door of another building – uptown and east – that this whole city can be proud of and forever more refreshed by. I judge its color, at least in the pale sunlight of its noontime dedication, to be tomato red, with yellow printing. It proclaims the landmarking of a town house at 122 East 95th Street, and what it says is:

20th Century Master of Caricature
Residence and Studio 1947-2003

Actually, as Sidney Lumet said at the informal sidewalk ceremony May 10 attended by maybe six dozen New Yorkers – standing in for Al’s hundreds of thousands of fans around the world – the disk is inexact. “I never thought of them as caricatures,” Lumet said of the 10,000 or so fabulous drawings and/or paintings by Hirschfeld that made cinema and stage come truer than true to readers of The New York Times and other journals graced by Al during his nearly 80 years at the drawing board adjacent to the barber’s chair from which this great artist did his great thing on the top floor of the house we were there to … well, to love and remember.

What I myself most vividly remember is Al as host in the living room of that house, African and Oceanic sculptures along one wall and on the other the large mural by him of two dozen movie stars of the 1930s and ’40s, with Charlie Chaplin, red rose in hand, in the middle – the very mural that adorned the entrance of the old Fifth Avenue Cinema, at 12th Street, when I first moved into the Village after World War II.

“Al penetrated to the core of every person he ever met,” said Lumet, the director who over his own long and distinguished career has shot almost all his movies on the streets of New York. “Al was the most sophisticated man I ever knew.” Lumet once asked Hirschfeld what his secret ambition was. “To do it all in one line,” came the answer. And Al, like Matisse, almost did do that, more than once.

Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, chairwoman of the Historic Landmarks Preservation Center, spoke of this country’s things of “natural beauty” (mountains, etc.) as opposed to this city’s works of “unnatural beauty” (skyscrapers, etc.). She noted that the building before us was now HLPC’s 181st landmarking.

Arthur Gelb, who for 30 years at The New York Times was the editor to whom Al came in every Tuesday with Sunday’s drawing under his arm, spoke of “sweet-natured Al” as “the only true genius” of all the people Gelb ever worked with.

Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, the beauteous wife of Al’s closing years, talked of the beautiful cinema-star wife, Dolly Haas, who for 52 years had preceded her. Speaking from a window over the front door – hard by that landmark disk – Louise Hirschfeld welcomed “Al’s longtime friends [including 95-year-old novelist Bel Kaufman] and his recent acquaintances – those he met after the age of 93.” She noted that it was a frieze over that front door that had convinced Al to buy the house in 1947. “It reminded him of his bohemian days in Paris” – when, for want of hot water, he had grown the beard which later, and longer, and whiter, would (along with the drawings, of course) make him famous around the world.

It remained for actress Marian Seldes to remind us what Al had more than once said – “I try to capture what the playwright and actors intended” – and to read the following from Henry David Thoreau:

“There was an artist … who was disposed to strive for perfection … his singleness of purpose and resolution, and his devoted piety endowed him, without his knowledge, with perennial youth. As he made no compromise with time, time kept out of his way and only sighed at a distance, because it could not overcome him … ”

Al Hirschfeld, born in St. Louis, Missouri, June 21, 1903, died in this house, in his sleep, in New York City, January 20, 2003. Everybody thought he’d make it to 100 years old, and so did Al. He came close. The disk at the right hand upper corner of the front door will keep him closer. It isn’t white, as in London, but it will do.


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