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Take Five: Al Hirschfeld archivist on rare retrospective of St. Louis-born caricaturist

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 5, 2012 - St. Louis native Al Hirschfeld captured the face of Broadway by capturing the faces of Broadway in a few brilliant lines.

During his eight-decade caricature career, Hirschfeld lovingly documented thousands of Broadway stars and other celebrities with his pen-and-ink drawings. Hidden within many of the the curls and angles of his renderings, and literally illustrating Hirschfeld’s playful nature, is the name of his daughter Nina.

Starting this Friday, St. Louisans can play "Find the Ninas" in the largest-ever local retrospective of the iconic artist when “Al Hirschfeld’s Jazz and Broadway Scrapbook” opens at The Sheldon.

The exhibit, inspired by the persistence of local Hirschfeld aficionado Barbara Singer (cousin of the Beacon’s Dale Singer) and the support of Mary Strauss and Terry Schnuck, consists of more than 100 original drawings and other art pieces. It also includes Hirschfeld’s jazz record collection, African drums and Balinese shadow puppets.

During and after the show, Hirschfeld’s work can be purchased through the Philip Slein Gallery.

The day after The Sheldon opening, the artist’s widow Louise Hirschfeld will join Hirschfeld Foundation archivist David Leopold for a conversation about the celebrated caricaturist, who died in 2003 at the age of 99. Lepold talked with the Beacon about the exhibit and Hirschfeld’s life.

The Beacon: Al Hirschfeld moved from St. Louis to New York at the age of 12. Why does the St. Louis connection endure?

David Leopold: We thought it was important to bring Al Hirschfeld back to St. Louis, a major metropolitan city that played a major role in his development. I happen to believe that he never really lost being the St. Louis boy even though he was the most New York of New Yorkers, a man who had been everywhere and seen everything -- yet never lost the sort of wide-eyed wonder of a boy from St. Louis.

How did the exhibition end up at The Sheldon?

Leopold: It’s a project we’ve been trying to make happen about for six years. Everyone thinks when you put on a museum exhibition, how hard is it? You just decide to do it and you put the pictures on a wall, and voila! -- the show’s done.

But of course, there’s a lot of involved, and you have to find the right institution. We talked to a lot of institutions. We liked The Sheldon because it has such a tie to the performing arts, which of course was Al Hirschfeld’s bread and butter.

Leopold: In his early days, when he wanted to be a painter, he painted a lot of landscapes. But every artist is inspired by something and, for him, it was people. He would describe a picture of the Grand Canyon as a close up of a diseased molar, dramatically lit.

He had his first caricature published in 1925, and he had his first theatrical caricature published 18 months later. His first drawing for the New York Times happened about a year later in 1929, of the Scottish Vaudevillian Harry Lauder.

He was known for never being mean even though caricature is associated with cruelty.

Leopold: We call what he did “caricature” because we have to call it something. The fact is, he was a great portrait artist. Any other time you talk about caricature, it’s pejorative, it’s putting somebody down. It’s exaggerating their features or it’s to expose the flaws.

Hirschfeld never did that, and I don’t think he was capable of doing that because Hirschfeld really liked people. He was one of these characters who always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. And he had a natural charisma that made people want to show him things and take him places.

How did he begin putting Nina’s name in his caricatures?

Leopold: When Nina was born, he was a proud father. For a couple of weeks he found ways to hide her name in the drawings, then he thought the joke had run its course. But he started getting mail that said, “I spent all day looking for Ninas -- where are they?”

He was surprised, and he thought, “I’ll keep them in for a couple of more weeks because it’s easier than answering the mail.” Same thing happened: he stopped doing it and he got even more mail.

In August of 1960, a reader wrote to the publisher about Al’s drawings and how wonderful they were and then as a postscript, said, “It would be nice to know how many Ninas we should be looking for.”

What he did about it is, once there was more than one Nina in the drawing, he would put a number next to his name and that would let people how many Ninas they should look for. And It continued until the very end.

Sometimes he would call me over and ask, “How many Ninas do you see?” Because if he put “four” and there were five, well then the letters would come.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.