Thursday, March 27, 2014

Al Hirschfeld

Several years ago when The Leopard worked at a large jazz organization in New York, I was in the position to occasionally commission art for marketing purposes. I took this opportunity to contact some of my creative heroes.
One of the first to come to mind was Al Hirschfeld. I grew up marveling at his amazing caricatures in The New York Times.
With his perfect, flowing line, He had a wonderful skill at capturing the essence of a subject. Yes, he could easily master a likeness, but more importantly he seemed to be able depict someone from the inside out and make you see things in them that you may not have realized. His eye was unique.

I met with him in the early 2000s at his lovely studio across the street from Central Park. His busy overflowing loft had drawings all over the walls from previous (mostly famous) guests. Scenes from parties and wonderful memories. Even though we were the only two people in his place, it seemed like the middle of a crowded café, brimming with fascinating folks in hushed conversation.

A vibrant, gregarious man, He told me many wonderful stories, the one I  remember most about how, as a poor artist trying to make his way in Paris in the early 1900s, he stood on the street trying to sell his little paintings.  A strange man came up to him and asked how much he needed put focus only on his work for a year and set aside being a merchant. He told him how much he thought it would take, and the man wrote a check for the amount and handed it to him. It was Charlie Chaplin.

He told me when he first came to New York from Europe as a very young man, the subway was just being started. And that in the last 30 years, driving around the city in his huge Cadillac, he never, ever had a problem finding a parking space.

The reason I came to see him that day was because I was commissioning him to do a drawing of my boss at the time, the jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. We were working out the concept and the particulars.
He did create a beautiful drawing.

About a year later, Mr. Hirschfeld had passed away at the phenomenal age of 99. He was so alive in his manner that this still surprised everyone. I received a phone call a few months after his death from his lovely widow Louise, who called me at my office and told me she wanted to "apologize" on Al's behalf. I said, "Why? Whatever for"? With a soft sob, she said, "Al was never happy with he drawing. He was going to re-do it. But never got to it. He always regretted that."

Just goes to show you, only the good die young.