For over a decade, David Leopold had a uniquely difficult, yet entirely pleasure-filled, task: He was the archivist for the prolific theatrical artist Al Hirschfeld. "I thought it would be a two-year job," Leopold says of getting hired in 1990 by the then-86-year-old Hirschfeld. The job would end up continuing for 13 years, until Hirschfeld's 2003 death at the age of 99. "It was like King Tut's Tomb," Leopold recalls. "He had everything. When I first met him and I came up to the studio, I thought he was just a big packrat. It turns out, all of the magazines and stacks of newspaper clippings all had Hirschfeld drawings [in them].
Now the Creative Director of the Al Hirschfeld Foundation, Leopold is the driving force behind two major new Hirschfeld-related productions both under the banner title The Hirschfeld Century. He is the guest curator of The Hirschfeld Century: The Art of Al Hirschfeld, on view at the New-York Historical Society through October 12, and the author of the companion book, The Hirschfeld Century: A Portrait of the Artist and His Age, available starting today, July 7.
To celebrate, Leopold let us in on a few little-known secrets about the legendary cartoonist and his work, from how he drew to how he finally realized that he was getting good.
1. There was never a set number of Ninas in Hirschfeld's drawings.
Hirschfeld famously would interpolate his daughter Nina's name into his drawings, providing viewers with a scavenger hunt to find them all. But Hirschfeld himself was often unsure of the number. "He would do it organically," Leopold says. "They came out and he was like everybody else: He had to count and find the Ninas. If he did get the number wrong, people did write him. There's a great letter we gave to the New York Public Library where the guy claimed he had gotten the number wrong, and said, 'I guess we'll have to add Al Hirschfeld to the list of things we can no longer count on.'"
2. Hirschfeld didn't sit in any run-of-the-mill chair.
When Hirschfeld set up his studio in the late 1940s, he put in an oak drawing table and spent weeks searching for the ideal seat. He found it in a used-furniture shop for $3 in the Bowery. It was a barber chair. He used the original chair until 1993, when he had it replaced. The table and chair are currently ensconced near the entrance of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, though the Historical Society exhibit has a replica. "We have an identical barber chair and people can sit in it and try to draw like him," Leopold says. "We wanted to give people that experience. When people try their hand at it, they all of a sudden realize it's a lot harder than it looks." Instead of paper, the museum uses a Magna Doodle.
3. Hirschfeld doubted himself as much as most other people do.
"There's a famous story," Leopold says, "about the Fiddler on the Roof drawing. He came back from the tryout, and in every sketch, Zero Mostel's vest was buttoned like a woman's rather than a man's. He couldn't figure out why that would be captured in his drawings. He called Boris Aronson, the set designer, and said, 'Did I get it wrong?' And Boris said, 'No, in the Shtetl at that time, the men's vests were buttoned like women's.' Al got off the phone, satisfied that he had done and accurate job." (The published drawing features the vest buttoned like a man's to avoid complaints from readers who weren't in the know the way Aronson was.)
4. Hirschfeld had a long association with greats like Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers.
"Hirschfeld did all the posters for their first eight feature-length films," Leopold says of the artist's work with the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. You may be able spot a drawing of the pair in the exhibition. As for the distinctive features of the Marx Brothers, well, "Hirschfeld knew he was getting good because they looked like his drawings rather than the other way around."
5. You can get your own Al Hirschfeld drawing, and it's not as absurdly expensive as you may think.
"They come up for auction from time to time," Leopold says. "Just recently, a print of [Hirschfeld's] Algonquin Round Table [drawing] went in a small auction for $850. I wish I would have known. I would have bought that in a second. But the book is like having three hundred fifty Hirschfelds. Not the same thing as having an original, but a very good reasonable facsimile."