By Terry Trucco
Al Hirschfeld was never a member of the Vicious Circle, the storied gathering of writers, actors and wags who traded lunchtime barbs around a round table at the Algonquin Hotel. But it’s easy to imagine he might have been.
He knew the group’s acid-tongued members personally, including critic Alexander Woolcott, playwright Gerald S. Kaufman, New Yorker editor Harold Ross and serial quipper Dorothy Parker. And he captured them along with Round Table orbiters like Harpo Marx and Tallulah Bankhead in pen-and-ink caricatures every bit as clever as the zingers lobbed across the table.
Just in time for holiday cocktails, the Round Table gang is back, gazing down from the walls of the Algonquin’s iconic lobby, primed it seems to verbally pounce on all they see. On view through January 6, The Return of the Vicious Circle installs 25 of Hirschfeld’s finest portraits — and that’s saying something — above the rich wood wainscoting. You look up at three-foot-tall renderings of Parker, James Thurber, Irving Berlin et al looming ten feet above the sofas and lighted from below “like footlights,” says David Leopold, creative director of the Al Hirschfeld Foundation, who was on hand at the opening.
The pop-up show was cooked up by the Algonquin, where the round table remains a focal point in
the dining room (the oil painting of its members has been temporarily replaced by a Hirschfeld version). But it also serves as a zesty amuse bouche to The Hirschfeld Century: An Al Hirshfeld Retrospective opening May 22 at the New-York Historical Society.
For generations of New York Times readers, Hirschfeld’s drawings linked to the week’s events in theater, music, film and dance were a Sunday must-see, offering a double hit of wit and detective work. Following the birth of his daughter Nina in 1945, Hirschfeld habitually hid her name at least once in every drawing. (Look closely at the lace collars, sinewy fingers, spaghetti strands of hair.) My sixth-degree-of-Hirschfeld moment came in 1994, when he illustrated a story I wrote about Mikhail Baryshnikov and his White Oak Dance Company (four Ninas — yes!).
His Round Table drawings came early in a Herculean eight-decade career that ended with his death in 2003 just short of his 100th birthday. His debut as a theatrical “characterist,” as he called himself, was pure serendipity. During the American debut performance by a celebrated French actor, Hirschfeld casually doodled a likeness on the back of his program. His companion one seat over suggested he translate it onto a clean piece of paper and ferried it to a friend who worked at The New York Herald Tribune. It landed on the cover of the Tribune’s drama page.
For much of the 1920s and 30s Hirschfeld contributed to all the major New York papers. Then in 1943 Lester Markel, Sunday editor of the Times, told Hirschfeld he didn’t know what paper he was reading when he saw the artist’s drawings. A lucrative contract was offered and accepted. Hirschfeld’s Times career totaled 75 years.
That career was spent exploring two esthetic elements “image and pure line,” Leopold says.
He calls the Algonquin lobby “the most unconventional space I’ve worked on for an exhibit.” But gazing up at those famous faces he declared, “I think it works.”
A big thank-you to Steve Lohr who contributed reporting to this item.