Sketch artist of Broadway dies

— Show-biz caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, who with his curlicued, pen-and-ink drawings captured the biggest stars of Broadway and Hollywood, from Charlie Chaplin and Ethel Merman to Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld, died Monday. He was 99.

Hirschfeld, whose drawings were first published in the 1920s, died in his sleep at his home in New York, said his wife, Louise. He had been at work as recently as Saturday, drawing a sketch of the Marx Brothers for a commission.

"He was a dancer with a pen. He absolutely danced. All his drawings have incredible movement," said director and performer Tommy Tune, the subject of Hirschfeld's most recent drawing in The New York Times, in December. "He caught my spirit, and I was very, very touched by it."

The artist, an urbane man with white hair and a Santa Claus beard, never analyzed his beloved style, which always included the name of his daughter, Nina, hidden in the fluid, graceful lines for readers to find.

"All I know is that when it works, I'm aware of it. But how it's accomplished, I don't know," he once said. "Through trial and error you eliminate and eliminate and get down to the pure line and how it communicates to the viewer. The last drawing you do is the best one -- it should be."

Hirschfeld was a fixture on Broadway's opening nights, and theater performers prized his drawings as works of art. He immortalized them all -- Mary Martin, Carol Channing, Gwen Verdon, Bernadette Peters and scores of others.

"It was an honor to be drawn by him," Peters said Monday. "He did his interpretation of your performance. And each time he drew you, it was different, capturing what you did on stage."

For nearly 70 years, Hirschfeld's theater drawings appeared in the drama pages of the Times. Arthur Gelb, the newspaper's former managing editor, recalled getting the drawings when he was in charge of cultural coverage.

"I would get the drawing and unwrap it and immediately it was like a magnet for reporters and editors," Gelb said. "Everyone wanted to see what Al had wrought."

Hirschfeld's work appeared in many other publications, too, from Playbill to TV Guide. His drawings are in the collections of several major institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, both in New York.

One of six people designated a New York City Landmark, Hirschfeld was the only artist allowed to sign the U.S. postage stamps he drew. He received a special Tony Award in 1975.

Broadway marquees will be dimmed tonight in Hirschfeld's honor.

On June 21, which would have been Hirschfeld's 100th birthday, Broadway's Martin Beck Theatre will be renamed for him.


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