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Al Hirschfeld drew every celebrity under the 20th century sun. But why my father?

By John W. Alexander Jr.

On a wall of our apartment in a Baltimore retirement community hangs a drawing in the inimitable style of Al Hirschfeld. Arguably the greatest caricaturist of his time, Hirschfeld depicted virtually every notable theatrical personality of the 20th century—from Duke Ellington to Mick Jagger, Greta Garbo to Madonna, Orson Welles to Steven Spielberg, Groucho Marx to the cast of Friends. He was legendary for his ability to capture a subject’s essence in a few brief strokes, often in the Entertainment section of the New York Times. But instead of a celebrity, the subject of our drawing is my father, John W. Alexander CCT’27, an associate editor of Holiday magazine and a longtime lecturer in Penn’s journalism department.

Daddy was many things: a World War I veteran with five battle stars, an excellent writer who published articles and poems in The Saturday Evening Post, and a seasoned editor at Holiday (a travel magazine published from 1946 to 1977) known as a pressman’s problem solver. But there was nothing remotely theatrical about him. So how my father wound up caricatured by Hirschfeld intrigued me and my siblings from the time we discovered the drawing after our father’s death in 1980. A further mystery lay in the fact that the drawing was not signed—although we were certain of its creator.

Finally, in December 1981, I decided to contact Al Hirschfeld to ask him about the drawing and, at long last, to sign it. With my letter I enclosed a xerox copy of the drawing. Given Hirschfeld’s own considerable celebrity, I was uncertain about the reception my letter would receive. I was prepared for a cursory reply or none at all. But in a handwritten note dated December 27 he invited me to bring it to his studio in New York. “I would be delighted to sign my drawing of your late father and meet you in person,” he wrote, closing the letter with “Regards and felicitations for the current holidays.”

It happened that my wife and I had planned a trip to New York soon after the New Year. I wrote to see if the date was convenient, bundled up the drawing, and soon was ringing the doorbell of Hirschfeld’s home on East 95th Street. Hirschfeld’s wife, the Broadway actress Dolly Haas, welcomed me and led me upstairs to the top floor, where I found Hirschfeld seated in a barber’s chair before his drawing board. He was speaking on the phone to someone who had called to ask him if he really did draw with a crow quill pen.

After his patient explanation he hung up, greeted me warmly, and reached for his drawing, to which he added his spindly signature. Since he had been so cooperative I was emboldened to ask him one last favor.

“Since my father wasn’t a celebrity,” I asked, “why did you choose to draw him?” Hirschfeld replied not only with his motive but a useful piece of information that permitted me to date the drawing. He had visited Holiday’s editorial offices to discuss illustrations he had made for the magazine over the course of a nine-month trip around the world with the legendary humorist S. J. Perelman. Their collaboration originally appeared in Holiday and eventually yielded the bestselling 1948 book Westward Ha! Around the World in 80 Clichés. But apparently Hirschfeld’s circumnavigation of the globe had in no way numbed him to the delight of a proudly borne thicket below the hairline.

“When I met your father,” he told me, “I decided to draw him because I liked his eyebrows.”

John W. Alexander Jr. C’56 is thought to have inherited his father’s eyebrows. This is his second article for the Gazette.

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