Hirschfeld Double Feature: Slices of History, Illustrated

The Speakeasies of 1932 , by Al Hirschfeld. Glenn Young Books, 95 pages, $32.95.

Hirschfeld’s Harlem , by Al Hirschfeld. Glenn Young Books, 127 pages, $75.

Al Hirschfeld, whose thousands of benign caricatures chronicled American show business for almost 80 years, died last January not quite six months short of his 100th birthday. In anticipation of the centenary, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was scheduled to be awarded the National Medal of Arts. In addition, a Broadway theater, the Martin Beck, was renamed for him; that, of all the honors, was perhaps the most fitting for a man who had spent countless evenings at plays and musicals, sketchbook open and pencil at the ready. The publication of the two handsome, large-format books at hand is also intended as homage. Both books are reprints, with embellishments, of volumes first published several generations ago. Pricey though they are, they will receive an enthusiastic welcome from Hirschfeld’s legions of admirers.

The Speakeasies of 1932 , originally titled Manhattan Oases: New York’s 1932 Speak-Easies , a breezy investigation conducted by Hirschfeld and his friend Gordon Kahn of 36 New York bars, was already dated a year after its publication. In 1933, the long-awaited repeal of the 18th Amendment put an end to Prohibition, that foolish effort to curb a nation’s thirst for alcoholic beverages by banning their manufacture and sale. Not that Prohibition had anything like the desired effect: Anyone with the urge to drink had very little trouble finding a bar that would supply the necessary refreshment. Pete Hamill, in his engaging introduction to the new edition, quotes Will Rogers on this burning issue: “Prohibition is better than no liquor at all.”

Bootlegging became a major profession. Though bootleggers may not have been bold enough to list themselves in the Yellow Pages, they made their presence known all the same. The only problem for barflies was that not all bootleggers had access to the most potable wines and whiskeys. The savage bite of much bootleg hooch gave rise to vast and ingenious experimentation behind the bar. Here, for example, is the recipe for the Brandy Crusta, the specialty of the Mansion, the most elegant of all the speakeasies under review: “Moisten the rim of small wineglass with lemon, dip rim in powdered sugar to give glass frosted appearance, peel rind of 1/2 lemon and put in bottom of glass, then pour into shaker one teaspoonful of sugar or grenadine, three dashes of maraschino, three dashes of angostura bitters, juice of 1/2 lemon, one glass brandy. Shake well, pour into glass and add fruit.” Although at Jack and Charlie’s-a favorite of the authors’-the best brands of scotch were always available, the cocktail recommended by Bill, the bartender, was the gin daisy, a mixture of gin, Cointreau, lemon juice and grenadine served over cracked ice with “fruit ornamentation.” Jack and Charlie’s was the establishment that evolved into the “21″ Club. Try ordering a gin daisy there today.

Hirschfeld’s drawings of the speakeasies show his technique in transition from a shaded style, with a rounding of the figures, toward the linear style of his maturity. Every bartender is pictured at work. Some are portrayed more charitably than others, but very few with obvious disdain. A prefatory note by Hirschfeld for this edition makes it very clear that he and Kahn had a high time conducting their research: “Every single spécialité de la maison was tried over and over by my pal Gordon Kahn and me until we passed out testing it for our reading public.” They also tried the available food, which ranged from bowls of peanuts placed on the bar to encourage thirst to full dinners at prices that seem unbelievably low. Although it was possible to spend as much as $10-no small amount in those days-for dinner at Jack and Charlie’s, some of the other speakeasies offered a decent meal for as little as $1.50. The book is rounded out with a note by Tony Kahn, Gordon Kahn’s son, on the authors’ friendship and the hardships endured by the elder Kahn, a distinguished screenwriter, under the Hollywood blacklist.

Hirschfeld’s Harlem is a much-expanded edition of Harlem as Seen by Hirschfeld , a book first published in 1941. The original edition was limited to 1,000 copies and consisted of plates, most in full color, of what might be termed generic Harlem citizens. “Glorious” is not too strong a word for these works of art. (There were also five plates featuring Balinese dancers, omitted without apology from the new edition-and rightly so: Bali, after all, is halfway around the world from Harlem.) A laudatory introduction by William Saroyan, then at the height of his fame, is reproduced in the present edition. Among the new materials is an insightful essay on Harlem and its residents by Gail Lumet Buckley. It provides a detailed history of the social and cultural life of the area, from the beginning of its development as a black enclave at the turn of the last century up through the Great Depression of the 1930′s. Discussed in the essay are the careers of the entertainers, composers, writers, artists and spokespersons for black pride whose generous talents made Harlem known across the nation and beyond as a dynamic center of creativity. It’s illustrated with drawings, both old and more recent, by the artist.

The rest of the new material consists of brief essays by 19 black celebrities offering comments on the plates created by Hirschfeld for the original edition. Among the stars in this galaxy, to mention only five, are Lena Horne, Audra McDonald, Bobby Short, Eartha Kitt and Charles B. Rangel, Harlem’s charismatic Congressman. Some of the diverse subjects of these and the other commentators are a king-of-the-numbers racket, a couple doing the Lindy Hop, two dressed-up strolling families-identified by Ms. Buckley in her essay as those of Bill (Bojangles) Robinson and Cab Calloway-five musicians jamming and a Sugar Hill “statesman.” The drawing of the statesman inspired Mr. Rangel to observe, “Every politician needs a little flamboyance to float his message across. And in Harlem, style is a currency all its own.” Style is certainly what these drawings are.

Also included are a story written in Harlem slang by Zora Neale Hurston for the American Mercury in 1942, with Hirschfeld’s original illustrations, and a “Glossary of Harlem Slang” compiled by Hurston as well. “Ground rations,” according to the glossary, meant “sex.” “Mammy” was a term of insult: “Never used in any other way by Negroes.” That would be big news to Scarlett O’Hara. The book also brings together 51 pages of drawings created by Hirschfeld from 1939 to 2002, the latest as vivid and as precisely rendered as the earliest.

Like all books by Al Hirschfeld-and there have been many-these two are a feast for the eyes. As reports on aspects of New York’s social history go, they are also instructive. Thank you, Mr. Hirschfeld! We hope you know how much we miss you.

Malcolm Goldstein, whose most recent book is Landscape With Figures: A History of Art Dealing in the United States (Oxford), is now writing about the wives of eight American artists.