A former New York magazine columnist explores the long and eventful life of Al Hirschfeld, a Manhattan bon vivant and renowned illustrator for The New York Times and TV Guide who died in 2003 at 99 years old.
Ellen Stern...trots out a trove of breezy anecdotes—her present-tense prose at times galloping to keep up with Hirschfeld’s travel-happy younger years—to capture the colorful life behind his quill-pen line that, in its light and fluid grace, has summoned metaphoric comparisons to Fred Astaire ... Stern deftly reflects Hirschfeld’s warmth and wit in recollecting these heady decades ... Hirschfeld: The Biography fizzes along merrily when describing his life as a bon vivant and slows the pace appropriately when times grow more difficult ... as fertile as Hirschfeld’s life is, Stern’s stories are most engaging when the focus returns to the art ... Mostly, though, Stern paints a thoughtfully textured portrait of the man in the blue jumpsuit who sat in his Koken barber chair...and drew most days from morning to dinnertime, at peace alone while re-creating the world as a poetic flow of India ink.
Stern...doesn’t flinch from the flaws and failures behind that gruff visage and Moses beard ... Stern’s book is thoroughly researched and her prose lump-free. She clearly stayed up late doing her homework. (How the hell did she ever dig up the fact that Hirschfeld not only played semipro baseball early in his New York days, but did so alongside Lou Gehrig?) Good for her, good for Al Hirschfeld, of whom there will never be another.
Ellen Stern's biography of theatrical caricaturist Al Hirschfeld reads more like a gossipy 300-page article in New York magazine (where Stern has worked) than the biography of record suggested by the definite article modifying its subtitle ... For those not put off by Stern's glib tone, there's plenty of what she calls 'rich pickin's' in this portrait of Hirschfeld ... She also provides a lively account of the development of Hirschfeld's distinctive style, as well as welcome fact-checks on several of the tales he stretched as tall as his familiar elongated signature. But Stern's book is marred by several of her own stylistic choices, including her decision to chase a sense of immediacy by relaying Hirschfeld's life story—all 99 years of it—in the present tense. This gets old faster than her subject. Be forewarned, too, that Stern's narrative is splattered with enough barely contextualized names to fill a phone book—many of which are unlikely to ring bells ... Harder to ignore is Stern's predilection for cutesy puns, with the result that this biography feels like a vintage issue of Time magazine ... Stern does an okay job capturing the impact of Hirschfeld's expressive, swooping black lines ... there are fun facts, too, in this evocation of a world in which newspapers and pen-and-ink flourished.