How I Got My Hirschfeld Caricature and How My Version Became Part of His Archives

Ma Vie En Rose Part 3

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Growing up as a New Yorker, I long admired Hirschfeld’s amazing caricatures in the NY Times and joined the ranks of people counting the Ninas hidden in the lines of his drawings. (Nina was the name of his daughter and each of his caricatures always had one or more Ninas in it.) I never would have dreamed of having a Hirschfeld of myself but when I became a cookbook author, my editor told me that fellow author Marion Burrows’s husband had purchased one for her to use on the book jacket. So I called my mother and asked her if she thought I should commission a Hirschfeld. Her response: “Why would you want a caricature which exaggerates one’s worst feature?” My answer: “I think of Hirschfeld as the poet of line drawing—that he sees into one’s soul, and I’d like to see how he would see mine.” My mother’s response: “If that’s how you feel about it, then you should do it.” No doubt that was in good part because I wasn’t asking her to pay. But when I found out the cost of such a work of art I was unsure.

 In 1988, when The Cake Bible had just come out to great acclaim, Elliott and I were invited to a New Year’s Eve party at the Eldorado—the most elegant apartment house on Central Park West, home of the fictional Marjorie Morningstar, and actual home of David and Leslie Newman, screen writers of Superman. I didn’t realize right away that the reason for the invitation was because Leslie was writing her first cookbook Feasts, and planned to change careers from screen writer to cookbook author. Her husband David seemed not altogether happy about her abandoning a lucrative profession for a questionable one but, since my book was such a success, he was encouraged to think that maybe he could divine my secret.

We rang the doorbell and Paula Wolfert appeared, whisking us into the kitchen saying: “This is where the food people are.” And there was Leslie, pulling out ingredients for the choucroute garnis midnight supper. I knew that Elliott was none too happy to be relegated to the food people so I nervously made a futile attempt at introducing him to Leslie. “Just a minute,” she cried out, “I’m just taking out the sausage.” I don’t know what desperation possessed me to offer up the following non sequitur, but here’s what it was: “Well, speaking of taking out the sausage, I’d like you to meet my husband Elliott.” I was afraid he would walk out and leave me on the upper West side, but he had to laugh because so were Paula and most of all Leslie, who rushed out into the living room to announce what had just been said. I heard a roar of amusement and realized it had become our calling card for meeting all the non-food intelligentsia, such as Gay Talese and others of the literary circle.

 On our way out, as David Newman ushered us to the door, I noticed that in the foyer there were myriad Hirschfelds and other artists’ caricatures of famous actors and celebrities lining the walls.  I realized that this had to be the perfect person to ask for advice about the Hirschfeld. I got no further than saying that I was considering having one of me when he cried out with eyes wide open in awe-filled admiration: “Hirschfeld wants to do you?” (I think at that moment he decided that his wife’s defection from screen writing just might be a good choice.) It was a hard split second decision: whether to let him think I was now that famous, or whether to tell him the truth and get his advice as to whether it was worth the price. I chose the former with an emphatic YES! It was one of the few lies I ever told and to this day I do not regret it. And when it turned out that many people when seeing the caricature had the same assumption as David Newman, my husband admitted that he had been wrong to discourage me from spending all my savings to commission it saying: “Had I known how you would use it I would not have objected.” And the truth of the matter is that I had no intention of ‘using’ it—I just wanted it for myself. I think….He probably knew me better than I knew myself.

 And now for how I ended up in Hirschfeld’s archives:

 Cook’s Magazine had its first annual event honoring the Who’s Who of American Chefs. Craig Claiborne, formerly a long-time restaurant reviewer for the NY Times, who was still a frequent contributor, was in attendance. Alex Ward, head of the living section had told me that Craig was doing a duck story and that I should send the story I had proposed to him. Weeks had gone by and I had all but forgotten it, but when I saw Craig I seized the opportunity and politely asked him what ever happened to my submission. His response was to put his hands around my neck in a mock choking position, saying: “I wish you would all go away and leave me alone.” Edna Lewis, one of the most refined and polite of food writers, looked totally embarrassed and would have blushed if she could have. It was such a horrible feeling that when I turned around to leave and the next person I encountered asked me the usual, “how are you?” I burst into tears. (This led to another story that will be written at a later time, which includes how I stopped talking to Craig for many years until shortly before his death when he came to my book launch party at restaurant Daniel and we became ‘friends’ again. I promise it will be hilarious.)

 Some time passed and I was invited to participate in “the Book and the Cook” in Philadelphia along with other cookbook authors including Craig Claiborne. Shortly before the event I received an invitation to attend a dinner at Le Bec Fin honoring Craig. And the entire front page of the invitation was a Hirschfeld caricature of him. Yes! Hirschfeld fulfilled my prophesy of seeing into the soul of a person. He depicted Craig with his hands gleefully around the neck of a little chicken.


Here’s what I was inspired to do: I shrank my Hirschfeld to the size of the baby chicken and created my own version of Craig’s larger one. This was prior to the completion of The Pie and Pastry Bible,  and I promised myself that the moment I finished this enormous and demandingly detailed book I would send my amalgamation caricature to Hirschfeld along with the story.

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Several years passed and Hirschfeld was well into his 90’s by the time I sent him the letter. And then, to my delight, I received this postcard from Hirschfeld’s wife, the archivist. I wish Craig could have known….. I wonder if I was the only person ever to be sort of choked by him. Do let me know if it happened to you and what you did about it!