For 75 years, we saw the New York stage through Al Hirschfeld’s eyes. His fluid pen-and-ink caricatures captured the essence of a performance with a style that was unmistakable: elegant, stylish, witty but never cruel. In the theatre pages of the New York Times, a Hirschfeld portrait was the mark of theatrical success.
But before he was established as an iconic illustrator—before his style evolved into its familiar simplicity—he produced a book that unwittingly documented the end of an American era, The Speakeasies of 1932.
Hirschfeld and Gordon Kahn, who co-wrote the text that Hirschfeld illustrated, were in their twenties. The country was twelve years into the disaster that was National Prohibition, and three years into the Great Depression, and Manhattan made adjustments to both.
The two friends frequented the illegal establishments that had sprung up all over the city; they drank and ate in them, and got to know the bartender and the specialties of the house. But unlike the other habitués, they took their observations away with them. The result is a magical book, with drawings and short descriptions of 36 saloons, bars and speakeasies. A page of text and a single drawing of the barman—and here and there a cocktail recipe—is enough to conjure a lost world.
Many of these were not refined lounges, but gritty joints concealed behind false store fronts or anonymously located on the upper floors of office buildings.
At George’s Place (Lexington Ave.—precise addresses were added where possible to this new edition) “the beer is the same slop that the racketeering brewers are making them all buy.”
Zum Brauhaus on East 86th Street serves “only beer, and an eminently drinkable stein at a quarter is sold at the bar.”
By contrast, the Bath Club (W 53rd) has “a graceful marble staircase; to the left is a dining room. Spacious and comfortable. An orchestra plays chamber music. Champagne corks pop discreetly.” There, a request for beer is greeted with “Beer? Pul-lease, M’sieu!” Hirschfeld’s portraits of the barmen at work are brilliant, and beautifully produced in this volume. In some, he uses shading and feathering that is absent from most of his later work, but others, like the picture of Bill at the Stonewall, foreshadow his later technique.
There is a dark side to this book, although it may only evident be in hindsight. The Speakeasies of 1932 is not just about the underground drinking venues and their denizens in Prohibition New York. It conveys the matter-of-fact lawbreaking by normal citizens in response to boneheaded legislation. It shows us the conditions that gave organization to organized crime. But it also hints at the social boundaries of class and race that began to blur where everyone gathered to drink illegal alcohol.
Hirschfeld went on to well-deserved fame. Gordon Kahn was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, and wrote his best-known screenplays, including “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “The African Queen,” without being credited by name.
As a piece of social history, as a non-PC celebration of our love of alcohol, or as a document of the small rebellions of ordinary people, this is a book to have. We’re lucky it has been re-discovered.