Hirschfeld's Drag ShowCurated by Charles Busch

During Al Hirschfeld’s long career, no area of show business was left visually unexplored.  A colorful vibrant thread in the tapestry of the theater has been the use of drag as a form of creative expression.  Consequently, through Hirschfeld’s remarkable catalogue, we’re able to chart the ways cross dressing has been used as a theatrical tool over the past century.  At first, it was often the only way closeted LGBT artists were able to express their voices. At other times drag has been employed as a plot device allowing society to articulate in a light-hearted manner its fear of the “other.” In more recent decades, openly gay artists have taken drag into new realms both dramatic and comic. With this collection of drawings, we chart the history of performers and shows that have used drag in a variety of creative strategies.  Hirschfeld’s great gift in portraying the joy of theatrical self-expression gives all of these drawings a humanity along with their outrageous flamboyance.    


Curated By Charles Busch

CHARLES BUSCH is the author The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, which ran nearly two years on Broadway and received a Tony nomination for Best Play, and Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, one of the longest running plays in Off-Broadway history. Mr. Busch is the recipient of a special Drama Desk Award for career achievement as both performer and playwright and the Dramatist’s Guild has honored him with the Flora Roberts Award for sustained commitment to the theatre. His autobiography, Leading Lady; The Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy was recently published by BenBella books.

SLANTS ON FAMOUS PERSONALITIESReproduction of a newspaper clipping of ink on board drawing., 1928

Albert Carroll (1898-1956) was a fascinating performer who is sadly lost in the shadows of the past. Hirschfeld made a number of drawings of the popular impressionist/actor, who appeared in such shows as the Grand Street Follies and The Garrick Gaieties. Although he included male impersonations in his repertoire, he seems to have been more celebrated for his female characterizations.  Albert Carroll’s ability to combine camp satire with an illusion of glamorous femininity can be viewed as a direct link to contemporary drag performers.

CHARLEY'S AUNTInk on board, 1940

Arthur Margetson, Katherine Wiman, Nedda Harrigan, Mary Mason, J. Richard Jones, José Ferrer, Harold de Becker, Reynolds Denniston, Thomas Speidel, and Phyllis Avery. 

Motion picture comedies where someone is forced by circumstances to masquerade as the opposite sex can find their roots in the 1892 play Charleys Aunt by Brandon Thomas. Well, I suppose one could say it began with Shakespeare, but why quibble? A notable Broadway revival of Charleys Aunt starred the Oscar- and Tony Award-winning actor/director José Ferrer. In many of these plays and movies, an important element—employed for comic effect—is the panic when the heterosexual protagonist in drag finds himself/herself pursued romantically by an unsuspecting suitor of the same sex. The highly-stylized drag in this case certainly requires a suspension of disbelief.

This work is available for sale. Please inquire.

PETER PANInk on board, 1954

Mary Martin, Cyril Ritchard, Richard Wyatt and Don Laurio,

This popular musical adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s classic play Peter Pan debuted on Broadway in 1954 starring the beloved musical theater icon, Mary Martin. Peter was a role she longed to play and because her performance was preserved on television (and became an annual viewing tradition) she will forever be identified with this character. An emotional peak of the play comes when Peter pleads with the audience to believe in fairies so that Tinkerbell might live. In 1982, Mary Martin, hospitalized with injuries from a nearly fatal car crash, was moved to see a crowd of fans gathered below her window holding signs that read “We believe!” 

Starting with Maude Adams in 1905, Barrie’s tale of a boy who never grew up has been a favorite of actresses, allowing them to revel in its androgyny and giving them the chance… to fly! Hirschfeld’s drawing displays Mary Martin’s exultant freedom as she flies above her appreciative cast.

Some Like it HotInk on board, 1959

Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon

Billy Wilder’s comic masterpiece is the sine qua non of movies involving men masquerading as women. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are at the top of their comic game, and Marilyn Monroe’s Actors Studio-influenced performance anchors the broadly farcical plot with a soulful vulnerability. The film treads blithely over a number of sexual situations that ordinarily would be catnip for the censor’s red pencil, such as Tony Curtis feigning impotence as a technique of seduction and Jack Lemmon reveling in his feminine role-play to the point of fantasizing a future marriage with Joe E. Brown’s befuddled millionaire. In some ways Some Like It Hot is more advanced and subversive in its sexual politics than anything commercially produced today. The film’s nonchalant attitude of acceptance of gender complexity is expressed in the classic last line, “Nobody’s perfect.” 

A hand signed limited edition lithograph of this work is available for sale. 


GOODBYE CHARLIEInk on board, 1959

Lauren Bacall and Sydney Chaplin

George Axelrod’s stage farce served as Lauren Bacall’s Broadway debut after a 15-year career in the movies. It was later adapted as a 1964 film starring Debbie Reynolds and Tony Curtis.  Bacall played a murdered lecherous playboy who finds himself reincarnated as a beautiful blonde woman. One of the titillating elements of the farcical situation was that his best male buddy is thrown into a sexual tizzy by his attraction to the reincarnated Charlie.

I’ve always marveled at how Hirschfeld manages to create a highly stylized and immediately recognizable caricature of a famous beauty that doesn’t veer into the grotesque. Through his sensual use of line, he allows us to see the sophisticated allure that made Lauren Bacall a star.

This work is available for sale. Please inquire.

Academy Award HopefulsInk on board, 1960

Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly Last Summer; Laurence Harvey and Simone Signoret in Room At The Top, Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur; Doris Day in Pillow Talk; Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot; Katharine Hepburn in Suddenly Last Summer; Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story; Paul Muni in The Last Angry Man; James Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder

The Hollywood Production Code was loosening up after decades of censoring any suggestion of homosexuality.  Several of the performers featured in this drawing were in films that were “tinged in lavender.” There’s Jack Lemmon in drag as Daphne in Some Like it Hot and Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn in Tennessee William’s decadent hot-house melodrama, Suddenly Last Summer. Hepburn played the imperious Mrs. Venable, whose effete gay poet son, Sebastian, only appears in flashback. This being 1959, Sebastian’s face is never shown as he’s chased and ultimately devoured by cannibalistic island boys.  The drawing also features Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur. The film’s screenwriter, Gore Vidal, decided unrequited homosexual attraction was the motivation behind the bitter feud between Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) and Messala (Stephen Boyd.)  The director, William Wyler, was intrigued, but warned Vidal to never mention a word of it to the hopelessly square “Chuck” Heston.


MYRA BRECKINRIDGEInk on board, 1969

Raquel Welch, Rex Reed and Mae West

Gore Vidal’s “unfilmable” bestselling comic novel about a gay male film critic undergoing a sex change and reinventing himself as a glamorous Amazon-like woman to wreak revenge on the heterosexual male world reached the screen in the topsy-turvy radicalized Hollywood of 1970. Sex symbol Raquel Welch, seeking legitimacy as an actress in a high profile film, played Myra post-surgery, with film journalist Rex Reed making his acting debut as the pre-surgical Myra.  The casting decision that received the most publicity was the return of the legendary Mae West in her first film in over twenty-five years. The highly publicized off-camera feud between the two leading ladies was ultimately more delicious to the public than the finished film. However, Myra Breckinridge was a major breakthrough in bringing a post-Stonewall camp sensibility to mainstream American cinema. 

Judith Anderson as HamletInk on board, 1970

The Australian-born Dame Judith Anderson enjoyed an illustrious career in the theater as a classical actress and was considered by many the definitive Medea and a notable Lady MacBeth. She was also successful in films, creating memorable roles in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, Preminger’s Laura, and as Big Mama in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  In 1970, at the age of seventy-three, she satisfied a long-held ambition of playing Hamlet. She was part of a tradition of great actresses who have played the Danish Prince beginning with the French tragedienne Sarah Bernhardt in 1900.  There was the belief that Hamlet, with his vulnerable questioning nature, was beyond the limitations of gender.  The critics were not kind to Dame Judith, criticizing her advanced age and what was considered a dated grand dame performance.  Hirschfeld’s drawing captures both the theatricality and poignancy of a great artist defiantly living out her dream.

Dustin Hoffman in TootsieEtching on paper, 1982

This wildly successful film comedy continued Dustin Hoffman’s cinematic journey into how a man can become a better man by taking on traditionally female roles.  In the Oscar winning 1979 Kramer vs. Kramer Hoffman played a work-obsessed ad exec who learns how to be a better parent, after his wife walks out on him and his young son.  His next film, Tootsie, showcased him as a self-obsessed, womanizing actor who learns to be a better man when he poses as a woman, after he’s cast in a female role on a television soap opera.  Again, in the tradition of commercial drag comedy, terror of a same-sex smooch is a part of the plot. Hoffman as the ragingly straight Michael Dorsey disguised as Dorothy Michaels has to flee from the advances of several ardent male suitors. The combined efforts of some of the best comic writers of the era including Larry Gelbart, Murray Shisgal and Elaine May managed to give that old plot convention a fresh, contemporary spin.  Hirschfeld’s drawing brilliantly reveals the man underneath the masquerade.

This work is available for sale.

La Cage Aux FollesInk on board, 1983

Gene Barry and George Hearn

This was a landmark Broadway musical, with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, book by Harvey Fierstein and directed by Arthur Laurents. Taking a French stage farce that had been adapted into a surprise international hit film, the openly-gay Broadway creative team enriched the material with an emotional core unexplored in the original source material. The musical La Cage Aux Folles had a successful run and two subsequent Broadway revivals. The commercial success of the show proved that a mainstream Broadway audience could support a musical love story between two men. Hirschfeld’s drawing evokes the lavish exuberance of that original production and its gifted cast.

A hand signed limited edition lithograph of this work is available for sale.

Charles Ludlam in GalasInk on board, 1983

A comic master, a playwright with an original voice and an actor of blazing magnetism, Charles Ludlam’s role as the creator and driving force behind the Ridiculous Theatrical Company places him in the direct line of the great actor-managers of the past.  One of the first major cultural figures lost to AIDS, Ludlam has inspired and influenced many writers and performers.  I certainly owe him an enormous debt. Hirschfeld captures the intensity and beauty of Charles Ludlam’s performance as a Maria Callas-like opera diva in his 1983 play Galas. Ludlam is often simplistically described as a drag performer, when, out of the twenty-nine plays that he wrote and appeared in, only five times did he play a female character.  Hirschfeld’s drawing manages to convey the strange miracle of Ludlam’s approach to playing a female role. Charles’s art was not about creating a perfect visual illusion of womanliness; his low cut decolletage in Camille revealed a hairy chest. His acting skill, charisma and comic virtuosity made you believe his stage heroines were great beauties.

Charles Busch in Vampire Lesbians of SodomInk on board, 1986

In the latter years of Hirschfeld’s long professional association with The New York Times, his drawings of individual performers would illustrate their mini-interviews in the Friday Broadway column. My opportunity came when my play Vampire Lesbians of Sodom moved from an art gallery/performance space on the Lower East Side to the Off-Broadway Provincetown Playhouse on MacDougal Street and brought me my first New York Times review. It was a rave and launched this raffish pair of one act plays on a five-year run. The week we opened, the show’s publicist, Sam Rudy, gave me the news that I would be profiled in the Broadway column and drawn by Al Hirschfeld!  I love this drawing. It absolutely evokes who I was as a performer at that early dizzying stage of my career and I’m not alone in thinking it’s one of the most striking of this period of Hirschfeld’s work.  Indeed, it was used as the frontispiece of that year’s volume of The Best Plays of 1985-1986


BD Wong in M. ButterflyInk on board, 1988

For his breakthrough performance in David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly, BD Wong became the only actor in Broadway history to receive the Tony Award, Drama Desk Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, Clarence Derwent Award and Theater World Award for the same role.  His performance as Song Liling was a fascinating display of gender versatility; alternately fragile and ethereal and then brutally masculine. In the years since that remarkable debut, BD has managed to effortlessly glide through a successful career in all areas of show business.

A hand signed limited edition lithograph on rice paper of this work is available for sale.

VICTOR/VICTORIAInk on board, 1995

Julie Andrews, Rachel York, Tony Roberts and Michael Nouri

Thirty-five years after her final performance in the musical Camelot, Julie Andrews surprised the entertainment world by returning to Broadway in a stage version of her film Victor/Victoria. I interviewed her for The New York Times before previews began. She was lovely and self-deprecating; everything you hoped Julie Andrews would be. She expressed concern that she’d be performing eleven songs in the show and hoped that the audience would’t expect miracles.  She needn’t have been concerned. Her charisma and ability to carry this enormous and somewhat unwieldy vehicle was undiminished. I remember being particularly moved when in the second act, a black curtain swept in front of the elaborate multi-level set and there was Julie Andrews at last alone onstage. She sang a new song written for the Broadway production, an emotional ballad called “Living in the Shadows.”  With all of the stage scenery suddenly vanished, we were able to witness in the purest way that increasing rarity: a genuine star.

A hand signed limited edition lithograph of this work is available for sale.

HairsprayGouache and ink on board, 2002

Marissa Jaret Winokur, Matthew Morrison, Harvey Fierstein, Laura Bell Bundy, Dick Latessa, Linda Hart, Corey Reynolds, Danelle Eugenia Wilson, Kerry Butler, Mary Bond Davis and Clarke Thorell

John Waters 1988 cult movie Hairspray was that comic renegade director’s biggest mainstream success. It still must have been a challenge for the creative team of Marc Shaiman, Scott Whitman, Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan to adapt the film as a Broadway stage musical in 2002. They managed to bring to the project a classic Broadway professionalism while retaining the source material’s gay camp sensibility. That ain’t easy. They were enormously aided by casting Harvey Fierstein in the key role of Edna Turnblad, created on film by Waters’s late muse, Divine. Harvey, a multiple Tony Award winner, had previously changed the way gay people were portrayed on Broadway as the author and star of the ground-breaking Torch Song Trilogy, as well as his contribution as book writer for the musical La Cage Aux Folles. His portrayal of Edna won him yet another Tony and gave us a musical theater heroine who could take her place alongside of Merman’s Rose, Carol Channing’s Dolly and Angela Lansbury’s Mame.

A hand signed limited edition lithograph of this work is available for sale.