Speak-Easy Christmas

Christmas approaches, even here in our Aladdin’s cave of books. We’re still working, but really we’re “working” as the rain keeps the punters at the Met and old friends drop by. We’ve set out cheese, nuts, chocolate and ten or so bottles of rare or unusual whiskies; not one but three people today have called us a speak-easy. Fine. This set me thinking of Hirschfeld, and two glories we have in the shop, which rank high on the list of Books I Don’t Want To Go.

The first is the link:

Hirschfeld, Al. Manhattan Oases. New York’s 1932 Speak-Easies. Text by Gordon Kahn. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1932. First edition. Signed.

Prohibition, the result of the eighteenth amendment to the Constitution, had been in swing (or whatever the opposite of swinging is) for over a decade when Al Hirschfeld and Gordon Kahn (who would later become a HUAC piñata) collaborated to chronicle and to send-up the culture of speak-easies and the men who ran them.

Hirschfeld’s caricatures are much more restrained, on the whole, than his later work for which he is perhaps better known. Kahn’s text is often savage, describing filth, corruption and disgusting cocktails. The years between the beginning of the Great Depression and the repeal of Prohibition must have been difficult ones.


Flash forward nine years, when the economy is rebounding, unemployment has dropped, and the U.S. hadn’t yet entered the second world war:

Hirschfeld, Al. Harlem As Seen by Hirschfeld. Text by William Saroyan. NY: The Hyperion Press, 1941. First edition.

Here Hirschfeld’s jubilance and sharp eye are on full view. Shrewdly observed, though sometimes veering toward stereotype, the drawings capture the Harlem of jazz myth (and a little bit of Bali). They were Hirschfeld's favorites of his own work; they were framed and hung in his apartment on the Upper East Side.

Bibliographically, our copy is of some interest. Issued in an edition of 1,000, ours is numbered 5 and signed by Hirschfeld.

Most unusually, though, ours it also dated: “November 24 1941”, twelve days before the official date of publication: 6 December 1941, the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In that light, the date of signing is halcyon, the quiet before the storm. Our copy must have been quickly put away, for it is in remarkable shape: it has the publisher’s card-board slip-case (with the copy number neatly inked to the case’s spine) and the original glassine dust-wrapper. The inside is fresh and clean, a time capsule from the days before the war; I can think of no better.