"CALL HER MADAM" a new online exhibition, is now live at AlHirschfeldFoundation.org
Posted by: Official_Press_Release 04:56 pm EDT 08/15/22

The Al Hirschfeld Foundation has launched its latest online exhibition “Call Her Madam: Sex. Crime & Fun in Polly Adler’s New York .” Now live at AlHirschfeldFoundation.org/exhibitions though October 15, the exhibition reflects some of the denizens of New York’s hottest after-hours clubhouse including Desi Arnaz, Milton Berle, Duke Ellington, George S. Kaufman, Dorothy Lamour, The Marx Brothers, Dorothy Parker, Martha Raye, Franklin D. Roosevelt, James Thurber, Jimmy Walker and Walter Winchell.

To call Polly Adler (1900-1962) the most famous madam of the Jazz Age does not do her justice. In those heady days between the world wars, she was one of New York’s most celebrated hostesses and an underworld icon, whose swinging parties and deluxe bordellos were patronized by some of the biggest names of the era. Her heyday coincided with Broadway’s Golden Age when the Main Stem reigned as the glittering, gritty playground of America’s “tinsel aristocracy.” Talk-show host and pianist Oscar Levant recalled “Polly Adler’s was the meetinghouse for all Broadway in those days.” Her customers included the VIPs of Café Society, Hollywood, Wall Street, Madison Avenue, Park Avenue, Tin Pan Alley, Madison Square Garden, Tammany Hall, the Friars Club, the Algonquin Round Table and the NYPD.

“Polly opened her first brothel in 1920, at the start of Prohibition. By 1923 her ‘speakeasy with a harem’ as she called it, had become the city’s hottest afterhours clubhouse and taboo hideaway,” says Debby Applegate, author of Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age, and guest curator of the online exhibition. “Al Hirschfeld captured many of Polly’s pals in his illustrations from those years. This exhibit offers a sample of Hirschfeld’s drawings of the colorful characters who made up their mutual social circle.”

Go behind the lines of Hirschfeld’s art with "The Hirschfeld Century Podcast," nominated as “Best NYC podcast” by the 2020 Apple Awards. A special episode dedicated to the works featured in “Call Her Madam: Sex. Crime & Fun in Polly Adler’s New York ” will be available starting August 24 from AlHirschfeldFoundation.org/podcasts, iTunes and other popular podcast sites.


Debby Applegate is a historian and obsessive reader whose first book, The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2007 and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Book Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography, and was named one of the best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review, NPR's Fresh Air, The Washington Post, Seattle Times, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and American Heritage Magazine. The Most Famous Man in America was an unconventional portrait of an unconventional minister and antislavery activist whose celebrity rivalled Ralph Waldo Emerson and Abraham Lincoln. With her second book, Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, lcon of the Jazz Age, she plunged from the world of virtue to the underbelly of vice. It took thirteen years of immersion in the archives to research and write and - to give fair warning to all readers – is much racier than the first.


The mission of the Al Hirschfeld Foundation is to promote interest in the theater and visual arts by supporting non-profit museums, libraries, theaters and similar cultural institutions. The Foundation fulfills its mission through grants and exhibitions of Hirschfeld’s art. The Foundation maintains an extensive collection of Hirschfeld artworks and lends and/or donates pieces to institutions all over the world. Another primary mission is arts education, which the Foundation does primarily with the Hirschfeld Arts Curriculum. Created in conjunction with the New York City Board of Education, The Hirschfeld Arts Curriculum is an innovative visual/performing arts education program based on Hirschfeld’s art to engage students K through 12 in a variety of arts activities. Our programs encourage writing, reading, researching, observing, movement and performance to learn about the arts, its history, and the opportunities for education and employment in the arts field. The web based Al Hirschfeld curriculum is easy to use, and is intended to be a free resource for teachers and students. www.AlHirschfeldFoundation.org


Al Hirschfeld’s drawings stand as one of the most innovative efforts in establishing the visual language of modern art through caricature in the 20th century. A self-described “characterist,” his signature work, defined by a linear calligraphic style, appeared in virtually every major publication of the last nine decades (including a 75-year relationship with The New York Times) as well as numerous book and record covers and 15 postage stamps. Hirschfeld said his contribution was to take the character, created by the playwright and portrayed by the actor, and reinvent it for the reader. Playwright Terrence McNally wrote: "No one 'writes' more accurately of the performing arts than Al Hirschfeld. He accomplishes on a blank page with his pen and ink in a few strokes what many of us need a lifetime of words to say."

In 1945, Hirschfeld celebrated the birth of his daughter Nina by placing her name in the background of a drawing. What the artist described as an innocent prank soon became a personal trademark and national obsession, as he began hiding numerous NINA’s throughout his drawings for years to come.

He is represented in many public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the National Portrait Gallery, and Harvard’s Theater Collection. Hirschfeld authored several books including Manhattan Oases and Show Business is No Business in addition to 10 collections of his work. He was declared a Living Landmark by the New York City Landmarks Commission in 1996, and a Living Legend by The Library of Congress in 2000. Just before his death in January 2003, he learned he was to be awarded the Medal of Arts from the National Endowment of the Arts and inducted into the Academy of Arts and Letters. The winner of two Tony Awards, he was given the ultimate Broadway accolade on what would have been his 100th birthday in June 2003. The Martin Beck Theater was renamed the Al Hirschfeld Theater.

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