Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
William Auerbach-Levy was born in 1889 in Brest-Litovsk, then part of the Russian Empire. He immigrated with his parents to the United States around 1894 and grew up on the Lower East Side. He began drawing at a young age and eventually became renowned for caricature. He executed serious illustrations with equal skill, however, as shown below on the cover of the 1916 annual report of the Educational Alliance.
Auerbach-Levy’s artistic abilities enabled him to effectively parody public figures, and his caricatures appeared in publications such as The New Yorker, the New York Post, Collier’s, and Esquire, to name a few. He also authored several newspaper articles and a book entitled Is That Me? to satisfy public interest in his profession. In the article, “A Caricaturist Snitches on His Victims – How Celebrities Act When Impaled on an Artist’s Pencil,” published in the October 18, 1925 issue of New York World, he wrote of the character actress Helen Westley: “When I told Helen Westley that I had come to do a caricature she said, ‘Of course it would be a caricature – aren’t you afraid you’ll forget how to make a straight drawing? Well, go ahead and be as wicked as you like. I’m used to it.'”In the same article, Auerbach-Levy recounted his experience sketching Lionel Barrymore as he applied makeup backstage for “The Piker”. Barrymore saw the sketch right before the curtain went up. “‘Pretty good if you fix-” The curtain was going up. Of course I didn’t ‘fix’ it, whatever it was – I’ve learned that the subject’s criticism of his own caricature may safely be ignored.” Auerbach-Levy’s article “Something About Caricature” appeared in the September 1933 issue of journal New Hope. He recalled in 1927 sketching producer Jed Harris as he worked with director George Abbott on the production “Coquette”.
“I never saw a man so distressed as Harris when he finally looked over my sketches. Then with deadly earnestness he said, ‘You can’t print that in your paper!'” But as Auerbach-Levy later revealed to journalist Ernest Watson in “The Caricatures of William Auerbach-Levy,” printed in the April 1938 issue of Art Instruction: “Shortly after, I saw Jed again. He said, ‘Bill, that was a marvelous drawing of me! Everybody was crazy about it – you must have been inspired – don’t forget I’m buying the original.’ And, thereafter, it hung framed on his wall.”Harris was not the only person so enamored of his caricature that he requested to buy it outright from Auerbach-Levy. The journalist H. L. Mencken took to his caricature and wrote in a letter to Auerbach-Levy: “I like the caricature very much. It is grotesque and yet it does justice to my underlying beauty. Needless to say, I’ll be delighted to have the original, if it still exists.”
Auerbach-Levy’s talents became so well-known, he was even commended in a New York Times article that had nothing to do with him. Critic Alexander Woollcott praised the performance of entertainer Cecilia Loftus in the April 10, 1938 article “Cissie Loftus – As Ever”: “You see most of what are palmed off on us as imitations are doubly that. They are really imitations of imitations. The true gift of caricature is rare. But once some one born with it – a Max Beerbohm, let us say, or a Frueh or an Auerbach-Levy….”
Jimmy Durante was also impressed with the artist when he went to Auerbach-Levy’s studio in Washington Square, as told in the August 6, 1942 article “This Artist Enjoys a Triple Career” that appeared in The Villager.“As Jimmie walked through the door, Mr. Levy saw just the amusing angle he had hoped to catch and jotted it down before the unsuspecting subject knew what was happening.
‘What do you want me to do?’ queried Jimmie, ready to pose.
‘Nothing,’ replied Mr. Levy. ‘It’s done.’
‘I knew I was easy to caricature,’ exclaimed the gentleman with the nose, ‘but not so easy as all that.'”Auerbach-Levy even caricatured himself. Auerbach-Levy accomplished much of his work at the aforementioned studio at 46 Washington Square South. He loved the studio and the surrounding Greenwich Village neighborhood so much, he created a scrapbook, now at the Museum. A cutout quote from the artist himself adorns the first page of the scrapbook: “The reason I like the Village better than any other part of New York is that here you can step out of your door and see the world. Life is here in all its manifestations. You can see more variety in the Village in five minutes than you can on a tour of the rest of the city. For an artist, that is very important.”
The second page of the scrapbook includes a reproduction of an oil painting produced around 1934 by Auerbach-Levy depicting his impression of Greenwich Village in winter.
The artist Edward C. Caswell drew Auerbach-Levy’s studio and garden, and the drawings were printed in the Greenwich Village publication The Villager. Auerbach-Levy cut out the drawings from the newspaper and added them to his scrapbook.
When Auerbach-Levy leased the studio in 1929, the entire 40 Washington Square block was owned by Albert Strunsky. In the early 1940s, Columbia University bought the block. In 1947, Columbia notified tenants on the block that their leases would not be renewed. Columbia, in turn, sold the block to NYU, which planned to demolish the buildings occupying the space between Sullivan and Macdougal Streets and Washington Square South and West Third Street to make room for a new law school. In addition to Auerbach-Levy, filmmaker Joris Ivens, artists Jacques Lipschitz and Kyohei Inukai, and pianist Celia Saloman would be among the 300-plus tenants to be displaced under the plan. The struggle between the competing interests of Greenwich Village artists and the university was faithfully captured by Auerbach-Levy in his scrapbook.
Not only did Auerbach-Levy document NYU’s expansion into Greenwich Village and the neighborhood’s attempts to stop it, he joined in the fight. As recounted in the June 16, 1949 issue of The Villager, “Skits Poke Fun At Tenants, Officials”: “Representatives of press and radio were honored guests Monday night, June 6, at a rollicking party in the studios of Beatrice Worthington and Ines Carillo, Washington Sq. S… The highlight of the evening was ‘a one shot, first and last showing’ of three skits entitled ‘The Follies of Washington Sq.'” The skits were written by Harold M. Fleming and produced by other soon-to-be-displaced tenants. Auerbach-Levy provided on-the-spot caricatures of people in the audience.
Despite the efforts of Auerbach-Levy and his neighbors, NYU won out. But Russell D. Niles, Dean of the law school, offered to help the artists locate other places to live and work. With help from NYU, Auerbach-Levy moved to 28 East Ninth Street in late 1949 or early 1950. Auerbach-Levy was also asked by NYU to do a caricature of Niles, which he provided. In addition, the university purchased a caricature of the United States Supreme Court and hung it in the Law Center’s student lounge. Auerbach-Levy even attended the dedication of Arthur T. Vanderbilt Hall, New York University Law Center in September 1951 and remarked to the New York Times that NYU had done “a magnificent job“.
Upon Auerbach-Levy’s death in 1964, the artist’s estate bequeathed 3,326 drawings to the Museum. We’ve recently digitized the work and have cataloged and uploaded about half of these so far to the Museum’s Collections Portal. Click here to view the finding aid for the collection, and here to see more Auerbach-Levy artwork online.