Sometimes the subject of a biography can seduce its author so utterly that history gives way to mythology. This seems a particular danger when the individual whose life is being recorded is still alive, helping the biographer by supplying details, "facts," charming the author with amusing anecdotes, and, subtly but inevitably, obscuring the line between subjectivity and objectivity. Finally, a book results, but it is not a biography. Rather, in the poet's lovely phrase, it is a mixture of "memory and desire."
It is easy to see how Joseph Hirshhorn's life and personality could have distracted Barry Hyams from his work as a biographer. In a sense, Hirshhorn made it too easy for the author. The story of the self-made millionaire and art collector extraordinaire is so filled with anecdotes, so cluttered with statistics-dollars earned, paintings purchased, mines discovered, houses owned-that a simple stringing together of the events of Hirshhorn's life creates the illusion of biography.
Charm and an almost infallible instinct for making money helped Joe Hirshhorn survive a difficult childhood. Born in 1900 in Latvia, the 12th of 13 children, Hirshhorn experienced poverty and anti-Semitism at an early age. His father died when Hirshhorn was only a year old, and about the same time, a wave of pogroms was spreading over the Baltic states and Russia. By 1907, the entire family had made the journey to America and settled in Brooklyn. Finances continued to be troublesome for the Hirshhorns, but in a short time the United States fulfilled its promise for the young man.
The speed with which Hirshhorn's career developed, the array of jobs which brought him his first million dollars before the age of 20, is dizzying. Hirshhorn began his career as a newsboy, but soon moved to a job in a jewelry shop. At 15, he quit both the jewelry store and school to find a job on Wall Street. By the age of 17, still in short pants, Hirshhorn was a trader on the Club Market. By 1929, he had become a millionaire several times over, and he sold his stocks in time to save his fortune from the Crash.
In the Depression years, it would have been easy for Hirshhorn to just live on the millions he had accumulated. Instead, eager to find new sources of money, he went to Canada where, after studying a little geology and mining, and using his well-honed knowledged of the stock market, Hirshhorn made another fortune in silver, gold, zinc, iron, and uranium mines and in oil and natural gas.
There is something wondrous about the naturalness with which Hirshhorn made his fortunes, and Hyams is generous with anecdotes that highlight Hirshhorn's talent and drive. For example, on vacation in Miami Beach-undertaken at doctor's orders-Hirshhorn relaxed and "played at investing," turning a quick and easy $77,500 profit on a piece of real estate. As Hyams notes, "It braced him more than sea air and sunshine."
Hyams' presentation of Hirshhorn's financial dealings proves to be more interesting than his discussion of Hirshhorn's involvement in the art world, covered in the second half of the book. Perhaps this is because so much of this material has appeared in magazines and newspapers over the last decade, and Hyams rarely strays from information readily available in previously published sources. Once again Hirshhorn is depicted as the bargain-hunter collector. Endless times he is quoted as saying some variation on this basic theme: "Why don't you throw this one in for the same price?"
Hyams portrays the Hirshhorn readers have become familiar with in the press, the tough little rich Jew with a soft spot in his heart for art, a man who is all confidence, instinct, and energy. Obviously, this is the persona that Hirshhorn wants the public to know, and whether by reflex or by calculation he has persuaded his biographer that that is all there is to know. This is not to say the book is not enjoyable, in much the same way that People magazine is fun to read, but what a disservice this portrait is to the reader and to Hirshhorn himself.
All the unhappy episodes in Hirshhorn's life-the breakup of three of his four marriages, a bout of amnesia that led to five years of psychoanalysis, the questioning of some of his financial dealings by Canadian authorities-are mentioned only in passing, almost invisible among the dollars earned, the lists of art collected. And so many questions are never engaged: Why has Hirshhorn not achieved the kind of acceptance in the art world that other important collectors have enjoyed? Does Hirshhorn really have as many paintings and sculpture in his personal collection as he gave to the nation? And what of the times and places in which Hirshhorn lived-what were the days of the Curb Market like? How did New York, Connecticut, and Toronto society regard Hirshhorn, and he them? What were Hirshhorn's wives, children, friends, like?
Without answering these and so many more questions about the man, it is impossible to create a portrait that has texture and resonance. Rather than flattering Hirshhorn - as, I suspect, the author intended - this book trivializes its subject. Hirshhorn is probably a greater man, and certainly a more complex and interesting personality than he or his biographer will let us see.