Margo Feiden, Hirschfeld's idiosyncratic gallerist, dies at 77

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Margo Feiden, Hirschfeld's idiosyncratic gallerist, dies at 77
From left, the gallerist Margo Feiden, the caricaturist Al Hirschfeld and the actress Anne Jackson at a party to celebrate Hirschfield’s birthday at Feiden’s gallery in Manhattan on June 20, 1988. Feiden, best known for the more than 30 years she spent representing Hirschfeld, died on April 2, 2022 in New York, She was 77. (Vic DeLucia/The New York Times)

by Neil Genzlinger and Alex Traub

NEW YORK, NY.- The scene on a recent Friday at a Greenwich Village townhouse was like a cross between an art opening and a rummage sale.

On the sidewalk, a barker urged passersby to take a look. Inside the townhouse, a five-story mansion on East Ninth Street on the market for nearly $11 million, the wares included signed prints by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld — elegant line drawings of Frank Sinatra, Jerry Seinfeld and dozens of others selling for thousands of dollars — as well as a plastic tub of electrical wiring, a heated massage cushion, a pair of 1998-edition Happy Holidays Barbies, and boxes of worn hats and purses.

Overseeing it all, somewhat reluctantly, was Jeremy Rosen, who for weeks has been trying to dispose of what his mother, who died in April in Manhattan, left behind.

She was Margo Feiden, a gallerist best known for the more than 30 years she spent representing Hirschfeld, the artist famous for his sketches of Broadway luminaries and other stars. Rosen described himself as “proudly estranged” from his mother, but it had fallen to him to sort through the abundant mix of junk and valuable art she left behind at the townhouse, which was both her home and the latest location of the Margo Feiden Galleries, which she founded in 1969. He said he would continue the estate sale for several weeks.

Feiden died on April 2 at age 77. A report by the city health department listed an array of causes, including cardiopulmonary arrest, pneumonia, urinary tract infection and “failure to thrive.” Though her family placed a paid announcement of her death in The New York Times that month, her passing had gone otherwise unnoted until a Times reader called the estate sale to the newspaper’s attention.

Feiden occasionally showed other artists at her gallery, including theater illustrator Don Freeman and writer Kurt Vonnegut, who dabbled in drawing.

Hirschfeld, though, was her main client.

As Feiden told the story to The New York Times in 2000, she met him in 1970, a year after she opened her gallery, when he came in to browse and noticed a photograph of her with an airplane. She told him that she had a pilot’s license and that flying was her hobby. His response, she said, was “Any woman who can fly an airplane can sell my art.”

Her gallery started out on East 10th Street, later had an Upper East Side location on Madison Avenue and ended up back in the Village, on East Ninth Street. There were always Hirschfelds on the walls, but Feiden also mounted special exhibitions over the years.

For the opening night of a Hirschfeld retrospective in 1985, she had East 10th Street strung with pennants and balloons and positioned vendors on the sidewalk to hand out hot dogs, cotton candy and popcorn. An estimated 1,000 people showed up. A Times reporter covering the evening recorded this exchange.

Hirschfeld: “I want you to know I had nothing to do with this. She said she was having an exhibition. I didn’t know there was going to be a carnival.”

Feiden: “I didn’t tell him. I was afraid he wouldn’t have come.”

Hirschfeld: “She’s quite right.”

For three days in 1991, the Madison Avenue location was declared an official post office in honor of the release of stamps bearing Hirschfeld drawings. Three years later, to mark the 25th anniversary of the gallery, Feiden had a 40-foot caricature of Hirschfeld himself painted on the roadway. (Rain came before the sealing topcoat had set, and “he lost about 20 pounds,” she told the Times, though the painters returned to touch up the portrait.)

The Hirschfeld-Feiden relationship went through rough patches, especially in 2000, when Hirschfeld brought suit against Feiden, seeking more control over the sale and exhibition of his drawings and asking for more rigorous accounting of sales.

Later that year Hirschfeld withdrew the suit after reaching a new agreement with Feiden. Hirschfeld died in 2003, and 13 years later there was more acrimony: The Hirschfeld Foundation, which mounts exhibitions of his work and supports arts causes, sued Feiden, claiming that she had violated the 2000 agreement in numerous ways.

The case dragged on for years, with the court siding with the foundation in a series of rulings and awarding several hundred thousand dollars in damages. In 2020, the foundation said in an announcement on its website that it had “regained complete control of all of Al Hirschfeld’s work,” and that its relationship with Feiden was “100% terminated.”

But Hirschfeld was only one element of Feiden’s life.

Margo Feiden was born on Dec. 2, 1944, in Brooklyn and grew up in the Flatbush section. Her father, Joseph, was an electrical contractor. Her mother, Jewel (Eliasberg) Feiden, had early aspirations to be an actress before, her daughter once said, becoming a stockbroker later in life.

Feiden had an early interest in theater. She is said to have produced a production of the musical “Peter Pan” with high school students when she was 16. The next year she staged her own play, “Out Brief Candle.”

Perhaps those early theatrical forays led to a brush with infamy that Feiden said she had in 1968, though she didn’t tell the story publicly until this century. She said that on June 3 of that year, a woman named Valerie Solanas turned up at her apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, insisting that Feiden produce a play she had written.

When Feiden declined, according to an account she gave to the Times in 2009, Solanas told her that she intended to shoot artist Andy Warhol, which would make her so famous that Feiden would certainly change her mind. Another version of the tale, this one in The New York Post in 2018, presented the exchange somewhat differently: Solanas bluntly told Feiden, in so many words, that if she didn’t agree to stage the play, she would shoot Warhol.

In any case, Feiden said that after displaying a gun, the woman left her apartment; later that day, she did indeed shoot Warhol, who was severely injured. Feiden said she had tried to warn police and others but was not taken seriously.

Feiden opened her gallery the next year. Some of the earliest attention she received was for her skill at restoring damaged works on paper. She had begun collecting lithographs and, seeing that many were showing wear, studied up on how to restore them.

In this period Feiden was also apparently making use of her pilot’s license. She told biographer Patricia Bosworth for her 1984 book about photographer Diane Arbus that she used to take Arbus on joy rides over Manhattan, flying out of an airstrip on Long Island.

“Diane never spoke during these flights,” Feiden said. “She seemed mesmerized by the experience and relieved to be off the ground.”

Feiden’s unusual résumé added another entry in 1989 when she published “The Calorie Factor,” a book she had been researching for a decade, prompted by her own struggle to control her weight. At one point, she said, she hit 300 pounds, but by learning to count calories she shed half of that weight. The book — dozens of copies of which surrounded the entryway to her home during the estate sale — was an extremely detailed listing of how many calories were in which foods.

Feiden’s marriages to David Rosen and Stanley Goldmark ended in divorce. Her third husband, Julius Cohen, died in 1995. She is survived by a daughter, Bambi Goldmark, and Rosen.

Rosen lives in Austin, Texas, and before this year he had not spent much time at his mother’s townhouse. When he came to New York to see his mother in January, he found her home in a state of “squalor,” he said. “By anybody’s definition of ‘hoarder,’ she fit it,” he added.

He was speaking on the street outside his mother’s home. Twice, a garbage truck drove by, and he ran off to hurl a plastic bag of junk into it.

At the same time, Oscar Fuentes, a handyman who acted as Feiden’s caretaker at the end of her life, called out to anyone he saw on the street, trying to sound as inviting as possible.

“Welcome to our estate sale,” he said. “It’s movies and Broadway history.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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