Thursday, January 26, 2006

Gerard Hoffnung: A Biographical Sketch

Copyright (c) 2006 by Joel Marks

Originally published in The Hoffnung Festschrift, edited by Joel Marks and David E.E. Sloane (Essays in Arts and Sciences, Vol. XXI, October 1992).1

Gerard Hoffnung was born at a very early age (as he was wont to say). Unfortunately he also died at one, of brain hemorrhage at age 34. In that short span (March 22, 1925 September 28, 1959) he was able to cultivate an extraordinary range of comedic talents as cartoonist, raconteur, impresario. Above all he was a personality an amazing blend of sophistication and innocence, a fount of gentle but exquisite humor, a man of boundless good cheer, a Santa Claus, a rather large pixie, a creation virtually indistinguishable from his caricatures of himself.

Hoffnung a quintessentially British humorist was born a German Jew, and consequently his early upbringing occurred under some of the least humorous circumstances the world has known. He was enrolled at a little day school for "undesirable" (i.e., "non Aryan") children located next to Himmler's residence! But even at this time Hoffnung was Hoffnung (and how better to underscore the title of one of his records: "The Importance of Being Hoffnung"?): "his face like a firm apple, rich blond hair, blue eyes: a little angel from a distance! If one looked closer, a most un angelic bonfire of mischief sparkled in those eyes."2 Already he was drawing caricatures,3 playing every musical instrument he could get his hands on (especially percussion), and in general making himself the antic center of attention.

An only child with a loving mother in a well to do family, the young Hoffnung was certainly to some degree insulated from the horrors going on around him. He was exposed to high culture at an early age, already a fan of opera and Stravinsky before his teens. He lived in his own world a world that did contain elements of the macabre (as evidenced by some of his earliest childhood drawings). But it is likely that this interest had more to do with the films he loved and his natural attraction to the hyperbolic, the outlandish, the grotesque than anything in the world of politics.4

(It should be noted that the mature Hoffnung was far from indifferent to social issues. His outlook on race relations, homosexuality, nuclear disarmament, the treatment of animals [especially hunting] and, for that matter, the music of Bartok and Schönberg is liberal and impassioned. Joining the Society of Friends in 1955, he became active in their prison visitation program.)

His family left Germany in 1938, when Gerard was 13, and he was enrolled at Highgate School the following year.5 Gerard was the usual cutup, chafing at the rules. Three years later he finally persuaded his mother to let him go to art school, but even here he wanted his own way too much for school authorities: He was expelled from Hornsey Art College. Ineligible for military service because of his German birth, he found work cleaning milk bottles at a dairy until being hired to teach art at Stamford School in 1945 at the age of 20.

But his accelerated life did not leave him teaching for long. His first published drawing had appeared in Lilliput when he was only 15. By age 22 he was a regular in many periodicals and could at last devote himself fully to cartooning...and just being Hoffnung; the Hoffnung persona itself soon came to the fore.6 A talk entitled "Fungi on Toast" was accepted by the BBC in 1950. Soon Hoffnung was appearing on the Sunday afternoon radio show "One Minute Please." In this way he became a national personality.

During the decade of the '50s Hoffnung made his mark. He was a frequent guest on radio and the new television and his work continued to appear in many publications, including Punch, the Daily Express, and the London Evening News. 1952 saw the first of several "comic oratory performances" at Cambridge Union and Oxford Union and also his first book of cartoons, The Right Playmate. In 1953 came The Maestro, the first of six cartoon books on musical subjects. And in 1956 and 1958 Hoffnung achieved his clowning glory two comedy musical festivals at the Royal Festival Hall in London, featuring such works as "Concerto for Hosepipe and Strings" and "Let's Fake an Opera" and involving such legitimate musical luminaries as Malcolm Arnold, Dennis Braine, and Aaron Copland.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the decade of the '50s was also the period of Hoffnung's courting and marrying (in 1952) Annetta Bennett. They appear to have enjoyed a close and productive relationship. In fact, fully half of the Hoffnung bibliography is posthumous, having been brought to fruition by his widow with the same meticulous care one would have expected of Hoffnung himself. Mrs. Hoffnung has also overseen the production of over 100 Hoffnung Music Festivals worldwide, in which both she and their children sometimes participate.7


1. The scholarly Hoffnung Festschrift in which this biographical sketch first appeared, edited by Joel Marks and David E.E. Sloane, is still available; for information about where it can be purchased, please contact Marks at Other excerpts from the Festschrift can be found by clicking here. An expanded version of the sketch was published in the Encyclopedia of British Humorists, edited by Steven H. Gale (Garland Publishing Company, 1996). See also Annetta Hoffnung's magnificent biography, Gerard Hoffnung (Gordon Fraser, 1988). Hoffnung's cartoon and musical oeuvre can be purchased through the Hoffnung Website.

2. Reminiscence of a teacher, from O Rare Hoffnung (Putnam & Co., 1960), p. 99.

3. Over a thousand of his early drawings (beginning in his sixth year) are extant, and have served as the subject of a scholarly study by Dr. S. M. Paine of London University's Institute of Education.

4. Just before he died Hoffnung was planning a Festival of Horror at the National Film Theatre. His drawing for the Festival program's cover shows a vampire drinking a glass of blood through a straw.

5. Hilde took her son Gerard to England for the educational opportunities; Hoffnung's father, Ludwig, went to Palestine to seek his fortune in the family banking business. The war made the separation inadvertently permanent.

6. A curious aspect of this persona is Hoffnung's apparent age. A neighbor notes that in 1945, when Hoffnung was only 20, "He seemed an old man" (ibid., p. 148). Mrs. Hoffnung remarks in her biography of Hoffnung, "I do not know why Gerard's appearance should have been at such variance with his age" (p. 45). On recordings he sounds like a man in his sixties. The misconception persists: In a review of a posthumous Hoffnung Festival Concert in Canada in 1986, Mrs. Hoffnung is referred to as "Hoffnung's daughter, Annetta."

7. Alas, the final Hoffnung concert was slated for 31 December, 2005, in Lausanne.