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Lives Of A Diner

Alone in his L.A. office, Douglas Steinberg began eavesdropping on the elusive patrons of Edward Hopper's `Nighthawks.' More than 20 years later, he tells us what he heard.

September 03, 2006|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

NOT quite 65 years ago in Greenwich Village, a famous and famously melancholy artist named Edward Hopper came upon an idea for a painting -- a diner scene of lonely souls under harsh light.

Nearly twenty-two years ago, in an apartment on Cardiff Avenue in West Los Angeles, aspiring young writer Douglas Steinberg was broke and celebrating his birthday. His wife gave him a poster of Hopper's oil painting. He put it on the wall above his desk and went back to pitching television scripts for "Moonlighting" and "Cagney & Lacey."

And then, as Steinberg recalled in a recent conversation, the characters in his poster "started whispering to each other."

Steinberg started typing. Four months later he had a plot -- not a skit, not a parody, but a two-act, 100-page play. Now, after more than 20 years on the shelf, Steinberg's "Nighthawks" is getting its premiere -- it opens Wednesday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City -- and one of America's most-seen artworks is getting yet another round of inspection, now from a new angle.

When he started writing, "I didn't realize that I was messing with an American icon. I just went after it emotionally," Steinberg said, seated amid the weathered counters and battered barstools of the Farmers Market on Fairfax.

As he is quick to admit, Steinberg is far from the first to imagine what might be up among the four figures in Hopper's "Nighthawks." Nor is he the only writer to use the image as a jumping-off point. In fact, one wonder of "Nighthawks" is just how many other acts of imagination have been built upon it.

It is the most-reproduced image in the vast collection of the Art Institute of Chicago and one of the most appropriated American artworks. Across America and beyond, untold millions have seen some version of that image, often without knowing the work's name.

In "Staying up Much Too Late: Edward Hopper's 'Nighthawks' and the Dark Side of the American Psyche," published in June, author Gordon Theisen argues that the work is the foremost expression of pessimism in all American art. The picture, Theisen writes, is "a window onto an America that never became what America might have been."

"There's something deeply sad about it," Steinberg said.

Yet for many a writer, artist and filmmaker, there's also something irresistible.

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Painting's provenance

HOPPER started painting "Nighthawks" in December 1941, just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, in a flurry of work that could be called optimistic or merely self-absorbed. He finished it several weeks later, including no references to the war. He based the diner on a real restaurant (since leveled) along Greenwich Avenue near his studio.

His notes show he intended the counter attendant to be a "very good-looking blond boy." As was his habit, Hopper used his wife, Josephine, as a model for the woman in the picture, and he used himself as a model for the man at her side.

By that time in his career, Hopper was nearly 60 and a star among artists. He had already had a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and sold "Early Sunday Morning," his other signature work, to the Whitney Museum of American Art. In November 1941, the month before he began "Nighthawks," the tall, circumspect Hopper sat for a portrait by renowned photographer Arnold Newman, looking glum as usual.

Biographer Gail Levin has written that Hopper and Josephine had frequent and sometimes violent fights, and other artists often found him morose. Even when his subjects are bathed in light, his paintings carry an air of melancholy. But they also resonate.

"Nighthawks" landed in the Art Institute of Chicago's collection in 1942. In December 1956, Hopper made the cover of Time magazine. By the time of his death in 1967, he was counted among the country's foremost artists, and the afterlife of "Nighthawks" was just beginning.

At the Art Institute of Chicago, spokeswoman Erin Hogan said she gets requests to reproduce the image just about every day. By that measure, "Nighthawks" is more popular than such masterworks there as Grant Wood's "American Gothic" and Georges Seurat's "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte -- 1884." (The Seurat work, however, made it to the stage well before Hopper, as the starting point for Stephen Sondheim's 1984 musical, "Sunday in the Park with George.") And its reach may extend even further than that.

In his 1997 history of American art, "American Visions," critic Robert Hughes writes that Hopper's paintings "have become part of the very grain and texture of the American experience." Beyond the many homages and parodies the painting has provoked on paper and on canvas, he sees Hopper's influence radiating even further -- in the "Addams Family's" cartoon house, for instance, and the lonely cinematic home of Hitchcock's "Psycho."

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