Drawing Inspiration

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Hazel Croner has rarely passed a day in her long life without a pen or pencil or brush in her hand, sketching the people around her, the places they live and work, the things they do and the clothes they wear.

She's been a fashion illustrator whose work appeared in Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Town & Country, Glamour and "a load of other magazines." She's been a courtroom artist for television and newspapers and an on-the-spot portrait painter on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J., and Rehoboth Beach, Del.

She says reluctantly she's "the big 9-0." But she doesn't show many signs of slowing down. She sketches her fellow residents at the Atrium Village, in Owings Mills, and the performers who come to entertain them. And she just won a prize from the Baltimore County Commission for the Aging for her watercolor of an art class at the Waxter Center.

"Never thought of stopping. Never will, if I can help it," she says. "I sketch in pen and ink. I take my Rapidograph pens with me wherever I go."

She's delightful during a conversation in her room. She's a buoyant talker, brisk, vivid and not without a sharp edge when she remarks on something she dislikes. She wears a slightly retro sports outfit, white shorts, a white top, white socks and white deck shoes with a pink-striped shirt she wears as a jacket. Her room is full of her work, pen and ink sketches, watercolor portraits and landscapes, tear sheets from the magazines that published her fashion illustrations.

"I was drawing from the time I was 3 years old, that I know of," she says. She grew up in Forest Park. Her father bottled "Bud," a soda, not the beer. And the young Hazel was more than a little precocious.

"When I was 10 years old," she recalls, "I yelled at my mother: 'I wanna go to the Maryland Institute, I wanna go to the Maryland Institute.' She says, 'All right. We'll get around to it. We'll send you there.' 'No I want to go right now.'"

Her mother enrolled her in an after-school and Saturday course at the Institute.

"In elementary school, we did soap sculpture. So she takes my soap sculpture and me, shows them my soap sculpture, which I wasn't interested in. The woman there says, 'OK we'll put her in sculpture.' I said, 'No! I don't want to. I don't want to.'

"I knew exactly what I wanted," she says. "Fashion!"

So they put her in fashion illustration.

"So much for the soap sculpture. I used it in the bathtub, and then it went down the drain."

She did ultimately graduate from the Institute in 1935. She free-lanced for a couple of years, then headed for New York.

"My mother and father were dead-, absolutely dead-set against it," she says. "I went against their wishes. I didn't know anybody there. I was always independent."

She still is.

'Fate stepped in'

Croner landed a job at a small, not very interesting, ad agency. She was about to move to a good fashion job at the Arnold Constable store in New York "when fate stepped in."

She had hidden behind a post to get past the "stone-cold, [stand-]offish secretary" and breezed back into the art director's office. He looked at her portfolio and gave her a double-truck fashion layout to do in a couple days.

"I worked at home in my room feverishly for two days," she says. When she finished, she packed her work, went to breakfast and her portfolio was stolen. She retreated to Baltimore chagrined.

And even though the Great Depression made jobs hard to get, she had no trouble because of her "New York experience." She landed a fashion illustration job at Schleisner's, at Howard and Saratoga streets. She also got married to Milton Croner, a salesman. He died in 1982. They had a son, Charles, and she has four grandchildren.

Schleisner's was perhaps Baltimore's most prestigious high-fashion shop.

"A very glamorous store," she says. "I got to do wonderful art work there. I treated it like it was a fine art, rather than commercial. I had my own model, and they sent me up to all the designer houses in New York."

She stayed 16 years.

"Fashion art, it's a dead art now," she says. "Dead. The computer and photographs have taken its place. It's no longer a living thing."

What does she think about that?

"I think I must have gotten out at the right time," she says. "It's no longer interesting. I think it's very sad. It was something good to see in the paper. Now it's very humdrum - and practical, I guess. It cost the stores money to do the kind of thing I had to do."

Hutzler's department store recruited her when Schleisner's went out of business around 1959. She became the head fashion illustrator. Hutzler's also sent her to all the New York shows: Bill Blass, Geoffrey Beene, Oscar de la Renta.

"I met Oscar himself," she says. "He had a gorgeous showroom. They all had nice showrooms. But his was particularly glamorous. Had a bar soon as you came in, a great big, open bar. And behind it, was this green satin, tufted kind of stuff on the wall. His clothes were very glamorous."

Although the designers wanted her to use their models, she took her own.

"I was very picky, and I didn't want those professional models doing their canned stuff," she says. But she didn't particularly look for pretty models either.

"One of my favorite models was kind of unattractive-looking. But it didn't make any difference, the face," she says. "I looked for a certain fluidity to the body, the way the clothes hung on them. They either had it, or they didn't and they didn't know they had it until I told them.

"Sometimes the modeling agency here would send up a model for me to look at, and she'd go into her pose. I'd say, 'Don't do that, don't point your toe like that. Just be natural.' One got real mad. She went back to her studio: 'I wouldn't work for that woman. She's telling me how to model.'"

Hutzler's took full-page ads in all the high-fashion magazines. And her illustrations usually had a little vignette of Baltimore in the background animating the drawing. Her lunch-hour sketches of the Inner Harbor, a street a-rab wagon, scenes from the point-to-point races, Charles Center, the view of Howard street from her fifth floor window at Hutzler's - all turned up in the slick haute couture magazines.

Other jobs

She did all sorts of other jobs while she worked at Hutzler's - from sketches for the op-ed page of The Sun to drawings of houses and churches and to drawings for sports magazines. She drew Secretariat poking his nose out of his stall before the 1973 Preakness.

She eventually took "early" retirement just before Hutzler's closed its doors forever in 1989. But she hardly retired. She was only 75. She spent most of the next seven years doing courtroom drawings for television.

"I remember one [trial] where my life was threatened," she says. "This murderer, as he walked by with his family, in handcuffs as they took him away, he looked over at me and he says, 'If that appears on television, we're going to kill you.'"

She doesn't remember his name.

"Oh, no," she says. "There were so many murderers, yeah. Obviously I wasn't [murdered]."

And until a few years ago, she took off a couple months every summer to do on-the-spot portraits at the sea shore. She's probably done a thousand at Fassnacht's Funland on the boardwalk in Rehoboth. But she started on the long-gone Million Dollar Pier in Atlantic City. She was on vacation with her husband and son.

"I see this guy sitting at an easel doing portraits, and I get to talking with him," she says. ""Yeah, I'm an artist and I do portraits of my family and friends.'"

He sat her down to sketch a kid. When she was finished, he said: "Go to work for me."

"He told me he was Louie of Louie's Artist Village."

He sent her to work on the Steel Pier.

"I was on Cloud Nine, I was so excited. From then on, I didn't see my family."

Her only real competition was from the diving horse.

"You didn't have any customers when they were down there watching that."

She worked for Louie until she got tired of him making most of the money from her sketches. She moved to Rehoboth. She got very good at making those quick summertime portraits and always got a good likeness and loved doing it.

"Absolutely," she says. "I was drawing and making money. What's not to like?"

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