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Al Hirschfeld: An Appreciation

Michael Buckley looks back at the remarkable career of The Line King. logo
Self Portrait at 99
They say that Al Hirschfeld -- the brilliant caricaturist whose myriad line drawings depicted the major personalities of Broadway throughout most of the 20th century -- died in his sleep at age 99 on January 20, but that doesn't mean everyone has to believe it. There are still Ninas waiting to be found.

Hirschfeld's drawings, Jules Feiffer once noted, "are to caricature what Fred Astaire was to dance." In the introduction to one of his books, Hirschfeld by Hirschfeld, "The Line King" is described as "a Fred Astaire of pen and ink." Both Hirschfeld and Astaire worked with lines in motion -- one with a magical sleight of hand, the other executing fanciful, fleet footwork -- to mix elegance with enjoyment and art.

From December 1926, when he sketched Sacha Guitry in Mozart at the 46th Street Theater, to December 2002, when he drew the star of Tommy Tune: White Tie and Tails at the Little Shubert, Hirschfeld visually expressed his love of the theater and its inhabitants -- and he was, in turn, beloved. He never stopped working, although he claimed, "It's not work. Work is something you don't like to do." For an actor to be the subject of a Hirschfeld drawing was as important as having his or her name in lights; Ray Bolger once told the caricaturist that he had tried for years to imitate Hirschfeld's drawings of him.

In 1945, on the day his daughter, Nina, was born, Hirschfeld had attended a matinee in Philadelphia of an incoming musical, Are You With It? Back in Manhattan at Doctors Hospital for the birth, he decided to insert the child's name in his caricature of the musical that would appear in The New York Times. Since the show had a circus background, he incorporated a poster that depicted an infant reading a book, with the words "Nina the Wonder Child." Thereafter, the proud papa began concealing Nina's name in various places within his caricatures and people took delight in finding it. Years later, at his daughter's request, Hirschfeld hid the name Liza -- a friend of hers -- in a drawing, and the Hirschfelds received flowers and telegrams of congratulations on their new arrival.

In April 1960, the Times publisher asked Hirschfeld to add a numeral beside his signature in order for readers to know how many times the name Nina appeared. The highest numbers are said to appear in drawings of Whoopi Goldberg (45) and Aaron Copeland (60).

One of Hirschfeld’s most famous drawings
was reproduced on the cover of
the original cast album of My Fair Lady
Though he seemed synonymous with New York, Albert Hirschfeld was born on June 21, 1903 in St. Louis. He was one of three sons whose mother ran a candy store. After showing young Albert's drawings to an art director, Mrs. Hirschfeld was advised to move to New York City, where there would be better opportunities for the youngster. At 17, Al got a job at $4 a week drawing advertisements for the Goldwyn Studios. Hired by Warner Brothers at $75 weekly, he went on to become an art director for Selznick Pictures at the age of 18.

His original ambition was to be a sculptor. In 1924, Hirschfeld moved to Paris to pursue a career as a painter. While in France, he grew a beard and lost interest in painting but developed "an enduring love of line." From Paris, he ventured to Bali, where he spent a year.

Back in Manhattan, Hirschfeld attended the theater one evening accompanied by press agent Richard Maney, and he showed Maney the sketch of Sacha Guitry that he'd made during the show. The publicist had him copy it in ink and took it to the drama department of the Herald-Tribune, which published it. A week later, Hirschfeld received a request from The New York Times to do a caricature of Scottish vaudevillian Harry Lauder. So began an illustrious career.

Hirschfeld always worked free lance for the Times and retained the rights to his many drawings. He wrote that Liberace's representatives once requested that he send the original of a caricature he'd done of the pianist to the star. Hirschfeld quoted a price that he felt appropriate and Liberace's people wrote back to say that the star had many paintings hanging in his home which had been sent free of charge; Hirschfeld apologized for any misunderstanding and said that he'd be happy to send his original, without charge, to hang among Mr. Liberace's collection, provided that they, in turn, send Mr. Liberace to hang in his collection.

Seated in an early 20th-century barber's chair, Hirschfeld worked tirelessly in the studio of his East 95th Street townhouse. "I would feel more comfortable," he once declared, "being classified as a 'characterist,' if there were such a word or school." He said that he most enjoyed drawing dancers and, secondly, comedians.

Most everyone he drew enjoyed the benevolent likenesses with the exception of Allen Funt, creator of the TV show, Candid Camera. Hirschfeld was commissioned to do a series of drawings of CBS-TV stars and Funt objected to his caricature, saying that it made him look like an ape. Hirschfeld replied, "I had nothing to do with that. That was God's work."

The artist's first marriage, to Florence Hobby, ended in divorce. His second, to actress Dolly Haas, lasted 52 years and produced Nina.

Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly!
Following Haas' death, Hirschfeld married Louise Kerz, who survives him, as does Nina Hirschfeld West and her son, Matthew. Prior to his death, it had already been announced that on the date of Hirschfeld's centenary, June 21, the Martin Beck Theater will be renamed in his honor.

Walter Kerr once stated that Carol Channing "may be the only creature extant who can live up to a Hirschfeld," adding that "Hirschfeld always lives up to the people he draws, but the people he draws don't always live up to him -- don't explode in the same way, like new constellations doing tours jetes in the heavens." If no new Hirschfeld drawings will grace the pages of the Times, we can look to the heavens; true believers will be searching for Ninas among the stars.


[All of the Hirschfeld drawings reproduced in this article were used with special permission from the Margo Feiden Galleries, Ltd. To view a wide selection of Hirschfeld drawings, visit the website]

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