That Old Feeling: The Fun in Al Hirschfeld

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Even when he tried to pour scorn in a sketch, the malice didn't always take. He drew the Broadway entrepreneur David Merrick, a particular bete noire, as a malevolent Santa Claus, complete with bell, book and candle. Merrick's reaction: he bought the drawing and used it as his Christmas card. Seen today, that sketch has an eerie resemblance to a certain artist's early self-portraits — for this Merrick looks like the younger, saturnine Al Hirschfeld.

Actors knew that a Hirschfeld sketch granted them immortality — at least for a week. So it was rare, maybe one occasion in a thousand, when a subject would take issue with the artist's elaboration. Allen Funt, the creator and host of "Candid Camera," complained that he was made to look like an ape (orangutan or baboon?) in a Hirschfeld drawing. Al's response: "I had nothing to do with that. That was God's work."


Albert Hirschfeld was born in St. Louis, youngest of three brothers; one older sibling was also named Al (Alexander — their parents had a sense of humor too), the other Milton (he died in the influenza epidemic of 1919). Mom worked, Dad stayed home and minded the kids. In 1915, the family moved to New York City, perhaps to get the budding draftsman-craftsman Al(bert) into an artistic milieu. He went to a few art schools and found remuneration in advertising departments of local movie companies. He worked for Samuel Goldwyn and Lewis Selznick (David O.'s father), becoming art director of Selznick at 19.

Young Al still had high-art ideals, and with an uncle's largesse ($500, which for the mid-20s was very large indeed), he sailed for a year in Europe. With two other budding painters he rented a Paris flat; his part of the tab was $33 — a year. One day, after seeing a show with Sacha Guitry and Yvonne Printemps, Al scrawled a sketch of Guitry on a menu. A friend told him the sketch might be publishable if on white paper it were redrawn. In a trice, Hirschfeld produced a clean version. In a fource, the Herald Tribune printed it. At 23, Hirschfeld was a theatrical caricaturist.

Like many intellectuals of the day, Hirschfeld flirted with Communism, visiting the Soviet Union in 1927 and contributing dank, poignant lithographs to The New Masses in the 30s. But fate decreed that Lenin and Bulganin, as worthy as they were of caricature, would not be Hirschfeld's prime subjects. He would spend the rest of his career attending Broadway first nights, not Stalin inaugurals. He stayed out of politics; otherwise he might be drawing Jenin and Jerusalem today.


Hirschfeld's first wife, Florence Hobby, was a showgirl from "Earl Carroll's Vanities" whose stage name was Flo Allen. But his true love was his second wife, Dolly Haas. Dorothy Louise Clara Haas was born, in 1910, in Hamburg to a German mother and an English bookseller father. As a teenager she appeared in "The Mikado," "The Merry Widow," Wedekind's "Franziska" and a Max Reinhardt spectacle. In theater or cabaret, the redheaded "flapper" was a beguiling presence. By the age of 20 Haas was starring in an Ufa movie with her own name in the title ("Dolly Gets Ahead"). From 1930 to '35 she played the worldly waif, the child-woman, in about 18 German films, many for writers (Billy Wilder, Curt Siodmak) and directors (William Dieterle, Anatole Litvak, William Thiele, Steve Sekely, Henry Koster) who would fashion second careers in Hollywood.

Dolly's destiny took a different turn. In an English remake of "Broken Blossoms," directed by her first husband John Brahm, she played the Lillian Gish role; then she was offered a three-year Hollywood contract by Myron Selznick (whose father had hired the teenage Hirschfeld). But she made no films in California. She came to New York, appearing in plays by the German émigré Erwin Piscator. It was there she met, and in 1943 married, the man referred to in the Google translation of a German-language Dolly Haas website as "the well-known caricaturist aluminum deer field."

Dolly and Aluminum made a glamorous, loving couple. She continued to act, notably in a "Crime and Punishment" with Gish and John Gielgud, and the wife of the villain in Alfred Hitchcock's "I Confess." But her main role would be as Hirschfeld's muse and playmate, his elfin inamorata, the one editor to whom he paid devoted attention. The two would be inseparable until her death 51 years later.


The fun in a Hirschfeld sketch increased after 1945, when Dolly gave birth to their daughter Nina. Hirschfeld began hiding her name within his portraits of famous men and women — in a Gwyneth Paltrow gown, in a Groucho jacket fold. (Good thing they hadn't named the child Hildegarde.) Eventually he placed a numeral next to his signature — e.g., "Hirschfeld 5" — to indicate how often the Ninas appeared. Forty years before Martin Handford was playing "Where's Waldo?", Spotting the Ninas was the niftiest Sunday parlor game. I recall the little thrill I felt on first hearing of the ruse, back in college in the 60s, from our Music Appreciation teacher, who was also a staff member of the Times radio station WQXR. I felt as if I'd been elected to a secret society.

The Nina Name Hunt soon became an in-joke millions shared. The New Yorker ran a cartoon with a husband asking his wife, "When did you start putting ?Nina's in your hair?" The singer Will Ryan composed his own anthem: "Nina, Nina, me, myself and I, oh how you stick wit' us! / Nina, Nina, can't you tell us why you're so ubiquitous? / It is likely you have friends in lofty places, / For I find your name adorning famous faces." The more Ninas hidden, the longer the lovely task took. A few nights ago, my wife was paging through the handsome collection "Hirschfeld's Hollywood." Suddenly her shoulders sagged. An unusually dense fresco of Broadway first-nighters bore the notation "Hirschfeld 1958." It turned out to be the year, not the number of Ninas.

The craze had its sour side. It may have deflected Al's daughter from a career in the theater (could she ever live up to her name being publicized weekly in the Times?). And because the search for Ninas occasionally got more attention than the drawing than concealed them, some Hirschfeldians argue that it reduced his standing from an artist to a puzzle-constructor. But he couldn't stop and, as a giver of pleasure, he wouldn't want to. Those ten strokes simply added to the density, as well as the delight, of a Hirschfeld drawing. They also answered the question, "What's in 1 name?" with the more complex question, "What's a name in?"

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