Just inside the doors of the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center, tucked under the stairs, are a desk and chair on which Al Hirschfeld created the caricatures that helped define Broadway theater for most of the 20th century.
From this drawing desk and barber’s chair, Hirschfeld drew the stars of the stage and screen for The New York Times and other publications. Just a few of his subjects were Liza Minnelli, Barbara Streisand, Whoopi Goldberg, Zero Mostel, Ethel Merman, Duke Ellington, and the Marx brothers.
To be caricatured by Hirschfeld (or “Hirschfelded,” as it came to be called) was an honor for Broadway personalities, up there with having a picture on the wall at Sardi’s Restaurant. To find all of the places he hid “Nina,” the name of his daughter, in his drawings was a Sunday Times tradition to rival the crossword puzzle.
Hirschfeld studied art in Paris in his early twenties, but it was on a trip to Bali, where the glare of the sun obscured the forms of the people around him, that it first occurred to him that depicting people using only lines would be an interesting approach. In 1926, his work started appearing in The New York Herald Tribune. The The New York Times came later, after a Broadway press agent saw a doodle he’d made on his program at a show they were attending and asked for a publishable reproduction on a clean sheet of paper.
In 1945, after the birth of his daughter, he started hiding “Ninas” among the lines of his drawings, often weaving them into the hair or clothes of the person he was depicting so that they blended seamlessly. Most were easy to spot, but some were so tough that spotting them was used as training at the Pentagon and in the military. After complaints from readers, he started including the number of “Ninas” in his drawings with his signature in the corner, so people could tell if whether or not they had found them all.
In addition to the Times and the Tribune, Hirschfeld’s work was displayed in museums in New York City and his hometown, St. Louis, Missouri, and it was published in books. One of his self-portraits was turned into a light display for the marquee of the Broadway theater on 45th Street, just off 8th Avenue, when it took his name in 2003. The Al Hirschfeld Theatre had opened as the Martin Beck Theatre two years before Hirschfeld’s career was launched. He died five months before the name change became official on what would have been his 100th birthday.
The drawing desk would not be complete without one of his caricatures, of course (which were never malicious). Currently, the desk displays Hirschfeld’s drawing of Loni Ackerman in Evita, though it periodically changes. The display also includes a blown up photograph of Hirschfeld and one of his own self portraits, though which one is truer to life is something Hirschfeld’s fans might debate.
Visit New York State with Atlas Obscura Trips
Only in Queens: Tasting Our Way Through New York’s Most Diverse Borough
Manhattan may have name-brand recognition and Brooklyn a certain cache, but Queens is the city’s largest and most diverse borough. Join us, October 4-7, to dig into Queens’ rich neighborhood life.