Albert “Al” Hirschfeld (June 21, 1903 – January 20, 2003) was an American caricaturist best known for his black and white portraits of celebrities and Broadway stars.
In 1943, Hirschfeld married one of Europe’s most famous actresses, Dolly Haas. They were married for more than 50 years, and produced a daughter, Nina.
Hirschfeld is known for hiding Nina’s name in most of the drawings he produced after her birth. The name would appear in a sleeve, in a hairdo, or somewhere in the background. As Margo Feiden described it, Hirschfeld engaged in the “harmless insanity,” as he called it, of hiding her name [Nina] at least once in each of his drawings. The number of NINAs concealed is shown by an Arabic numeral to the right of his signature. Generally, if no number is to be found, either NINA appears once or the drawing was executed before she was born.
For the first few months after Nina was born, Hirschfeld intended the hidden NINAs to appeal to his circle of friends. But to Hirschfeld’s complete surprise, what he hadn’t realized, was that the population at large was beginning to spot them, too. When Hirschfeld thought the “gag” was wearing thin among his friends and stopped concealing NINAs in his drawings, Letters to the New York Times, ranging from “curious” to “furious” pressured Hirschfeld to begin hiding them again. Hirschfeld said it was easier to hide the NINAs than it was to answer all the mail. From time to time Hirschfeld lamented that the gimmick had overshadowed his art. Nina herself was reportedly ambivalent about all the attention the hidden NINAs it brought her.
In Hirschfeld’s book Show Business is No Business, his art dealer, Margo Feiden, recounts the following story to illustrate what Hirschfeld meant when he referred to the “NINA counting” a harmless insanity: “The NINA-counting mania was well illuminated when in 1973 an NYU student kept coming back to my Gallery to stare at the same drawing each day for more than a week. The drawing was Hirschfeld’s whimsical portrayal of New York’s Central Park. When curiosity finally got the best of me, I asked, “What is so riveting about that one drawing that keeps you here for hours, day after day?” She answered that she had found only 11 of 39 NINAs and would not give up until all were located. I replied that the “39” next to Hirschfeld’s signature was the year. Nina was born in 1945.”
In an interview with The Comics Journal, Hirschfeld confirmed the urban legend that the U.S. Army had used his drawings to train bomber pilots by assigning soldiers to spot the NINAs much as they would spot their targets. Hirschfeld told the magazine he found the idea repulsive, saying he felt his cartoons were being used to help kill people.
In his 1966 anthology The World of Hirschfeld, he included a drawing of Nina which he titled “Nina’s Revenge.” That drawing contained no NINAs. There were, however, two ALs and two DOLLYs (“the names of her wayward parents”).