Al Hirschfeld, 99, considered one of the cleverest caricature artists in America, capturing in his distinctive line drawings Broadway figures and other leading lights of modern culture, died Jan. 20 at his home in New York. No cause of death was reported.
Few 20th-century artists rivaled Mr. Hirschfeld for longevity and recognizability: the flowing black-and-white depictions of people in billowing gowns, elaborate head wear and with graceful long necks and (often) slits for eyes. His work had the energy of motion.
After the birth of his daughter, Nina, in 1945, he made it his playful custom to include her name in his drawings. Viewers took to his "Ninas" like a game: How many Ninas could one find in an actress's flowing gown, in an opera diva's frizzy hair, in the lace of an actor's shoe? He gave away the answer with a number next to his blocky signature.
The Ninas were also said to have helped train military bomber pilots to locate targets and study camouflage. The Defense Department once enlarged his pictures and gave personnel seconds to find the hidden names.
Every Hirschfeld print was a stylish and delicate tribute to its subject, from the long-forgotten performers of the 1920s (Scottish comedian Sir Harry Lauder) to more- current media figures (Jerry Lewis, Jerry Seinfeld). He also did memorable pieces of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow and Trygve Halvdan Lie, the first secretary-general of the United Nations.
First a freelance contributor to the New York Herald Tribune and then the New York Times, Mr. Hirschfeld was so prolific his work filled several volumes of books. His drawings appeared in the world's top museums.
In 1991, the Postal Service commissioned him to draw famous comedians who would appear on stamps. The Postal Service overcame its objections to "hidden" markings and let him keep the "Ninas" on images of such people as Jack Benny.
He was beloved in a theater community filled with delicate egos, and Mr. Hirschfeld said his drawings were never intended to maim. "My contribution is to take the character -- created by the playwright and acted out by the actor -- and reinvent it for the reader," he wrote.
He worked for eight decades, almost until his death, but said much of what he loved about Broadway was slipping away -- the sort of brave performer who cried out for caricature.
"I enjoy doing drawings of people like Carol Channing and Zero Mostel -- the explosive actors, the glandular actors," he told the New York Times. "The ones with the bulging eyes who don't close the doors -- they slam them. They communicate to the last row of the balcony. That kind of actor is disappearing."
Albert Hirschfeld was born in St. Louis and grew up in New York, where his mother encouraged his art. He studied at the Art Students League and worked in the art department at Warner Bros. film studios. He left for Paris in 1924 to study painting, drawing and sculpting. He realized by the late 1920s that "image in pure line" was his true passion.
Although he studied classical European motifs, he also was influenced by a trip in the early 1930s to the Far East, where he discovered shadow puppets.
"The sun bleaches out color, leaving shadow and black and white, leaving these wonderful walking lines and great hieroglyphics," he told a reporter. "You'll discover great graphic artists wherever there's a pyramid."
His first drawing for a newspaper, in 1926, appeared almost by accident. He attended a stage performance by the French actor Sacha Guitry and did a sketching for fun. A press agent friend of Mr. Hirschfeld's showed it to an editor at the Herald Tribune.
As his assignments grew for the Trib and other papers, he also contributed drawings free of charge in the 1930s for the New Masses, a pro-Communist magazine. When the journal would not print his Nazi-like image of the anti-Semitic radio personality Father Charles E. Coughlin, he ended the relationship.
"I have ever since been closer to Groucho Marx than to Karl," he said.
In the 1940s, Mr. Hirschfeld began collaborating with humorist S.J. Perelman on magazine pieces, books and plays -- some more successful than others. Their book "Westward Ha! or Around the World in 80 Cliches" (1948) was a bestseller. Their play "Sweet Bye and Bye" -- with composer Vernon Duke and poet Ogden Nash as lyricist -- never made it past opening night in Philadelphia.
"Show Business Is No Business" (1951) was his first book as author and illustrator. He also worked with playwright William Saroyan ("Harlem as Seen by Hirschfeld") and comedian Fred Allen ("Treadmill to Oblivion").
In 1975, Mr. Hirschfeld received a special Tony Award recognizing his 50 years of theatrical drawings. New York City officials declared him a living landmark in 1996. An Oscar-nominated feature documentary was made about his life.
Of all his awards, perhaps two of the finest tributes came from his subjects. Comedian Ray Bolger said he tried to resemble his Hirschfeld caricatures. And impresario David Merrick, the subject of one of Hirschfeld's rare unflattering caricatures -- with menacing eyes and a cane -- proudly used it on his Christmas cards.
His first marriage, to Florence Ruth Hobby, ended in divorce. His second wife, the actress Dolly Haas, whom he married in 1943, died in 1994.
Survivors include his wife, Louise Kerz, whom he married in 1996; his daughter, Nina, from his second marriage; and a grandson.