A NATIONAL INSANITY75 Years of Searching For NINA

75 years ago, Al Hirschfeld began to hide his daughter's name, NINA, in the designs of his drawings when she was born in 1945.  According to the artist he put it "in folds of sleeves, tousled hairdos, eyebrows, wrinkles, backgrounds, shoelaces —anywhere to make it difficult, but not too difficult, to find." Over the next half century Hirschfeld tried to end what he called "a national insanity," but he "learned, the hard way, to put Nina's name in the drawing before I proudly display my own signature."

Sunday mornings looking for NINAs was a custom shared by New York Times readers, a game played with children and grandchildren. Finding NINAs was an unspoken initiation into the worlds of Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Hollywood. For Hirschfeld, drawing NINAs became second nature, and they appeared spontaneously as he worked, forcing him to count them at the end like everyone else. At a reader’s suggestion in 1960, he began to put a number next to his signature when there were more than one NINA to hunt for.

In this exhibition we have gathered drawings that all touch on some part of NINA history, from the very first drawing to the one with the most NINAs (it is probably not the one you are thinking of). These images will show the different ways he chose to hide it, and what happened when he left it out, or made the foolish mistake of trying to include other names. We wish you happy hunting for NINAs in these works, and the thousands of others we have on our site.

The First NINAInk on board, 1945

(L to R) Johnny Downs and Joan Roberts in Are You With It, Spencer Tracy in Rugged Path, Jane Kean and Jack Durant in Girl from Nantucket, 1945

“It seems that everyone knows I always hide my daughter’s name, NINA, in the designs of my drawings—in the folds of sleeves, tousled hairdos, eyebrows, wrinkles, backgrounds, shoelaces—anywhere to make it difficult, but not too difficult, to find. This harmless insanity started quite innocently. It was the fall of 1945 and I was assigned to do a drawing for the cover of the Sunday Times drama page. The show was a musical entitled Are You With It? costarring Johnny Downs and Joan Roberts. I caught a matinee of this production in Philadelphia on the same day my darling wife, Dolly has, produced our daughter, Nina, in New York. Hurrying from the opening in Philadelphia to catch the one in New York, I arrived in time, with hours to spare. During those hours in the waiting room at Doctor’s Hospital, I nervously filled the remaining pages of my sketchbook with drawings of the conjured dark-haired girl my mother had been praying for. My mother had brought up three sons (all of them without police records) and couldn’t bear the responsibility of being grandmother to another obstreperous male. “Please, God, something soft and cuddly.” My wife and I were willing, happily, to settle for a normal child with one head, boy, girl, or—

"All speculation ceased with the official announcement form the doctor. “Congratulations, sir, you’re the father of a redheaded girl.” After viewing our dog-tagged daughter through a glass wall, assuring myself that the full complement of toes and fingers were all in the right places, I returned to my studio to do the Are You With It? drawing as best I could under the circumstances. The musical had a circus background which I used in my drawing. On an imagined poster hung on the freak sideshow tent, I facetiously drew a newly born infant reading a large book. Lettered on the poster, as billing, I presented “Nina the Wonder Child.” Close friends and immediate family enjoyed a mild snicker over this infantile prank. And that is how it all began. Innocent enough?”

Al Hirschfeld

THE FRENCH TOUCHInk on board, 1945

Arlene Francis, Brian Aherne, Jacqueline Dalya, and Madeleine Le Beau, 1945

Hirschfeld continued to hide Nina’s name in his next eight drawings for the Times in the weeks that followed, which took him into the New Year. These early NINAs were either very easy to find, or more obscure then they would become in later years. In this work, he hides NINA in a way he would not use much in the future.

Original ink on board drawing available for sale, please request a price list.

SHOW BOATInk on board, 1945

Ethel Owen, Buddy Ebsen, Colette Lyons, Kenneth Spencer, Carol Bruce, Jan Clayton, Charles Fredericks, and Ralph Dumke, 1945

Another of his early NINA drawings, this one a historic revival of Show Boat (and Hirschfeld’s first drawing of the show) that was produced by Rodgers and Hammerstein, six weeks after composer Jerome Kern’s sudden death. Again, Hirschfeld’s effort to hide a NINA is somewhat different than we have come to expect.

Original ink on board drawing available for sale, please request a price list.

Nina HirschfeldInk on board, 1946

This 1946 drawing is the first one of Nina herself. He did not hide her name in this drawing. Hirschfeld had this drawing hanging in his studio for decades.

APPLE OF HIS EYE - LUTE SONG - BORN YESTERDAYInk on board, 1946

(L TO R) Walter Huston in Apple of His Eye; Helen Craig, Mary Martin, Yul Brynner, McKay Morris, and Mildred Dunnock in Lute Song; Paul Douglas and Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday

On first glance, this appears to be the first drawing that Hirschfeld included multiple NINAs. Published in February 1946 to highlight three shows opening on Broadway that week, there are altogether eight NINAs in the work. Yet, this is not what New York Times readers saw on that Sunday morning. While there was a NINA in the central portion featuring Lute Song, the seven NINAs in Born Yesterday on the right part of the triptych were not included when the drawing first appeared. They would be added 27 years later when Hirschfeld used only the Born Yesterday portion of the drawing in the book, The Lively Years, a collaboration with Brooks Atkinson reviewing the past half century of “plays that criticize life, that wrestle with dilemmas of civilized life.” Hirschfeld reviewed his drawings of these productions, and if he had missed it when the show first debuted, or was dissatisfied with his earlier work, he created a new work, ultimately producing 50 new drawings. In the only example of editing an older work in the book, he added his signature NINAs to the Born Yesterday.

Original ink on board drawing available for sale, please request a price list.

“The Author And The Angels"Ink on board, 1949

When this drawing ran on the front page of the Times Drama section the caption read, “The glib author (at the easel) of an imaginary musical comedy, ‘Nina,’ tells his story to the potential investors and illustrates his speech with sketches of the sets and costumes. The agitated composer, at the piano, receives hurried instructions from the lyricist while standing directly behind them is the producer, who borrowed a wealthy friend’s swank apartment in the hope of making a satisfactory impression.” This was the first time the paper acknowledged a NINA in a drawing, although there is no indication it understood the significance. Hirschfeld knew this scene well as he had performed this ritual when he, S.J. Perelman, Vernon Duke, and Ogden Nash were raising money for their failed musical comedy, Sweet Bye and Bye. The artist would later include this drawing in his 1951 book, a satirical primer on putting on a show, Show Business is No Business. His hand-written caption on the work was “The Author And The Angels (Any Resemblance To Characters Living Or Dead Is Good Caricature.)”

MADEMOISELLE COLOMBEInk on board, 1954

Edna Best, Sam Jaffe, Julie Harris, and Eli Wallach, 1954

“The first intimation that I had created a Frankenstein’s monster was the incredible response I received the first time I deliberately left Nina’s name out of a drawing. Mail descended on me from all over, demanding where it was; most letters contained a copy of the drawing with imaginary NINAs circled for positive identification! The next folly I committed was the unpardonable error of acceding to a request of Nina’s to put her girl friend’s, LIZA, in a drawing (Liza was the daughter of the critic Louis Kronenberger). All hell broke loose when it appeared microscopically the following Sunday in the Times. Flowers and telegrams arrived, congratulating my wife and me on the new arrival! Walter Winchell wrote in his column, “The Hirschfelds are infanticipating.”

Al Hirschfeld

Tallulah Bankhead in EUGENIAInk on board, 1957

Despite the problems he encountered when he included one of Nina’s friend’s names in a drawing, three year later, Hirschfeld di it again. This time he included a “Sammy” for Samantha Drake, Alfred Drake’s daughter. No fruit baskets arrived with this one.

NinaInk on board, 1960

In this work, drawn while the Hirschfeld family was in Brazil on a State Department  backed tour of an exhibition of Hirschfeld’s work, the artist drew his Nina contemplating what she should eat while her parents watch with anticipation.

LA PLUME DE MA TANTEInk on board, 1960

Hirchfeld hiding NINAs in his drawings became second nature, and they appeared spontaneously as he drew, forcing him to count them at the end just like everyone else. At the suggestion of a reader in 1960, by way of Arthur Hays Sulzberger, the Times publisher, Hirschfeld began to let readers know how many NINAs were in a drawing by putting a number next to his signature, which meant readers had to look for his name too. This drawing of the Tony nominated play of short sketches in English, French, and pantomime, which satirized French society, was the first drawing to include the number of NINAs next to Hirschfeld’s signature.

Original ink on board drawing available for sale, please request a price list.

THE GROUPInk on board, 1965

Candice Bergen, Joan Hackett, Elizabeth Hartman, Shirley Knight, Joanna Pettet, Mary Robin Redd, Jessica Walter, Kathleen Widdoes, Nina Hirschfeld, Sidney Lumet, Boris Kaufman, and Sidney Buchman, 1965

 

Although we typically think of Hirschfeld as being synonymous with the theatre, he actually began his career in the film industry in 1920, six years before he published his first theater drawing. He drew his first caricature for a film in 1925, and would continue to draw for film studios into the 1990s. In the 1950s and 60s, Hirschfeld main film client was United Artists, the studio without an actual studio lot, leasing space and shooting on location for essentially independent productions. When Hirschfeld’s good friend Sidney Lumet was directing the film adaptation of Mary McCarthy’s book, The Group for United Artists, Lumet invited Nina to play an uncredited small part in the film. You will note that Hirschfeld put a zero next to his signature, as he did not hide his daughter’s name in the drawing, but rather put her in the center of it.

NINA'S REVENGEInk on board, 1966

When Nina turned 21, GQ asked Hirschfeld for a drawing of his daughter. He responded with this unique work. “This is Nina, with no NINAs concealed in the drawing,” wrote Hirschfeld. “There are however, two ALs and two DOLLYs (the names of her wayward parents) to help keep the drawing and national sanity in balance.”

THE SOUND OF MUSICInk on board, 1965

“The self-expanding force of mass media eventually reached in the impenetrable inner circle of the Pentagon in Washington. A Pentagon communiqué addressed to me from Air Force headquarters requested permission to use my drawings as part of the curriculum in their student aviation training course. Blowups of the drawings were to be shown on a full-size movie screen and the student pilots would be required to ferret out the NINA targets. Looking back on that fateful day in 1945 when I innocently put Nina’s name in the Are You With It? drawing, it never occurred to me that twenty years later I would be asked permission to use this foolish prank to help our pilots pinpoint targets around the world.”

Al Hirschfeld.

THE APARTMENTInk on board, 1960

Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine

In interviews, Hirschfeld always laughed about a University of Pennsylvania professor who received a $60,000 grant from the Department of Defense to study NINAs in his work. This irked the actual professor, Calvin F. Nodine, who would often write to the publication to correct Hirschfeld. In 1992, he wrote to the Times, “I would like to set the record straight at least with respect to my role in studying Nina under Pentagon funds…the $60,000 grant I received from the Department of Defense in 1976 was designed not to study the Ninas in Hirschfeld illustrations, but rather because Mr. Hirschfeld is such a master at using wisps of hair and folds of clothes to his his Ninas, to use Ninas to model the effects of camouflage on target search and detection. This research, in which we monitored the viewer’s eye fixations as he or she searched for Ninas, led to an important discovery every Nina searcher knows: you can stare at a Nina and yet not see it.

“The scientific significance of this phenomenon is that by measuring how long the viewer’s eyes pause at various locations during search, we could predict the locations of missed Ninas.

“I do not know what use the Army made of our results, but I can tell you that in subsequent research…we found that by monitoring search behavior of radiologists, we could use the length of eye-fixation pauses to identify the locations of possible missed lung tumors that are typically camouflaged by overlying anatomic structures in chest X-ray images. When we played back the locations of prolonged pauses by highlighting them, we found many missed tumors.

“I cannot say whether the Army got its money’s worth from my studies of Ninas but as for radiology, if we can develop a feasible, computer-assisted visual research system, we may be able significantly to reduce error in both lung and breast screening for cancer.” Prof. Nodine used this drawing as one of the examples he used in his research.

Raul Julia in WHERE'S CHARLEY?Ink on board, 1974

This drawing is unusual in that there are two numbers before the signature. Try as you might, you will only find three NINAs in this work. The “plus one” actually indicates the number of NINAs in a second drawing, of James Earl Jones in Of Mice and Men, which ran right next to this drawing in the Sunday Times. Since the layout would only allow for one signature, Hirschfeld made sure readers would know how many NINAs they were looking for in each drawing.

Original ink on board drawing available for sale, please request a price list.

COMEDIANS BY HIRSCHFELDPostage stamps, 1991

When the U.S. Postal Service asked Hirschfeld to create designs for stamps, the art director made it clear to the artist that there was a rule that stamps could have no hidden messages in them, and therefore he would not be able to include any NINAs in these drawings. Hirschfeld was happy to agree. When he sent his first drawings for approval, the art director was eager to show them to the Postmaster General. After studying the drawings for awhile, the Postmaster General, admitted that he could not find the NINAs. When reminded of the USPS regulations against hidden messages, the Postmaster General overruled them. “It wouldn’t be a Hirschfeld without a NINA,” said the official. The drawings were sent back to ask Hirschfeld to add NINAs, and the artist complied the best he could, but some of the drawings simply did not allow for any addition, so some of these stamps have NINAs, while others do not.

Aaron CoplandInk on board, 1997

In 1997 a collector commissioned a portrait of the famed composer, but he had an unusual request. He wanted the drawing to have 60 NINAs in it for his own reasons. The previous record for the most NINAs was 40 in a drawing of Whoopi Goldberg in 1984. Hirschfeld included that many as a gift to Goldberg after she told him in their first meeting that sometimes as a child she could not find all the NINAs in his work. Always happy to have a challenge, Hirschfeld did find a way to include 60 NINAs in this drawing, the most he would ever include.

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Presented by the Al Hirschfeld Foundation ©2020