November 4, 2012

On This Date: The First NINA

"are you with it?"

To herald Nina's birth in 1945, Hirschfeld facetiously included her name in a drawing for a forgettable musical called Are You With It? The musical's circus setting allowed him to include among the freak show posters one for "NINA the Wonder Child." While he thought that only "close friends and immediate family enjoyed a mild snicker over this infantile prank," he discovered that when he left Nina's name out, he was deluged by mail demanding to know where her name was. 

Almost everyone knows that Hirschfeld hid his daughter's name, NINA, in the designs of his drawings.  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."  This harmless gesture spawned a ritual; millions looked for NINAs in Hirschfeld's work, sometimes at the expense of actually looking at the drawing itself.  Over the intervening half century Hirschfeld tried to end what he calls "a national insanity," but he "learned, the hard way, to put Nina's name in the drawing before I proudly display my own signature."

Nina's mother was Dolly Haas, one of the greatest stars of the German cinema. Her debut at eighteen was in a film presciently titled Dolly's Way to Stardom. She charmed audiences on both sides of the Atlantic as a vivacious red-haired gamin in a series of films. Repulsed by her country's treatment of Jews, she left Germany in 1933, spending several years in England before coming to America in 1937. Although she made one more film, Hitchcock's I Confess, she concentrated on stage roles. In a 1940 drawing, Hirschfeld captured his future wife after a summer stock theater performance. "I met the guest star Dolly Haas; I thought she was the greatest actress I had ever seen; I married her." They were wed in 1943. She eventually left performing altogether so she could spend all of her time with her husband.

David Leopold, Archivist of The Al Hirschfeld Foundation

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