Al Hirschfeld, 1903-2003

By Karyn L. Barr
February 07, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

Legendary caricaturist Al Hirschfeld knew where to draw the line. The New York City icon — who died of heart failure on Jan. 20 in his Manhattan brownstone at age 99 — immortalized four generations of Broadway and Hollywood royalty with his whimsical pen-and-ink portraits.

A St. Louis native, Albert Hirschfeld stumbled upon his calling in 1926: In the ambient light of a New York theater, he sketched tiny portraits of French actor Sacha Guitry in his program. Although Hirschfeld regarded them simply as a pastime, a friend sold the drawings to New York’s now-defunct Herald Tribune. Two years and several commissions later, the pop-culture chronicler became a fixture at The New York Times — his home for 75 years.

In some 10,000 drawings, Hirschfeld captured everyone from Jerry Lewis and Jerry Seinfeld to Carol Burnett and Carol Channing, whose career he helped launch after spotting the budding star in the 1948 revue Lend an Ear. The so-called Line King also lionized his only child, Nina, by sneaking her name into all of his drawings after her birth in 1945. ”He made very strong, satiric comments without being cruel,” says Tony-winning actor Joel Grey, a frequent subject. ”That’s what made him unique.”

Hirschfeld, recipient of two honorary Tonys, will be feted again in June (on what would have been his 100th birthday) when Broadway’s Martin Beck Theatre is renamed for him. ”He was a genius whose talent lasted throughout his life…that’s a rare thing,” says stage veteran Bernadette Peters, star of the upcoming Gypsy. ”I’ll miss seeing him coming down the aisle on opening night.”