Pulling Strings: The Story Behind Hirschfeld’s My Fair Lady Album Cover

Considering it’s the subject of one of his most recognizable drawings, caricaturist Al Hirschfeld was not enthusiastic about a friend’s idea.

Albert “Al” Hirschfeld photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1955.

Hirschfeld’s friend, theatrical director Moss Hart, wanted to produce George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion as a musical. Hirschfeld balked.

“I said ‘How are you going to improve that by having somebody sing a song or do a little dance?’” Hirschfeld recalled.

Despite his reservations, Hirschfeld provided a drawing to be used to advertise the show, now titled My Fair Lady. When the drawing was used for the cover of the musical’s 1956 original cast recording album, it became ubiquitous in all Broadway-loving homes.

The acclaimed Lincoln Center Theater revival of My Fair Lady will be presented at The Straz Center’s Morsani Hall April 26-May 1.

The drawing which graced the album’s cover shows Eliza Doolittle (as played by Julie Andrews) as a puppet on strings maneuvered by Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison). Higgins, though, is a puppet as well, being manipulated by a bald, bearded and somewhat ethereal gentleman in the clouds.

The supreme puppet master was, of course, Shaw. Some thought it was an even bigger name than Shaw.

As playwright Paul Rudnick wrote: “You got your idea of God from where most gay kids get it — the album cover of My Fair Lady. Original cast. It’s got this Hirschfeld caricature of George Bernard Shaw up in the clouds, manipulating Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews on strings, like marionettes. It was your parents’ album, you were little, you thought it was a picture of God. As, I believe, did Shaw.”

Hirschfeld’s initial doubts were removed once he saw My Fair Lady. As soon as the curtain opened, he said, “you realized you were in the presence of a great musical.”

Hirschfeld amassed quite a history with My Fair Lady. The musical had three Broadway revivals during Hirschfeld’s life, and he produced illustrations for each one. He also drew the 1964 movie version’s poster with Audrey Hepburn. Well before the musical was produced, Hirschfeld had drawn five posters and many other illustrations to advertise the 1938 film adaptation of Pygmalion.

After his daughter, Nina, was born in 1945, Hirschfeld began hiding her name in his illustrations. A number by his signature told how many Ninas were hidden in that drawing. Hirschfeld fans loved searching for the hidden name, so much so that when Hirschfeld tried to end the practice, he received mountains of mail begging him to continue it. (We see only one Nina on the My Fair Lady album cover. Check the fringe on Eliza’s scarf.)

A New Yorker for almost all of his 99 years, Hirschfeld’s caricatures captured Broadway stars from several generations. His drawings frequently appeared in The New York Times as well as magazines such as Life, Look and American Mercury. His work appeared on movie posters, postage stamps and even a rock album when his illustration of the band Aerosmith appeared on the cover of its 1977 release, Draw the Line.

Hirschfeld died at his Manhattan home in 2003, aged 99. He was the subject of an Oscar-nominated 2006 documentary, The Line King, which is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

My Fair Lady plays The Straz April 26-May 1.

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