Albert Hirschfeld was born on June 21, 1903 in St. Louis, Missouri, the youngest of the three sons of Isaac Hirschfeld and his Russian-born wife Rebecca.
Al Hirschfeld studied art in St. Louis and moved with his family to New York City in 1915. He studied at the National Academy of Art and Design and at the Art Students League, but due to financial difficulties in 1919, he took a job at Selznick Pictures where he was given his first art assignments designing advertisements. He was soon made art director, a position he held for several years, until the company went bankrupt. Because the company could not pay him what they owed, Hirschfeld worked for an entire year to earn enough to pay his artists what he, in turn, owed them.
By 1924, Hirschfeld was able to travel to Paris and London, where he studied painting, drawing, and sculpture, and began to grow his distinctive beard. By mid-1925, he had returned to New York City planning to begin a career as a painter, but on December 26, 1926, a sketch he had done of French actor Sacha Guitry was published in the New York Herald Tribune. Within two years his theatrical drawings were appearing in five different New York newspapers, including the New York Times, for which he worked on a freelance basis until the newspaper offered him a contract in 1990. Hirschfeld's caricatures have also appeared in The New Yorker, Playbill, TV Guide, New Masses, Time, Life, Reader's Digest, Rolling Stone, and many other publications.
Beginning in the late 1920s, Hirschfeld was assigned to capture the essence of each new Broadway play through his line drawings that were published prior to the play's opening night. Performers and the public alike were captivated with the accuracy of his seemingly effortless caricatures. During this time, Hirschfeld also co-edited a satirical journal, Americana, with Alexander King.
Divorced from his first wife, Florence Ruth Hobby, Hirschfeld met German-born film actress Dolly Haas when he was assigned to do a caricature of her. They were married in May 1943. Two years later, to celebrate the birth of his daughter Nina, Hirschfeld concealed her name in the background of his drawing for the play Are You With It? Finding the "Ninas" in his caricatures soon became an American ritual. During World War II, the Department of Defense trained bomber pilots the techniques of camouflage and target-spotting by having them search for the "Ninas" in Hirschfeld's drawings.
For forty years, Hirschfeld collaborated with S. J. Perelman in illustrating and writing books, including Westward Ha!, Listen to the Mockingbird, and The Swiss Family Perelman. Hirschfeld also provided illustrations for the 1986 memoir of Perelman, And Did You Once See Sidney Plain? Other books published by Hirschfeld include The Speakeasies of 1932, Harlem as Seen by Hirschfeld, Show Business is No Business, and Hirschfeld on Line.
Hirschfeld also had solo art exhibitions at the Heller Gallery, Hammer Gallery and at the Lincoln Center Museum of the Performing Arts. He received a Special Tony Award "for 50 years of theatrical cartoons" in 1975.
In 1991 and 1994, the United States Postal Service commissioned Hirschfeld to design a series of stamps commemorating comedians and silent film stars respectively. He was not only allowed to be the first artist to put his name on a U. S. postage stamp, but was allowed to include Nina's name within the caricatures as well.
In 1996, an Academy Award-nominated documentary film about Hirschfeld's life, The Line King, was released.
Hirschfeld's wife Dolly passed away in September 1994. Three years later, in October 1997, he married Louise Kerz, widow of Broadway producer and designer Leo Kerz. Al Hirschfeld died on January 20, 2003 in New York City.