March 23, 1874 – Joseph Christian Leyendecker
I have a J.C. Leyendecker coffee-table book that has provided a great deal of viewing enjoyment over the past three decades. I once had a framed print of one his advertisements for Ivory Soap. This print portrays an improbably handsome Jazz Age man preparing for his bath. This piece is virile and All-American, yet also homoerotic and stirring.
Leyendecker was the most famous American illustrator during the first half of the 20th century, the true Golden Age of American Commercial Illustration.
Leyendecker knew that sex sells. Before the conservative backlash of the mid-20th century, the American public celebrated his images of sleek muscle-men, whose glistening hotness adorned over 400 covers commissioned by leading magazines of his era, especially for The Saturday Evening Post.
While Leyendecker was also known for his depictions of elegant women, it was his stern, brooding men who created the greatest impact. With their strong jaws and perfectly tailored clothes, Leyendecker’s men were featured in the ads in newspapers and magazines across the globe, selling everything from luxury automobiles to socks. He basically came up with the whole idea of modern magazine design.
Leyendecker’s fictional world of affluence and beauty influenced other iconic pop culture moments, like the fantastical setting of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great novel The Great Gatsby (1925), where he is mentioned. He created powerful advertising icons like the Arrow Collar Man, a symbol of smart masculinity, who served as the first modern male sex symbol and the first male advertising star. If only the public had known that Leyendecker was gay and the model for the Arrow Collar Man was his own lover.
At the apex of his popularity, he received more fan male than any other male, even more than silent film heartthrob Rudolph Valentino.
Leyendecker was drawn to depicting men in locker rooms, clubhouses, and workshops; extraordinarily handsome men exchanging inexplicable glances. Few images are more overtly homoerotic than his advertisements for Gillette in which scantily clad men learning how to use disposable razors.
Leyendecker was born in Germany. His parents came to America when he was very young. His brother Francis Xavier (Frank) Leyendecker was born three-years younger and was also gay. His sister, Augusta, arrived after the family emigrated to Chicago; she too was probably queer; never having married or seem to have any relationships with men other than her brothers.
As a teenager, Leyendecker worked for a Chicago engraving company. After completing his first commercial commission of 60 Bible illustrations, Leyendecker took classes of the Chicago Art Institute, studying drawing and anatomy.
In 1884, both Leyendecker brothers enrolled in the Académie Julian in Paris where they were impressed by the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jules Chéret, and Alphonse Mucha, a pioneer in the Art Nouveau movement. The Leyendecker brothers were in Paris at a very crucial moment in art. They absorbed the academic French style of drawing, and it was also the time when Baron Von Gloeden’s photographs were seen everywhere. Von Gloeden was gay and idolized the masculine body. This went contrary to the contemporary worshipping of the female form and foretold, I hate to say it, the Nazi aesthetic ideal, and the worship of the male body.
In 1900, the brothers moved to NYC, the center of the American commercial art, advertising and publishing worlds. During the next decade, both brothers began lucrative long-term working relationships with apparel companies such as Interwoven Socks, Hartmarx, and B. Kuppenheimer & Co. They changed advertising, breaking with the regular rectangular format. Before, the lettering had to be at the top, but they broke the lettering with circles borrowed from Japanese design.
In 1903, a striking young dude appeared at the Leyendecker brother’s Greenwich Village studio. His name was Charles Beach, and he was looking for modeling work. Frank Leyendecker immediately hired him while J.C. was in Chicago. When J.C. returned, Frank graciously allowed his brother the use Beach as his model too. J.C. and Beach soon became inseparable, both personally and professionally. They were a couple for the next 48 years. J.C. was 29-years-old when they met, and Beach was 17.
Leyendecker received important commissions from Kellogg’s; he did Karo Syrup; he did Maxwell’s Coffee. He did Chesterfield Cigarettes and propaganda posters for both world wars.
In his luscious illustrations and ads, Leyendecker athletes aren’t really competitors. They are an image of the American male as huge and beautiful, yet not threatening. Even in his incredible WW I posters, especially the ones with sailors, there was a real subtext of sexuality. It seems that the U.S. Navy has always had a certain reputation.
But, there is nothing cheap or coarse with his men. They are not tattooed or unshaven. They were regular guys blown up to heroic Greek proportions. His American men are a connection with the heroes and gods of antiquity.
His depictions of African-Americans are revealing. They are shown with sympathy, but they are still submissive, yet Leyendecker also sent a clear message. There are few illustrations sadder than the little boy dressed up in his military uniform being dusted off by a black porter. Who is this boy in the picture? Porters were called ”boys”, so the boy is really the old black man.
In 1914, the Leyendecker brothers, along with their boy, Beach, moved into a large home that also served as their art studio in New Rochelle, near NYC, where the trio would reside for the rest of their lives. These crazy Belle Epoch parties, which Beach organized, were attended by notables and celebrities from all walks of life, including the crème de la crème of NYC society. Included at the soirees were the many men who posed for Leyendecker.
Leyendecker’s only peer was Norman Rockwell, 11 years younger. Rockwell was greatly inspired by Leyendecker, but soon overtook the older illustrator. Rockwell worshiped Leyendecker, even though he was tough on him in him in his memoir. He was especially cruel to Beach, whom everybody seemed to hate because he was too good-looking, too prepossessing.
Those were hard partying days. Frank Leyendecker died in 1924 from an overdose of cocaine and heroin. He was just 48-years-old.
In the 1930s, Leyendecker’s commissions began to dry up, and Rockwell took his place as the most popular illustrator in the USA.
Leyendecker, who was always very much an introvert, spent his last years secluded in the house in New Rochelle. He put down his pens for good and moved on to that great studio in the beyond in 1951. Beach destroyed all of Leyendecker’s papers and his unseen works upon Leyendecker’s passing. He died two weeks later.
Nowadays, who makes an effort to dress? Leyendecker hawked silk shirts that had be ironed and cotton shirts that required starching and ironing; trousers that needed a crease down the front; shoes that had to be polished. Even in war, soldiers wore spats. There were the social protocols.
Leyendecker’s images probably pushed things too far. His men are not just suited; they are upholstered. Even undressed, the Leyendecker men sweated testosterone. Now, they are close to being caricatures. In our era, people dress down, during Leyendecker’s age, men dressed up even when they were undressed.