by Leslie H. Nicoll
The first cover in the Vintage series features the painting “Football Hero” by J.C. Leyendecker, completed in 1916. I thought readers might be interested in learning a bit more about the artist’s life and work on this, the anniversary of his death in 1951. Leyendecker was the pre-eminent illustrator of the early twentieth century, painting more than 400 magazine covers and hundreds of advertising images for diverse clients including Cluett, Peabody & Co. (Arrow Shirts), Interwoven Socks, and the US military. His paintings are iconic and instantly recognizable even now, a century after he first came to prominence.
Joseph Christian Leyendecker—Joe to his friends and J.C. professionally—was born in Montabaur, Germany in 1874. He was the third of four children. In 1882 the family emigrated to the United States and chose to live in Chicago. His father worked in a brewery owned by a relative and from the limited information available, it sounds like they quickly settled into a comfortable, middle-class life
The three Leyendecker boys were all artistic. Older brother Adolph moved to Kansas City, Missouri, in 1894 and established himself as a stained glass artist. J.C.’s first commission came at age 11, when he designed a beer bottle label for his great-uncle’s brewery. At 15, he became an apprentice at J. Manz & Company, a Chicago engraving firm, eventually becoming a Staff Illustrator. He also enrolled in evening classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. He worked hard and saved his money and in 1896 traveled to Paris, with his younger brother Franz (more commonly known as Frank or F.X.), to study at the Académie Julian. They spent two years in France, refining their skills, rubbing shoulders with other artists, and, sadly for Frank, acquiring a serious drug and alcohol habit that would eventually kill him at the age of 45.
J.C. and Frank returned to the US and set up shop as artists and illustrators, first in Chicago and then in New York, where they moved in 1900. They rented a shared studio on 32nd Street and a large townhouse in Washington Square. Their sister Mary lived with them and took on the role of hostess and housekeeper in lieu of a career or family of her own.
Busy as they were with their advertising and cover commissions, J.C. and Frank needed models and a regular parade of good looking young men made their way to their studio door. In 1903, Charles A. Beach walked into the studio and into J.C.’s life—never to leave. Beach became J.C.’s model, business manager, lover, and life partner. They were inseparable from the moment they set eyes on each until Leyendecker’s death, forty-eight years later. J.C. was 29 when they met; Beach was 17.
Shortly after meeting the Leyendecker brothers, Beach moved into a small apartment on 31st Street, one block from the studio. In 1910, the Leyendeckers took a step up, renting a large studio in the Beaux Arts building at 40th Street and Sixth Avenue. Beach established his residence in the studio and became its manager. Joe, Frank, Mary and their father Peter had moved out of the city in 1905 and were living in New Rochelle, although from the sound of it, J.C. stayed most of the time at the studio with Beach. In 1914, J.C. and Beach designed and built a fourteen room home on a nine acre estate on Mount Tom Road in New Rochelle. Beach officially moved in in 1916, shortly after father Peter’s death.
Like his brother, Frank was also gay but there is no record of him having a regular lover or long-term relationship. Interestingly, he was the one who hired Beach but he probably came to regret that decision. He and Mary both resented the influence that Beach had over J.C. There was a family falling out in 1923 with both Frank and Mary moving out of the Mount Tom house; Mary’s final act of defiance was to spit in Charles Beach’s face. Frank was dead a year later; Mary spent the rest of her life at the Martha Washington Hotel in New York City, dying in 1957.
While Beach was J.C.’s most frequent and favorite model, he did paint other men, including Brian Donlevy and Neil Hamilton, both of whom went on to careers in the movies and television. Donlevy appeared in numerous Arrow collar ads and although it is not documented, I think he may also be the model in “Football Hero.” Hamilton also was the model in several Arrow advertisements and was the Doughboy (World War I soldier) in the 1918 Thanksgiving cover for the Saturday Evening Post. Leyendecker later gave Hamilton the painting—an unusual and gracious gesture on his part. Leyendecker only gave away two Post cover paintings in his life and never sold any of his original paintings—just the images. As an aside, readers may remember Hamilton as Police Commissioner Gordon in the Batman TV series in the 1960s. He appeared in all 120 episodes.
Leyendecker was friends with many fellow artists and illustrators, the most famous of whom is probably Norman Rockwell. Depending on which biography you read, Rockwell was either a conniving businessman who stole Leyendecker’s ideas and commissions or he was a lifelong friend who considered J.C. a mentor. I prefer to believe the latter. Rockwell lived near Leyendecker in New Rochelle; they collaborated professionally and Rockwell was a pall bearer at Leyendecker’s funeral. Why then is Rockwell better known and well remembered? Probably because he has wives, children, and grandchildren to perpetuate his memory and legacy. J.C., Frank, and Mary were all unmarried and childless; Adolph had two children who likely never met their famous uncle since there seems to have been a family rift that occurred when he moved to Kansas City. There is speculation that it was because both of his brothers were gay but there is no way to determine if this is true.
While Leyendecker was successful from the minute of his first commission at age 11, probably the pinnacle of his career came during the 1920s. His pictures, and those of his contemporaries such as Cy Phillips, were everywhere, and illustrated a lifestyle that was emulated by many and imagined for more. In an interesting intersection of life and art, Leyendecker and Beach became the “it” couple, attracting people to their New York City haunts and later their home. Beach became known for organizing popular and risqué parties at the Mount Tom estate that were de rigueur among the celebrity and social set. Walter Winchell, the gossip columnist, was a regular, and his reports of the goings-on helped set fashion trends, smoking and drinking fads, and even deigned which automobiles acceptable—J.C. drove a Pierce Arrow. No one reported about their relationship, however, even though J.C. and Charles were clearly lovers and affectionate with each other in front of friends. How were they able to maintain such media silence? Apparently the simple threat of, “You won’t be invited back” was sufficient.
The Roaring Twenties ended with a crash and Leyendecker and Beach also began to scale back their opulent lifestyle. Changes in the entertainment and publishing industries also took a toll and by the late 1930s, commissions for illustrated magazine covers were dwindling—not because Leyendecker’s talent was diminishing (or Rockwell’s fame eclipsed his, as some have suggested) but rather, because photography had reached a point of being faster, easier, cheaper and most importantly: more popular. The golden age of illustration, which lasted from the turn of the century until the mid-thirties, had passed. Leyendecker still held the distinction of being its premier artist.
For the last decade of their lives together, J.C. and Charles lived a quiet, modest life—a radical change from the lavish Twenties but also a reflection of a nation struggling with a depression, war, and its aftermath. J.C. died on July 25, 1951, in his lover’s arms. The post-mortem diagnosis was an acute cerebral occlusion. Charles followed him in death six months later. J.C. is buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. The location of Charles’ remains is unknown.
Upon his death, Leyendecker had instructed Beach to “destroy everything”; Charles began to do this, getting rid of letters, diaries, correspondence, and records. Fortunately, he realized that burning J.C.’s paintings and sketches would be a serious mistake and saved those from the bonfire. Later, he sold many at a yard sale with the most expensive painting fetching seven dollars. After Beach’s death, Mary inherited what was left—sixty paintings that were eventually donated to San Joaquin Pioneer and Historical Museum (now the Haggin Museum) in California.
I wonder how many of those yard sale paintings are tucked away in attics, waiting to be rediscovered. My attic has been well and thoroughly cleaned, but I can dream for others…
Joseph Christian Leyendecker
March 23, 1874 – July 25, 1951
Cutler, L.S. & Cutler, J.C. (2008). J.C. Leyendecker: American Imagist. New York: Abrams.
Wikipedia entries on J.C. Leyendecker, Norman Rockwell, Brian Donlevy and Neil Hamilton
IMDb entries on Brian Donlevy and Neil Hamilton