In section 18 of the White Oak Plot of the Bronx’s Woodlawn Cemetery, there lies a grave site that was once unmarked.
Dug in 1951, the burial site was originally left anonymous despite the fact that its occupant achieved a tremendous amount of success during his lifetime. The interred inhabitant drew over 300 covers for the Saturday Evening Post, created one of the most notable advertising images of all time in the Arrow Collar Man, was inducted into the Society of Illustrator’s Hall of Fame, and was idolized by Norman Rockwell, who served as pallbearer at his funeral.
Even more astounding, however, is that the grave’s occupant achieved all of this success despite living under the societal taboo of being a gay man, who made a significant portion of his living from drawing portraits of his closeted lifelong lover, for all the world to see.
The grave has since been properly memorialized. Yet, perhaps it was more fitting when it was anonymous. Because today, sixty years and several cultural ages later, few recognize the name of the site’s formerly famed occupant: J.C. Leyendecker.
How is it that such a significant contributor to American culture could be so thoroughly forgotten? What might the Americana of yesteryear tell us about our culture today? And in our forgetting about this man, what have we forgotten about ourselves?
One day last summer, I journeyed to New Rochelle, just north of New York City, in Westchester County, hoping not only to find Leyendecker’s former home, but to better understand his legacy as well.