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.
“Is there a problem, officer?”
“Yes,” the policeman tells me. “This is a no through-trucking zone.”
Home to just over 70,000 citizens, New Rochelle’s website says, the “Queen City of [Long Island] Sound melds suburban charm with urban sophistication,” and is easily accessible from Interstate 95. Unless, of course, you happen to be driving a 14-foot U-Haul van.
Handing the policeman my license, I try to explain the situation as succinctly as possible. I am transporting my brother’s couch from his apartment in New York City to our sister’s place just outside of Boston, and, driving alone, thought it would be a good opportunity to look for the old Leyendecker Mansion, which I have been longing to do for years.
“Sorry,” I stammer. “I didn’t see any signs.”
“Well, there was a sign just after the Home Depot. And one at the light after that. And another one after Weyman Avenue.”
“Uh huh. Well, I was looking for Mount Tom Road,” I say, nodding toward the street entrance 20 feet away. “That’s where the house is.”
He hands back my license dismissively and returns toward his cruiser.
“What should I do?” I call after him.
“Do what you have to do,” he he says. “Then go.”
Starting the truck back up, I cautiously move back onto the road, check the enormous side mirror–hoping the police officer won’t follow me–turn on my indicator and head down Mount Tom Road.
Thankfully, the policeman drives on.
I first heard of J.C. Leyendecker several years ago, while accompanying more enthusiastic family members to an art exhibit called J.C. Leyendecker: America’s Other Illustrator, which was showing at the Southern Vermont Arts Center. The event was organized by the Haggin Museum, whose former director, Earl Rowland, had collected more than 50 original Leyendecker pieces in the decade after the artist’s death. Today, the Haggin Museum, which is located in Stockton, California, has more Leyendecker canvasses than any other museum in the world.
At first glance, I was not very impressed. Consisting mostly of outdated covers of the Saturday Evening Post and decades-old advertisements for a clothing company called Arrow, the prints all looked like Norman Rockwell rip-offs. (I would later learn that, in fact, it was the other way around.) My interest was piqued, however, upon reading in the exhibit’s brochure that “the original Arrow Collar model … was J.C.’s assistant, business agent and companion–a relationship that lasted for almost fifty years.” A man named Charles Beach.
Why would they use the term “companion”? I wondered. Could it be that this was their code for intimate life partner? Is it possible that this immensely famous artist was a closeted gay man, and that his most popular and prosperous artistic creation was modeled after his male lover?
Suddenly, J.C. Leyendecker, Charles Beach, and the Arrow Collar Man seemed a lot more interesting. And a lot more relevant to today’s world, too.
The more I read about Leyendecker, the more intrigued I became.
“For forty-nine years,” Patricia Juliana Smith’s Leyendecker, Joseph C. entry at glbtq.com (the “encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, & queer culture”) notes, “Beach functioned as Leyendecker’s model, lover, cook, and business manager.”
Yet, while Beach and Leyendecker enjoyed a multi-decades-long committed partnership, their relationship caused its share of conflict. Beach moved in with Leyendecker only after J.C.’s father, Peter, had passed away. And there was always tension with the other two housemates, J.C.’s brother Frank (also an illustrator) and their sister Augusta.
Members of the household lived under a self-imposed policy of strict secrecy. Even after Leyendecker’s death, immense caution was taken with regard to Beach and Leyendecker’s lifelong partnership. “Beach, presumably at Leyendecker’s instruction, burned virtually all correspondence and many art works after the artist’s death,” continues glbtq.com.
Despite the secrecy surrounding their private life, however, Leyendecker and Beach were paid handsomely to collaborate on the creation of one the era’s most popular commercial icons: the Arrow Collar Man.
“A handsome and debonair young man,” Linda Rosenkratz wrote for the San Diego Tribune, “the drawn character had such a strong appeal to females that Leyendecker received 17,000 fan letters in a single month … thousands of marriage proposals and even notes threatening suicide.”
“At one one point, Leyendecker’s Arrow Collar Man got more fan mail than [silent film star] Rudolph Valentino,” adds Leyendecker biographer Laurence Cutler.
Leyendecker achieved his fame on the strength of drawing more than 300 covers for the Saturday Evening Post. But with the Arrow Collar Man, he “created his most memorable legacy,” Christian Chensvold writes for Ralph Lauren Magazine. The iconic image “became what Cutler calls the first real advertising campaign and … the first sex symbol of either gender.”
“In a campaign lasting twenty-five years, Leyendecker portrayed an archetypal American masculinity that was equal parts football hero and urbane man-about-town. Whether clutching a briar pipe or guiding a winsome debutante across the dance floor,” continues Chensvold, “the Arrow Collar Man embodied a version of American manhood that was both rugged and refined–every woman’s dream.”
A BookRags.com entry on “1910s: Fashion Summary” adds that the Arrow Collar Man was “the ideal representation of a handsome, athletic, self-confident male,” and that even “President Theodore Roosevelt … described him as a ‘superb portrait’ of the common man.”
“In this capacity,” suggests Smith, “Beach became the symbol of American prosperity, sophistication, manliness, and style.”
With the wealth they accrued from their contract from Arrow, Beach and Leyendecker moved into a mansion in New Rochelle, and lived out the era’s version of the American Dream.
“As the ’20’s roared,” Chensvold writes, “Leyendecker and Charles rubbed elbows with such luminaries as John Jacob Astor, Gloria Swanson, Al Jolson, Clara Bow, John Barrymore, Dorothy Parker, and Mae West … Leyendecker took note of their style and mannerisms and used them for his art.”
Indeed, the New Rochelle mansion seemed to be transplanted right out of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fictitious East Egg.
Beach typically organized the parties at their mansion, while Leyendecker kept in the background. “Fitzgerald,” Chensvold notes on the meeting of the two Jazz Age luminaries, “likely attributed some of [Leyendecker’s] predilections–such as remaining aloof at the lavish galas he threw–to the doomed hero Jay Gatsby.”
Art imitating art. And art re-imitating art.
The more I read about Leyendecker and Beach, the more determined I became to see their New Rochelle mansion, the spot where they lived out their secret affair, and hosted many of the Lost Generation’s most noted achievers.
Indulging in the Jazz Age nostalgia of eroding mansions and empty, decaying glass bottles of gin, I turn off Route 95 at Exit 15 in New Rohelle to finally visit the Leyendecker Mansion. Driving my rented U-Haul slowly down Mount Tom Road, I easily recognize the mansion from photos online, but am surprised to see a large sign outside it. The sign reads: Mount Tom Day School.
The Leyendecker Mansion is now a nursery school.
“Housed in a magnificent nineteen-room mansion on the former estate of the great American illustrator J.C. Leyendecker,” reads the school’s website, “our building is inviting and friendly … a perfect transition from home to school” (an impressive phrase that seems to describe both the school’s pre-K functionality and the nature of the nursery school occupying someone’s former house). Amazingly enough, the school opened in 1955, less than five years after Leyendecker’s death.
Somehow, I expected something different.
For the past half-century, toddlers have been making crude crayon drawings in the house of one of American’s greatest illustrators. Sipping on juice boxes and failing to make it to the potty in rooms where John Jacob Astor and Dorothy Parker once discussed the latest Louis Armstrong record over dry martinis.
Glancing now finally at the mansion, it occurs to me that the legendary house seems very much out of place. The nearby residences are all much smaller, and the rest of the neighborhood looks far more contemporary. The Leyendecker Mansion, in fact, seems distinctly different, regardless of the fact that it is now a nursery school. I wonder if the mansion always exuded this outsider feel, even as its two gay inhabitants endured such regimentation in order to fit in, keeping their love and their lifestyle a secret from the general populace.
Glancing back at the mansion in the moving truck’s enormous side mirror, I again pass the No Thru-Trucking Zone signs, and exit back onto Route 95.
The Leyendecker Mansion in New Rochelle lies a mere ten miles from the Bronx’s Woodlawn Cemetery. But it seems a far longer journey from toasting New York’s social elite to lying in an unmarked grave. A fitting reminder, perhaps, of the fickle nature of fame and identity and accomplishment. One era’s cultural obsession is another’s forgotten memory. One period’s supreme achievements are another’s musty museum pieces–relics of another time, another way.
(Originally appeared in Preview Massachusetts.)