Jan 13, 2014

J.C. Leyendecker: Your Grandfather's Gay Artist

In The Web and the Rock (1940), a classic American novel by Thomas Wolfe, the teenage George goes off to college, where he falls into star-struck, stammering love at first sight with Jim Randolph:

A creature of such magnificence that he seemed to have been created on a different scale and shape for another, more Olympian, Universe. . .he was all the Arrow collar young men, all the football heroes for the covers of the Saturday Evening Post...all the young men in the Kuppenheimer clothing ads, he was all of these rolled into one, and he was something more than all that.

In the early decades of the 20th century, George -- and many other gay men -- depended on advertisements for Arrow collars and Kuppenheimer suits for beefcake. They starred a handsome hunk known as the Arrow Man, drawn by J.C. Leyendecker (1874-1951).

Like Norman Rockwell and N.C. Wyeth, Leyendecker was a famous illustrator who drew hundreds of covers for The Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, and other magazines. The two artists were friends -- Rockwell was a pallbearer at Leyendecker's funeral.  But their styles and themes could not be more different.

Small, timid, humdrum lives in small towns.
Domestic spaces
Heternormative boy-meets-girl-themes
Probably heterosexual, though he sometimes crushed on his male models.

Brash, bold, glittering lives in Manhattan, Hollywood, and Chicago
Homoerotic spaces
Endless beefcake and appreciative male gazes.
Gay, often used his lover Charles Beach as a model.

Leyendecker and Beach lived together for over 40 years, while he produced some of the most homoerotic art outside of Physique Pictorial.  

His work was coded so that gay audiences "in the know" would catch the homoerotic content, while heterosexuals stayed oblivious.

And it worked: heterosexuals never "figured it out."  When he died, his obituaries called him a "lifelong bachelor" survived only by his sister.