One of my all-time favorite illustrators is the late, great J. C. Leyendecker. In an indirect way, his work played a significant factor in renewing my interest in Richard Amsel...and, in turn, my making the documentary.
Back in late 2007, I found myself out of a job due to the television writers' strike. I wasn't a member of the guild, but the strike so crippled the industry that the post house I was working for made a wide number of layoffs, including yours truly. One of the first things I did in my free time was go to art exhibits and museums to calm my mind. I also wanted a little creative inspiration, and it helped.
So when I read a blog post on Bill Stout's website touting a new exhibit in Fullerton, CA, of J.C. Leyendecker's work, I had to see it -- and it was something of a revelation. It reminded me of Amsel's nostalgic poster for THE STING, and, well... www.richardamsel.info was born a short time later.
These men lived and worked decades apart, and their experiences were far removed from each other. Leyendecker, born in Germany in 1874, trained in Chicago and Paris, and produced literally hundreds of works of enormous influence and popularity, most notably his covers for The Saturday Evening Post and his advertisements for "The Arrow Collar Man".
Before Rockwell (with whom the artist had both a close friendship and career rivalry), Leyendecker was the great American illustrator, and his career spanned over half a century. Amsel's career lasted fifteen, a life cut short by the AIDS epidemic. He was 37 years old.
Yet I don't think it's outlandish to make a comparison between these two men. To say that they were extremely gifted is all too obvious; both Leyendecker and Amsel were something of art prodigies, and both began their respective careers at a very young age. In Leyendecker's case, it is said that his talent, while studying at the Chicago Art Institute, was already so sophisticated that his art instructors didn't know what was left to teach him. (Or perhaps Leyendecker felt they had too little to contribute.) In similar fashion, Amsel's career took off while he was still a mere student at the Philadelphia College of Art. When 20th Century-Fox sponsored a nationwide poster contest for their big budgeted Barbara Streisand topper, HELLO DOLLY, it was Amsel's design that took the prize; the artist was then a ripe old age of 21.
On a personal level, perhaps it's because both Leyendecker and Amsel strike me as enigmas that I find them so intriguing. Little was known (or at least has been made public) about their private lives, and, however great their success during their respective careers, neither name is quickly recognized by the public … an especially peculiar, bittersweet fact when compared to the enduring popularity of their work. Of Leyendecker, this we do know: he was gay, had a lifelong partnership with Charles Beach, a man who served as the artist's model, caregiver, and business "agent" of sorts. Leyendecker remained intensely private about their relationship, and grew increasingly reclusive after the death of his brother, Frank, in 1924. (Frank was a gifted artist in his own right, though he reportedly often struggled with living in the shadow of Joseph's towering success.)
I mention Leyendecker's sexuality not to incongruously dwell on the topic -- the question of how much an artist need be revealed when discussing his art is another matter entirely -- but to put his life in historical perspective. Leyendecker kept his personal life private because, understandably, social attitudes of his day dictated he do so. But so extreme was his need for secrecy that only a handful of photographs of the man still exist; Beach, apparently acting on Leyendecker's instructions, burned many of them upon the artist's death in 1951, along with virtually all of their personal writings. In fact, most of what we know today about Leyedecker's life has been from Norman Rockwell, whose early work was so influenced by the elder artist's that Rockwell devoted an entire chapter to him in his autobiography.
As for Amsel's private life, I feel no need, nor find it in good taste, to besmirch it in any way simply because the man had AIDS. Thousands did then. Millions do now. The virus' only relevance for my discussion here is that it robbed us of a superlative talent, and all the glorious, wonderful work that could have been. And should have been.
Above: Amsel's poster for THE STING.
So late last month, as I was driving into New York City the day before filming my interview with Cheryl Henson, I had a little time to kill. Why not visit Woodlawn Cemetery? I wondered. After all, I'd been hoping to get some footage there at some point...
You see, longtime Amsel fan Brian G. Andersson had told me that's where Leyendecker was buried. Andersson used to work there, and also shared a keen interest in the artist's work. We had actually tried to connect at the cemetery the previous summer to shoot some "B roll" and maybe a little commentary, but unfortunately our schedules didn't work out.
Woodlawn is one of the largest cemeteries in New York, and is the resting place for such figures as Herman Melville, Oscar Hammerstein, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, E.L. Doctorow, and Joseph Pulitzer. Finding Leyenedecker's grave among the thousands of markers, I feared, would be a challenge.
A minute or two later, following a quick Google search and some slow driving, I spotted the family plot. J.C. is buried to the right of his younger brother (and a talented illustrator in his own right), F.X. Leyendecker.
Heartfelt respects, gentlemen...
Special thanks, too, to Brian G. Andersson for all his help.