Gay & Lesbian Review
An Inconvenient Truth about Leyendecker
Two recent articles - David Masello's "The Eye of the Beholder" (May-June 2023 issue) and Ignacio Darnaude's "Leyendecker the Sly" (Sept.-Oct. 2023), discuss the life and career of J. C. Leyendecker (1874-1951), the influential and prolific American illustrator who was recently the subject of an exhibition at the New York Historical Society. While the articles - and presumably the exhibition as well (I haven't had the good fortune of seeing it yet) - appropriately analyze and document Leyendecker's sexual orientation as a motivator for his presentation of American masculinity in the decades before World War II, both leave out any mention of the wide range of Leyendecker's subjects in his art other than those of young men.
Darnaude mentions that Leyendecker painted 322 Saturday Evening Post covers. What he didn't mention, even in passing, was that a substantial portion of those covers were populated with male adolescents or pre-adolescents in situations typical of their age groups and of the period in which they were depicted. For example, his Post covers for August 19, 1911, and May 22, 1915, depict unabashed skinny-dipping - with rosy cheeks at both extremities! A Web image search with the terms "Leyendecker" and "New Year's" yields an almost annual parade of infants and toddlers from before 1910 to the late 1930s, many of them tastefully unclothed, typical-even expected-in an era whose standards were far different from those of today. His final Post cover, from January 2, 1943, has a helmeted but otherwise naked toddler blasting apart a swastika with a bayoneted gun strategically - symbolically? - placed across his nether bits.
This is not to suggest or imply that Leyendecker had any unhealthy interest in children. It suggests that Leyendecker had at least an appreciation, if not a fondness, for boys and boyhood. His images were very much in tune with the times. In short, mothers loved them. The reason this is important (IMHO) is the same as the apparent reason it wasn't mentioned in the Leyendecker articles: it isn't politically correct these days to focus on a gay man's interest in boys. However innocent - or even helpful - an interest in boys and boyhood might be, somewhere around 1980, gay men agreed to the Faustian proposition that they would disavow any attraction to anyone "underage." ("Control feminists" developed this notion further to encompass all men and most child-adult [male] interactions except those in an immediate family. Does the term "stranger danger" ring a bell? As an "equality feminist" myself, I work daily to counteract this noxious trend.)
There is nothing wrong with a discussion of how an artist's sexuality may have guided his art, and how that art may have influenced society. Anyone with the chutzpah to depict his lover's face and body, however stunning, as J.C. Leyendecker did in ads, story illustrations, and magazine covers for over forty years deserves to be studied, if not admired. This proposition, however, like any investigation of the past must not be emasculated by revisionist history. It must consider the whole picture.
Gerald Jones, Ph.D.