After their return to the U.S., Joe and Frank relocated to NYC in 1900 to better their chances at winning commissions. Working as a team, they produced oil paintings as illustrations for magazines and books. Although Joe was clearly the more talented of the two, it was Frank who was responsible for hiring the model Charles Beach, an act that forged a union between Joe and Charles that lasted fifty years.
Beach, twelve years Joe’s junior, left his native Canada for NYC at age 16 to pursue a theatrical career, for which he soon discovered he had no talent. His greatest asset was his appearance, as he was extraordinarily handsome, tall and possessed of an exceptional physique. He was also confident and charming. Charles wisely decided to abandon the stage to seek jobs as a model. He was 17 years old when Frank Leyendecker hired him in 1901.
Many of these covers featured men fashioned after Beach’s Adonis-like face and physique. Each time one of these covers appeared, the magazine’s circulation increased, and by 1913 the Saturday Evening Post became the most popular magazine in the world. These covers, wildly popular with the public, also made Joe Leyendecker rich and famous. He was soon earning $50,000 a year – over a million dollars when adjusted for inflation. Leyendecker also introduced what is perhaps our most enduring New Year’s symbol, that of the New Year’s Baby. For almost forty years, the Saturday Evening Post featured a Leyendecker Baby on its New Year’s covers. The magazine’s May 30, 1914, Mother's Day cover single-handedly birthed the flower delivery industry, thus creating an American tradition.
Against his brother Frank’s opposition, Joe had been persuaded by Charles to provide illustrations for advertisements. His work for men’s clothing companies was blatantly homoerotic, but it made Leyendecker’s name a household word. The success of Joe and Charles as a team culminated in 25 years of illustrations for Arrow shirt collars, for which Charles was invariably the model. The “Arrow Collar Man” was soon the symbol of fashionable American manhood – the male equivalent of the Gibson girl. These Arrow shirt collar ads created a sensation. In the early 1920s the Arrow Collar Man drew 17,000 fan letters a month, along with gifts and marriage proposals. By 1918 Arrow collar sales topped $32 million.
In 1923 brothers Frank and Joe had a falling out, and Frank’s life lapsed into a downward spiral. Unable to secure commissions on his own and unable to find a male partner, he succumbed to abuses of drugs and alcohol. Frank died of a drug overdose in 1924.
Joe’s popularity and productivity reached its peak in the 1930s. Although Norman Rockwell blatantly copied Leyendecker's style and subject matter, Joe was undaunted. By that time his work had appeared on more than 300 covers of the Saturday Evening Post. However, during the 1940s Joe began to feel the ill-effects of heart disease. While sitting in his garden in New Rochelle in 1951, he suffered a heart attack in the presence of Charles and died in his lover’s arms. Soon thereafter Charles destroyed all correspondence between them, as requested by Joe, in order to conceal their private relationship from future scrutiny. Tragically, Charles died within a year after Joe’s demise.
There is a wonderful collection of J.C. Leyendecker’s works in Newport, Rhode Island. The National Museum of American Illustration, housed in a gilded-era mansion on Bellevue Avenue known as Vernon Court, holds the largest collection of Leyendecker paintings in one place. The museum can be visited on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Details at: