Boy, this recent Leyendecker book is a doosey! I can't believe how good this guy was! I didn't get the book when it came out last year because I thought the pictures overlapped with an earlier book that I had, but I was mistaken. There's some duplication, sure, but an awful lot of what's here is new to me.
Leyendecker has to be one of the manliest illustrators ever. I wish he was alive and working today. The world desperately needs to hear what he had to say.
The text is fascinating. I heard that Leyendecker was gay, but I didn't know the details. That's his live-in lover, Charles A. Beach, above. Maybe that's also Beach on the book cover pictured at the top.
Leyendecker met Beach when he was 17 and Beach was 29. Leyendecker was already fully professional and took on beach as a model. Little by little Beach insinuated himself into the artist's life. According to Norman Rockwell, Beach gradually ran the household. He lined up the models, bought the art supplies, paid the gardeners...by 1923 he'd nudged Leyendecker's sister aside and completely took over the artist's business affairs.
Beach sounds like the classic guest who wouldn't leave. Beach was a big guy and used to intimidate Leyendecker's family and friends, even his clients. He especially intimidated Leyendecker's brother, also an accomplished painter and collaborator, and even began taking credit for Leyendecker's paintings. This is amazing since he didn't paint but simply helped to stretch the canvases, and other small tasks. Leyendecker didn't seem to mind. He thought Beach was funny.
Rockwell was a long-time friend of Leyendecker, but he detested Beach who he described as "a real parasite, like some huge, white, cold insect clinging to Joe's back. And stupid. I don't think I ever heard him say anything vaguely intelligent."
The book portrays Norman Rockwell as a weasel who pumped Leyendecker for information on contacts and clients, then stole jobs from him. Rockwell was the intensely competitive younger artist who followed his idol around, imitated his swagger, and even moved to the same town to be near him.
The book alleges that Rockwell stole his approach to cover art from Leyendecker. Rockwell's use of white backgrounds with figures that overlap the text and borders was actually copied from Leyendecker's. Ditto Rockwell's holiday themes and Americana. Rockwell's style was so similar to his mentor's that some readers of The Post couldn't tell them apart. You wouldn't get that from the ultra-manly pictures I put up here, but the book is full of the cheerful, reverential, exquisitely crafted covers of the type we normally associate with Rockwell...only Leyendecker did it first.
The book further alleges that Leyendecker was defenseless against Rockwell because he was temperamentally quiet and reclusive, whereas Rockwell was a tireless self-promoter. Rockwell even put himself in his paintings.
I grew up loving Rockwell as so many people did, and I admit that it's hard for me to change my opinion about him on the basis of only one book. Even so, something about the allegations seems to ring true, if only in part.