‘Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker’ tells forgotten queer history

If you envision a scene from “The Great Gatsby” or any other F. Scott Fitzgerald tale of the Jazz Age, it probably would look like a painting by J.C. Leyendecker: a beautiful man in evening clothes dancing with a beautiful woman in a flapper dress, or two beautiful men dressed to play golf or some other sport, with their muscular frames obvious under their expensive clothes.

You may not have heard of Leyendecker, but he was the leading commercial artist of the 1910s and ’20s, in demand for high-end advertisements and the covers of popular magazines.

He created the dominant aesthetic of the era, and, as a gay man, worked coded homoeroticism into many of his illustrations, offering a lesson that advertisers still found useful at the end of the 20th century.

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Leyendecker is the subject of a documentary, “Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker,” from director Ryan White. It premiered in June at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, where it won Best Documentary Short.

“Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker” is on the shortlist for an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Short Subject. Voting ends Tuesday, and Oscar nominations will be announced Feb. 8.

“Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker” also is available on Paramount +.

“I’m not an art history buff, but still I’m ashamed to say I don’t think I’d ever heard of J.C. Leyendecker before making this film,” White says. “Of course I’ve heard of Norman Rockwell, but I had no idea Rockwell had a gay mentor. And that was the reason I made the film: Why does American culture revere Rockwell, and yet Leyendecker has been such a footnote? I wanted to know more about him.”

Leyendecker was born in Germany and grew up in Chicago, and he studied art in Paris in the early 20th century, encountering Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and other eminent artists of the time. Upon returning, he soon set up shop in New York City, the center of advertising and publishing.

His models included several men who became famous actors — John Barrymore, Fredric March, Brian Donlevy — but one man superseded them all, becoming Leyendecker’s primary model and his partner in life as well as work: Charles A. Beach. Beach was the model for the Arrow Collar man, one of the best-known ad icons of the era, and for many of the covers Leyendecker created for The Saturday Evening Post, one of the highest-circulation magazines in the nation.

Leyendecker’s artwork found a ready audience. Straight women admired the gorgeous men he depicted, and straight men wanted to emulate them. Gay men responded to his coded messages — the looks exchanged between men, the awareness of the body under the fashionable clothes.

And the hint of homoeroticism came at an appropriate time; while society as large remained homophobic, in the 1920s queer people were finding enclaves where they could be themselves, enjoying an unprecedented degree of freedom.

For a while, Leyendecker knew both fame and fortune. He and Beach shared a mansion in the suburbs of New York, where they gave parties as lavish as those described in “Gatsby,” and their guests even included Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

But the Great Depression of the 1930s produced both economic setbacks and increasing conservatism that brought Leyendecker’s heyday to an end.

Not his relationship with Beach, however — it endured until Leyendecker’s death in 1951, although the artist’s obituary acknowledged Beach only as his business associate.

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The film uses animation as well as archival photos and interviews with art historians Judy Goffman-Cutler and Jennifer A. Greenhill, ad man John T. Nash, and trans model-actress Jari Jones to detail Leyendecker’s life and legacy, and Neil Patrick Harris gives voice to the artist’s words. 

If Leyendecker were working today, White says, “I think the sky would be the limit. … But still the breadth of his work that he did accomplish within the confines of the time is astonishing. I think he paved the way for queer storytellers to reflect our own lives in our work. He did it subtly, within the confines of what was socially acceptable at the time, but it was groundbreaking.”

This article originally appeared on Advocate.com, and is shared here as part of an LGBTQ+ community exchange between Q Voice News and Pride Media.

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Trudy Ring

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