“The other evening I was rummaging around in my bureau for a Belmont-style collar, slightly yellowed by age, that I planned to wear with my pongee suit and a lawn tie when the weather got warmer. This is the same outfit in which I posed for J. C. Leyendecker in those ads he drew for Kuppenheimer and for Hart, Schaffner & Marx; you probably also remember me as his Arrow-collar model.” — S. J. Perelman, circa 1970’s
I spoke once to the idea that Walt Disney and Norman Rockwell had, more than any other creative influences, virtually defined America in the mid-to-late twentieth century. The idea is not original with me—and is not even terribly deep—but it still rings true. People tend to respond to incident and stimulus pretty much in accordance with their own self-image, and I’ve little doubt that everyone in my third-grade classroom in Bogalusa, Louisiana sat fully prepared to dispatch dear old Bowser at a moment’s notice should the specter of the deadly “hydrophoby” ever rear its hideous head. I am equally sure that Old Yeller had everything to do with that.
Leyendecker was the Rockwell equivalent to the jazz age, and may have had an even greater influence on art in the early-to-mid twentieth century. Who can look at his ads and images without seeing the Astaires and Pigeons and Montgomery Clifts to come? Many of his Kuppenheimer spreads look like stills from elaborate musicals, but there is little doubt the Hollywood set designers were looking to him for inspiration, not the other way around.
It is an interesting coincidence that both he and Rockwell painted exactly 322 covers for the Saturday Evening Post. (At first I thought someone had done some lazy editing at the old encyclopedia, but I was able to confirm independently through the Post that it is so. What are the odds?) Leyendecker was a mentor and inspiration to Rockwell, but they were very different personalities with very different tastes which is easy to detect looking at their material.
In modern terms, Leyendecker was a one-percenter and Rockwell, he’s the old Occupy Wall Street rabble. Leyendecker was all merchant, sell the shirts, the sporting equipment, the armagnac and chubby cigars. Rockwell was more into themes and ideals and emotions. Yet, it is an interesting coincidence that both he and Rockwell were largely responsible for the way in which America viewed itself, and much the way the rest of the world viewed us. We were Leyendecker Americans through the first great war and right up to the crumbling of our economy. We then co-opted the myth of Rockwell Americans in the years that followed.
Both these images of ourselves are myths. Both these images are also real. People who are wise in the singular can become damned fools in the plural; people who struggle in their loneliness with a natural tendency for meanness and venality can become ennobled when working in concert with others for a cause. It is an interesting coincidence that these can be the exact same people.
In modern terms, Leyendecker is Gov. Rick Perry and Rockwell is Congressman Dennis Kucinich. Rockwell and Kucinich are both skinny, both populists, both ugly, and are both blessed with very hot and lovely wives to the astonishment of almost everyone. Leyendecker and Perry both believe in personal pluck and by-your-bootstraps prosperity; they are both buff, both handsome, and in an interesting coincidence…