The Subversive Gay Secret Behind The “Arrow Collar Man”

"His art was genuinely extraordinary, and we are still feeling its impact today," says playwright Lance Ringel of J.C. Leyendecker.

More than 60 years before Calvin Klein stuck Antonio Sabato Jr. in black briefs on a Times Square billboard, another gay man was using homoeroticism to sell men’s clothing—although in a much more subversive way.

Commercial illustrator J.C. Leyendecker is best remembered as the creator of the “Arrow Collar Man,” drawing strong-jawed hunks in crisp dress shirts, and for drawing more than 300 covers for the Saturday Evening Post. What most people don’t know is that Leyendecker’s lover, Charles Beach, was his chief model and muse.

JC_Leyendecker

A new play, In Love with the Arrow Man, premieres this week at Theatre 80 St Marks in New York. Written by Lance Ringel, it charts Leyendecker’s amazing career: His Post covers popularized the idea of a rosy-cheeked baby New Year, a chubby Santa Claus in a red fur-trimmed coat, and of giving flowers on Mother’s Day.

The show also encompasses the life Leyendecker (played by Ian Brodsky) had with Beach (Jack D. Martin), his mentoring of Norman Rockwell (in some ways the Eve Harrington to Leyendencker’s Margo Channing), and his complicated relationship with his artist brother Frank, who was also gay.

“Leyendecker’s story has everything—an enduring romance, sibling love and rivalry, spectacular fame and fortune, deep sadness and loss,” Ringel tells NewNowNext. “His art was genuinely extraordinary, and we are still feeling its impact today.”

J.C._Leyendecker

He points to “the Old Spice Man” and Instagram-happy Tom Daley as two examples of Leyendencker’s influence: “There is something about Daley’s self-invention as an icon that feels to me like some kind of descendant to what J.C. Leyendecker created,” he says. “He was a man with a clear and sensual appreciation for male beauty—and was not afraid to depict it.”

Ringel has been with husband, Chuck Muckle, for 41 years, and was drawn to the story of a gay couple who sustained their relationship for nearly a half-century and in much more challenging times. (Fortunately we don’t live in those times anymore: Muckle actually directs this production.)

J.C. Leyendecker/Archives of American Illustrators Gallery

Though certainly successful in his time, Leyendecker was not recognized as a great artist. And certainly not as a gay icon. Ringel hopes audiences take away an appreciation for both his art and his life.

“He was much too talented and influential to be forgotten. He created images of iconic masculinity that were much more erotic than prevailing standards. And his and Charles’s love story is one for the ages.”

In Love with the Arrow Collar Man runs November 8 to December 2 at Theatre 80 St Marks.

JC_Leyendecker
Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.
@ItsDanAvery