White (“The Case Against 8”) dives into the history of illustrator J.C. Leyendecker, one of the most prominent advertising artists of the first half of the 20th century, who created hundreds of covers for the Saturday Evening Post and created the Arrow Collar man.
White tells the nearly-forgotten story of Leyendecker’s impact on advertising history and his experience as a closeted gay man in the early 1900s. However, his coded imagery spoke directly to the gay community and laid the foundation for LGBTQ representation in advertising today.
Where did the idea of telling J.C. Leyendecker’s story come from and did you know about him before this?
I had never heard of his story, which was the point of making this film. It’s shameful that I haven’t heard of him, but that is the driving force and why these types of stories need to be told.
I have people that I know friends and colleagues who had heard of him. But even if they were art collectors or people that worked in advertising, no one knew the life story part.
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No one knew the rise and fall of J.C. Leyendecker. When I found out who he was – and you have to go back to “Visible: Out on Television,” which began in 1940, and the first story is the Army–McCarthy hearings- I was doing the research around that, and that’s when I first found out about it.
I discovered this era in New York, called “The Pansy Craze” which overlapped with the Harlem Renaissance. But either way, it was this era of immense progress for queer people in large worldwide cities like New York, Berlin and Paris, where J.C. Leyendecker went to school. It was the first time I knew there was this era before modern-day history where there was quite an amount of forward progress.
How did the story develop?
Imagine Documentaries came to me and they wanted to do a documentary with Procter and Gamble. The mandate was ‘anything about advertising history and how it intersects queer issues.’ They told me that in the vaults of other old consumer goods companies there were old ads from this artist that seemingly were super homoerotic. There were ads from Ivory soap and Gillette razors. When I was looking through these ads, I was thinking, ‘These are the gayest things in the world.’ At least they would be by today’s standards.
The idea that this man was operating in this coded language that’s somewhat overt was so mind-blowing to me.
I asked, ‘Are you open to me telling me this man’s story?’ I thought there was a really exciting story to be told in his life and career and the rippling effects of that advertising ever since, and his legacy.
How did you find Jari Jones to thread it through to the modern era?
Jari Jones, the trans model, is the face of Calvin Klein. When we met her we were looking for a modern way in which Leyendecker’s voice might have percolated out. Jari already knew who he was. And it was this perfect way to bridge the gap between past and present. Here was this woman who is breaking so many barriers for advertising.
She’s a model, and it linked so perfectly back to Leyendecker’s model who was his lover and husband. Then it became about how to tell his story – his rise and fall from grace.
The LGBTQ community is still persecuted. How did you handle the pain and trauma of his story?
I think it’s incredible that we even have any history of Leyendecker. That’s the real tragedy of this story, right? This brilliant artist was so traumatized by what role his sexuality had played in his life that he asked his husband to burn everything. The fact that we have no visual record of his work, the fact that some of his artwork even lives on today, is a miracle.
There wasn’t much in terms of photography that existed of him, so what was the key voice in helping you to tell this story?
Judy Cutler wrote the book on him – there are only two books on him and she wrote the second book – it’s deep dive research into his life, his art and his legacy on advertising art. She had found the primary sources that exist. There were letters and interviews.
But the research was really hard and it was buried for a reason. We found photos and footage of drag balls in New York in the ‘20s and there’s such rich footage about people living through this in New York. It’s amazing and beautiful to imagine that our foremothers and forefathers got to have that burst of progress. But it’s all the more tragic to know that they had that ripped away.