Canadian Fashion Connection – America’s First Hunk

Charles Beach was probably the model for both these men (the protruding bulbous chin with the slight cleft is a give away), but Leyendecker changed the hair colour.

Charles Beach was born in Ontario, Canada (exact town unknown), in 1886. At the age of 16 he left home to go to New York to become an actor, but soon discovered he had no talent. Relying upon his tall, good looks and confident, charming disposition, he found work as an artist’s model, and soon became the most famous male model in America, thanks to Joseph Christian Leyendecker.

J. C. Leyendecker was born in 1874 in Germany and immigrated to Chicago with his family in 1882. He and his younger brother Frank studied art in Paris and upon their return to the U.S. in 1900, settled in New York to work as artists. They produced illustrations for magazines and books, although Joseph was clearly the more talented of the two brothers. In 1903 Charles Beach was hired to model, and although Joseph was short and shy, he was also cultured and the two became partners in love and business for the next 48 years.

Charles discovered he had a good business acumen and became Joseph’s manager, negotiating his work for higher prices, and convincing the publishers of Saturday Evening Post to create themed covers for national holidays (Leyendecker invented the New Year’s baby). But it was Beach’s chiseled jaw featured in Arrow shirt collar advertisements that became the most famous of Leyendecker’s work. Women sent love letters to the mystery Adonis – the first male sex symbol of American advertising.

By 1913, Saturday Evening Post was the best selling magazine in the U.S., which earned Leyendecker and Beach an annual salary of $50,000 per year (the equivalent of about a million dollars per year today.) Joseph built a house in New Rochelle, New York in 1914, and upon the death of Joseph’s father in 1916, Charles moved in. The two were famous hosts of extravagant parties during the 1920s but by the end of the 1930s, Leyendecker’s illustrations were falling from popularity. The new darling of American magazine illustration was Norman Rockwell.

In 1951, Joseph died at home of a heart attack at the age of 77, leaving Charles the house and $30,000, and a request that Charles destroy all written evidence of their relationship, which Charles did. The following year Charles died at the age of 66.

Beach was the model for the man on the right, but the darker features of the man on the left suggest Leyendecker may have used himself as a model.

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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