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John Held, Jr., And His World

July 2024
3min read

It was strange if you stopped to think about it—a plush, midtown restaurant right oft Fifth Avenue at dinnertime, yet only three diners in the place. The sign out front read “Bearnaise.” And stranger still, the doorman, a smiling monster in gold and blue uniform, was bowing customer after customer out of lumbering Yellow cabs and chauffeured limousinescustomers who walked through the restaurant, passed the three diners, and disappeared.

But if it was dead upstairs, the basement was bedlam. Big, overstuffed lounges lined the walls behind marble-topped cocktail tables. There were potted palms in the corners and artificial leaves all over the place—on trellises, up pillars, and across the ceiling. Actors and actresses, artists and writers, brokers and debutantes, judges and gangsters, college boys and flappers, were all laughing and shouting over their Pink Ladies, a disastrous concoction of bathtub gin, applejack, grenadine, and egg white served in fancy, longstemmed glasses. The Béarnaise was where I first met John Held, Jr.

He was tall, dark, and tweedy, and I found him sitting with F. Scott Fitzgerald. It was the fall of 1925. I remember it especially well because we had so much to talk about. There was Harold Ross’ new magazine, and what effect it would have on Life —then and until 1936 a lively humorous weekly—and on my magazine, Judge; we figured The New Yorker would last another four months. There was the boom in Florida; the Scopes trial; Chaplin in The Gold Rush ; Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”; Red Grange turning pro; and Scotty’s new novel, The Great Gatsby .

I didn’t know it then, but there I was smack in the middle of the Jazz Age with its two creators—Fitzgerald and Held. Fitzgerald wrote it, Held drew itdrew its Hat-chested flappers with their shingled hair, flapping galoshes, and high-riding skirts; drew their saxophone-playing boy friends in coonskin coats, pocket flasks bulging from bell-bottom trousers. In marvellous wash and pen-and-ink sketches, Held caught them making whoopee. The scenes were football games, fraternity houses, speakeasies, cocktail parties, tea dances. The step was the Charleston or the Black Bottom, and the picturesque means of transport the Stutz Bearcat, the Marmon roadster, and the Model T. And at all these places, in any car, stairway, and alcove, one main, almost relentless recreation was necking.

Actually Held was considerably older than the generation he depicted. He was born in Salt Lake City on January 10, 1889. His boyhood, every spare minute of it, was spent in an unfinished room above his father’s stationery store learning to play the cornet, the banjo, and the mandolin; sketching, drawing cartoons, and making woodcuts. He sold the very first woodcut he made—when he was nine years old, and for nine dollars.

In high school, where Harold Ross was a schoolmate and worked with him on the school paper, Held contributed cartoons to the Salt Lake City Tribune . Curiously, in view of the campus-world drawings that were to make him famous, Held himself never went to college. And the only art lessons he ever received were from a sculptor, the celebrated Mahonri Young, one of Brigham Young’s 160-odd grandsons. When he was twenty-one, Held came to New York, free-lanced streetcar posters, and a bit later got a job in the advertising department of Wanamaker’s department store. In 1922, he sold his first cover to Judge and, suddenly, he was in.

“I’ve always looked for success,” he wrote to a friend, “now I’ve found it.” He became a regular contributor to Judge, Life, College Humor , and Collier’s . He turned out a daily comic strip called Margy . Money poured in by the fistful. He bought a farm in Connecticut, a few miles from Weston, then bought a bigger one near Westport. And there, a gentleman farmer, with a golf pro in residence, he bred horses and dogs, hammered out designs in wrought iron on an old-fashioned forge; took up, seriously, his great love, sculpture; tap-danced, to the amazement of Cluing VVi, his Chinese chef; built dry-stone walls; and dug ponds with the aid of his two mules, Abercrombie and Fitch.

Famous then for his Happer drawings, but driven always by an insatiable urge to create something new, he returned to his schoolboy woodcut technique and cut a whole series of delightful, pseudo-primitive linoleum blocks for The New Yorker . Hand-pulled proofs from these original blocks can be purchased today, signed and dated by his widow. But it was not enough to change styles, or to be farmer, sculptor, illustrator, cartoonist, designer, musician, tap dancer, folk singer, and expert horseman, for Held started writing, producing eight books in three years.

Nevertheless, Held was important to the American scene not as an author or even as a skilled artist, but as the creator of what those now middle-aged will recall as “boop-boop-a-doop,” the light-hearted era of Joe College and his girl, fingers snapping, feet jumping, troubled by nothing very much except yesterday’s hangover and tomorrow’s heavy date. Strangely enough, the man who devised all this wonderful, wry humor was personally its antithesis: quiet, elusive, and a prodigious worker. (Certainly he had nothing in common with the clamorous, happy-go-lucky sheiks and shebas that tumbled out of his India inkwell. Crowds, noise, and parties—especially cocktail parties—distressed him. He was a clubman and a first-nighter, yet he was more interested in his horses and dogs than in his contemporaries. John McNulty described him well as “quietly elegant.”

Held was artist-in-residence at Harvard in 1940 and at the University of Georgia in 1941. During World War II he drew for the Army Signal Corps in Belmar, New Jersey, and bought an old farm nearby. There he died, on March 2, 1958, in time, by the grace of God, to miss pop art and op art, sick humor and sick writing; just in time also to be spared beatniks and Beatles, stretch pants and beehive hairdos, switchblade knives and black leather jackets.

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