Mormon Jazz Age Cartoonery

First published: August 2008

For the last 1,000 Mondays, my postman has delivered to my door the latest issue of The New Yorker magazine. Here’s my reading pattern: first, I look at the cover; and then I flip through the pages to laugh at the cartoons; finally, I look for something to read. Call me shallow if you want, but humor has been at the heart of this sophisticated publication since its first issue, February 21, 1925—it’s a guilty pleasure without the guilt. 

In the April 21, 1925 issue—seven weeks after The New Yorker began publication—a Mormon cartoonist first appeared. The image was titled “The Rumrunner’s Sister-in-law.” The artist’s name was John Held, Jr.

For the next eight years, 125 of Held’s cartoons appeared in the pages of The New Yorker. Held’s work was everywhere in those days. More or less the official illustrator of the period, (his cartoons illustrated F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story collection "Tales of the Jazz Age,” fittingly), Held regularly contributed covers and cartoons to books and to the era’s best magazines: Life, Vanity Fair, Harper's Bazaar, House and Garden, Century Magazine, and Redbook

Held’s images were all about budding youth, vivacious twenties fashion, and colorful urban chic. His cartoons for The New Yorker, on the other hand, had almost none of that. They looked like throwbacks to an earlier age created in etchings and woodcuts. These cartoons are particularly interesting to Mormons because they can easily be viewed as a group stylistically and also because Held’s Mormonness peeks out in curious ways that aren’t apparent in other publications. The cartoons’ major themes are America’s shifting morals and the consequences of vice. In The New Yorker of all places? Why? 

Held was a bit of a prodigy. Life magazine purchased a cartoon from Held when he was only fifteen. (Legend has it that he sold his first cartoon at the age of nine.) At sixteen, he landed a job at The Salt Lake Tribune. He was its sports cartoonist. 

When he was twenty-three, he moved from Utah to New York. It was 1912. Held proudly stated throughout his life that he had no formal art training and that he had only two teachers—one was his father, the other was Mahonri Young, who also worked at the Tribune. By 1912, Young had already moved east. He took under his wing a generation of Mormon artists who came to New York to train and work, including Held.

John Held, Sr. was also an artist. He was born in Switzerland. An early Mormon educator named John R. Park apparently discovered him while he traveled through Europe in search of talent. Park legally adopted Held, brought him to Salt Lake City, and groomed him to teach art at Deseret University, a profession he declined. Instead, he had a successful career as a local illustrator and engraver. Held, Sr. (who is said to have illustrated an edition of the Book of Mormon) married Annie Evans, whose father had converted to Mormonism in England and was a handcart pioneer. Their son John Jr. was born January 10, 1889.

Here are a few of Held’s cartoons for The New Yorker. Note the upright tone of them. They illustrate the consequences of contemporary vices—gambling, drinking, smoking, and womanizing—in the stylistic guise of Victoriana. This is in sharp contrast to the other New Yorker cartoonists of the era—notably the celebrated Peter Arno, William Steig, and James Thurber—who cheerfully embraced the Prohibition-bashing, sexually adventurous era of the 1920s and early 30s.

Not all of Held’s New Yorker cartoons detailed the wages of sin, but many did. It’s a mistake to take all the cartoons at face value; he was a humorist after all. Held’s melodramas have a cheekiness that allows the reader some ethical wiggle room. I doubt that turn-of-the-century Sunday School teachers lectured on the defensive virtues of a hat pin, for example, even Mormon Sunday School teachers. Still, there is no denying that his background informs the cartoons with a certain ethical judgment and sensitivity to the victims of moral wrongdoing…destitute wives of alcoholics aren’t fodder for merriment, as it turns out. Held let his Utah roots show. And being in the business of satire, he occasionally flings a barb or two back west. 

How did Held sneak all of these cartoons past the magazine’s unsuspecting editors? Was he pulling a fast one? Quite the opposite. The legendary editor and founder of The New Yorker, Harold Ross, was fully in on the joke. You see, Ross had moved to Utah at age of seven and was John Held, Jr.’s high school classmate in Salt Lake City. 

Looking at work by Mormon artists and hunting for LDS clues is a slippery slope and especially in commercial work is not particularly useful. But here is a case of a famous artist who let his Mormon cultural background move to the foreground. He played with its message, looked at it from all sides, investigated it, teased it, and he commented on it. And this all played out before a cosmopolitan audience of bathtub gin-loving, Roaring Twenties-something New Yorkers.

Held’s career bloomed in the 1920s and it faded in the 1930s. His considerable wealth was lost in the Depression, a victim of a fraud scheme. He took the reversal of fortune hard and suffered a nervous breakdown. His second marriage (of four) ended unhappily.  Furthermore, The New Yorker practically ignored the Depression as a topic which must have made Held’s personal situation even more uncomfortable. 

By 1932, Held was done with The New Yorker cartoons. The Jazz Age was over. America had a hangover, and Held’s early cartoons came to possess a look of sober prophesy. His last New Yorker cartoon on appeared in the September 17 issue of that year. His cartoons mostly disappeared in American magazines by 1934, including his most popular cartoon characters, Betty Coed and Joe College. He designed the sets for the 1937 Broadway smash, Hellzapoppin, but otherwise his market was drying up.

Held turned to fine art and sculpture. He wrote novels and children’s books. He was artist-in-residence at Harvard and the University of Georgia in 1940. Finally, he moved to Wall, New Jersey in 1945, and he spent the remainder of his life on a dairy farm, occasionally publishing a cartoon here and there. He died of cancer in 1958.

Further Reading

•    The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker (Black Dog and Leventhal, 2004);

•    John Held Jr: Illustrator of the Jazz Age, by Shelley Armitage (Syracuse University Press, 1989);

•    The Most of John Held Jr., Foreword by Marc Connelly (Stephen Green Press, 1972);

•    History Blazer, Utah History to Go, 1995;

•    “Artist held an era's attention,” by Jon Blackwell (The Asbury Park Press, January 1, 2001);

•    “Relevant Magic in the Art of John Held, Jr.,” by Kori Alexander, History of Cartoon Drawing, Virgina Commonwealth University - Honors Module, David J. Bromley, Inst.

 

Viewing

•    The Works of John Held, Jr., by John Held, Jr. (Kessinger Publishing, 2007);

•    The Museum of Art, Brigham Young University has a collection of Held’s work that can be viewed online at http://www.lib.byu.edu/online.html