Living History: Utah cartoonist went from boom to bust to peace
A small-time cartoonist from The Salt Lake Tribune left to make it in the big city.
In little more than a decade he had five homes, a staff of 20 (including a Chinese chef) and was making $1,000 a day from his drawings. He was sought after by the media empires of the day, and it was believed in the industry that featuring his work could save a foundering publication.
The parties that his second wife (No. 1 had followed him from Salt Lake but eventually left for Paris) liked to throw included the brightest luminaries of the age, and would start at 11 a.m. and didn't really end until the Great Depression.
John Held Jr. didn't invent 1920s female fashion, but he gave it its most enduring image.
After Held arrived in New York City in 1911 he styled himself "The Mormon Kid" he hustled. His cartoons soon appeared in the most prominent magazines, Life, Vanity Fair and McClure's. He employed different styles for each, often using a pseudonym as he searched for, and finally perfected, his own unique creation, The Flapper.
Held's willowy, vapid creature captured the spirit of what his friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald, dubbed the Jazz Age. Buttoned-up American womanhood cut loose with the Jitterbug and overtly sexual flirtatiousness. Roadsters, swinging strings of pearls and boys with slicked-back hair and hip flasks of bootleg gin were her accessories.
Held did a cartoon strip about a flapper for the Hearst newspapers called "Merely Marjy," which alone earned him $125,000 a year.
Held had other interests besides cartoon flappers. He wrote plays, screenplays, novels and children's books. He did movie posters, travel posters and advertisements. His artwork included bronzes, watercolor cityscapes, and he designed Broadway sets and costumes. He dabbled in blacksmithing.
But Held had achieved his fame by drawing women with short skirts and bobbed hair. In fact, he was so identified with the flapper style that people looked to his cartoons for fashion tips and trends.
The Depression hurt not only Held's finances but his career. The great cartoonist Al Hirschfeld was brutal in his assessment that Held's fortunes rose and fell with skirt lengths.
"Short skirts went out, long skirts came in," Hirschfeld noted. "John couldn't draw long skirts."
Held would forever be known for the The Flapper.
It had been an exciting and flaming-hot love affair, but one that turned to ash in Held's mouth. In later years, he would say, "I reached the point when I could not draw another flapper."
His second marriage collapsed along with the 1929 stock market, and a third marriage sputtered and flamed out in the 1930s as he struggled to find his artistic footing. Held's novels were good, but never found great success. His somber watercolors and children's books were politely appreciated.
Held seemed to finally find equilibrium in his fourth marriage, with Margaret Schuyler Janes. They found a place in the country where Held could indulge his love of animals (whenever circumstances allowed, he always gathered a menagerie), gardening and art.
He continued to write and paint and cartoon, but his favorite creative outlet was his bronzes, which were quite good.
A lifelong smoker, Held was diagnosed with throat cancer and died in 1958. He always accepted the knocks life dealt with grace and good humor as in this reflection on his choice to become a cartoonist:
"It's ... like a form of half-wittedness that makes a man want to make his living in some such ridiculous way as this. I can prove it. Every child can create, but almost every child grows up and goes into some sensible business, like selling bonds."
Pat Bagley is the Salt Lake Tribune's editorial cartoonist.