Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Louise Brooks and John Held, Jr.: A Dual Discovery

Louise Brooks and John Held, Jr.: A Dual Discovery
By Michael Smith

Back in 1995 during my junior year of high school I was sitting in History class learning about the 1920's.  In the chapter of our textbook dedicated to the Prohibition Era there was an illustration that really caught my fancy, and I was fascinated by the style of the men and women in the drawing.  The caption said the name of the artist but unfortunately I didn't write it down and it escaped my memory for the next few years.

Fast forward to 1999: I am taking an illustration class in college and the professor tells us to choose any illustrator we want, past or present, and make an illustration in his or her style.  I immediately knew who I would pick: the artist who created that drawing in my junior year high school History class textbook, but the problem was I didn't remember his name;  however, I knew the internet could help me.

After several computer-lab hours of searching terms like "1920's illustrators", "1920's cartoonists", and "1920's artists" on pre-Google era search engines that would be considered primitive today, I finally rediscovered the name of the artist I had originally discovered four years earlier: John Held, Jr.

But that wasn't the only thing I came across.

During my search through countless websites dedicated to 1920's culture, I saw a photo of an absolutely gorgeous girl with a perfectly trimmed jet black bob.  Her name was Louise Brooks and after doing a separate search for information on her, I learned she was a dancer and silent-film actress in the 20's and early 30's.  I was immediately smitten.  Wanting to see more pictures, I visited the Louise Brooks Society website for the very first time.  As I was browsing the photos, my professor walked behind me, stopped dead in his tracks, and exclaimed, "Wow, Michael, she is *beautiful*!!!" with much emphasis on the word beautiful.  I had been gazing wide-eyed at a portrait of Louise and due to my instructor's reaction I could tell she was something special, still making men stare all these years later.

About a month went by and I took a trip to New York City with the student newspaper staff at my college. Someone said they were going to go check out an old book store named Gotham Book Mart so I decided to tag along.  We arrived at the store, and since my fellow staff member said this place had been there for decades and decades, I asked the girl at the counter if they had anything by John Held, Jr. (since I also knew he worked in the city during his prime.) She didn't know the name and wasn't sure (I don't think they even had a computer to search their inventory) but she asked me what subject it would be and I told her he was an artist that did cartooning and illustration. So she pointed me towards a shelf that had comic strip related books on it and that was that.

I walked over to the shelf, and two seconds later a young man (probably a manager) walks out from the back room and asks me, "Did you just ask if we had anything by John Held, Jr.?" and I said, "Yeah..." He replies, "Did you know he designed our sign back in the 20's?" My eyes got huge and I don't even remember what I said, if anything, but I do remember immediately running out the door, looking up, and gazing at an original piece of art by one of my favorite artists from one of my favorite eras that had been hanging over a New York City sidewalk for seventy-plus years.  (See the attached photo of the sign, I found the photo on the internet.  I don't know who owns the copyright to this photo but I wanted to include it with my essay to show what the sign looks like.)

What are the odds??? Overall a pretty wild experience.

Part 2: What Louise Means To Me

If it wasn't for John Held, Jr., I don't know when I would have discovered Louise.  I know I would have stumbled upon her eventually due to my strong interest in the 20's because she is an icon of the era and any website or book about the Jazz Age wouldn't be complete without mentioning her, and it wouldn't be worth looking at without showing her picture.

Louise is my muse and in 2014 she inspired me to start a community page on Facebook called Louise Brooks Fan Club.  This page has over 6,000 Likes and gets more and more just about every day.  Since I also post photos of other beautiful actresses, showgirls, models, artwork, music, and fashion from the Roaring 20's, Louise Brooks to me is the personification of that decade.  Not only is she "the quintessential flapper" she is also the physical embodiment of the entire era.  Louise is the main focus of my page, tying all my seemingly-random posts together, making them all on-topic and appropriate.  But most importantly she helped me create a creative outlet for myself where I can share photos I like, music reviews I've written, clever captions I come up with, my sense of humor, and my random thoughts on art and beauty with thousands of people, something I've wanted ever since I first heard the word "blog".  And for that I will be forever grateful to our beloved Brooksie.

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