Published in The Asbury Park Press on January 1, 2001
Artist John Held Jr. and his wife served “as civilian artists for the Army’s Signal Corps at Camp Evans. Their mission was to sketch blueprint drawings for new types of radar used to detect enemy planes.”
She held her nose high in the air, sneaked drinks from a hip flask and took thrill in defying all the old social conventions by necking with her boyfriend “sheik.”
She was the flapper, and her creator was a carefree comic artist named John Held Jr., who partied, boozed and caroused his way through a wild era.
From 1942 to 1958, Held and his fourth wife lived first in an Asbury Park boardinghouse and then on a farm in Wall. Today, there isn’t so much as a marker to show that the most popular illustrator of the Prohibition era lived here.
John Held Jr. was born in 1889 in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he learned the art of drawing from his father – an artist who illustrated the Book of Mormon – but inherited none of his family’s straight-laced ways.
As a young man, he traveled to New York with $4 in his pocket and a desire to succeed in the art world. He toiled for years at ad agencies and department stores before hitting it big with his winning formula.
A lot of magazine art before Held’s time featured dignified, elegant folk from the upper class. But Held sensed the temper of his post-World War I times, when societal mores were loosening and people were looking for a good time.
So Held began penning drawings with somewhat silly-looking but cute young adults. The women were invariably sticklike, angular and skimpily dressed; the men had slick hairdos and wore tuxedos or raccoon coats.Held’s cartoons illustrated the pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story collection “Tales of the Jazz Age” and the covers of America’s top humor magazines. He even had his own comic strips, the forgotten “Merely Margy, An Awfully Sweet Girl,” and “Rah, Rah, Rosalie.” For a time, he was so popular that editors commissioned his art by mailing him blank checks. Held gladly filled in whopping sums, which he spent to keep himself entertained and to keep his succession of wives in style.
A critic of the time, Corey Ford, hailed Held’s flapper as the “prototype of modern youth. Held was less impressed with himself.
“I just imitated people,” he said, “and then they began imitating the people in my drawings.`
Held was so unserious about himself that he ran a joke campaign for Congress in 1926 from his new home in Connecticut. His sole platform, friends said,
was to draw spiffier cover art for the Congressional Record. He lost.
A more serious blow befell Held as the ’20s faded into history. First he lost his fortune in the stock market crash of 1929. Then, even worse, his flappers fell out of fashion as times became grimmer and women’s dresses fell from the knees to the ankle.The shock was so great that Held had a nervous breakdown and spent time in a sanitarium. But his spirits slowly recovered as he found wife No. 4, Margaret Janes – who stayed with him to the end.
In 1942, with the United States entering World War II, the Helds moved to New Jersey so both could serve as civilian artists for the Army’s Signal Corps at Camp Evans. Their mission was to sketch blueprint drawings for new types of radar used to detect enemy planes.
Held and his bride first settled into a boardinghouse in Asbury Park. He hated it. One housemate, he wrote at the time, entertained an endless stream of lovers; another used the bathtub to wash dishes.In 1943, the Helds moved to a $45-a-month bungalow in Shark River Hills, Neptune; two months later they found their dream home on a five-acre dairy farm in Wall. Known as the Conover Farm, it was at 3105 Hurley Pond Road, near what’s now the highway clover-leaf linking Routes 18 and 138.
Held, who had once lived the life of an urban sophisticate, reveled in farm life, right down to milking the cows and spreading manure.Held began writing novels and children’s books as he rounded out his talents. He sculpted bronze figures of horses, and his work was exhibited at top galleries in Princeton and New York.
His illustrations become much more old-fashioned as he aged, looking like Victorian-era woodcuts – but they were no less whimsical and naughty. Some of his new drawings, in fact, appeared in the first issues of Playboy magazine in the ’50s.Jon Blackwell is a former Press editor and frequently writes about history.
Page created January 07, 2001