Sydney Leff; Illustrated a Musical Era

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 15, 2005

Sydney Leff, 104, who illustrated the moon-June-spoon romance of the Jazz Age through sheet music drawings on hundreds of popular songs, died Dec. 10 at an assisted-living home in Ossining, N.Y. No cause of death was disclosed.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Mr. Leff was among the handful of pacesetters in a field that flourished until radio, film and especially television made obsolete fun family gatherings around the piano.

"He was the best and the last," said William Zinsser, the author of "Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs" (2000).

Mr. Leff used angular art deco designs to convey the antic or romantic rhythm of songs by Irving Berlin ("A Little Bungalow"), Harold Arlen ("Stormy Weather") and Duke Ellington ("Sophisticated Lady").

Acknowledging a formulaic aspect to his work, he said he leaned heavily on images of swaying palm trees under an inviting moon and flirtatious flappers who hinted at erotic possibility.

His illustration of Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson's "Yes Sir! That's My Baby" featured a dolled-up woman in an alluring tangerine wrap set against a pastoral scene with an all-American town in the distance. It was an ideal blend of sex and safety that helped sell the song -- 25 cents a copy at the local Woolworth.

Mr. Leff once summarized his work by saying, "I knew where to put the moon and the stars . . . and made sure the ladies' gowns were very up-to-date."

He was born Nov. 18, 1901, in Brooklyn, N.Y., where his father owned a wholesale poultry market. The youngest of eight children born to Austro-Hungarian immigrant parents, he had little desire to become a bohemian starving artist.

To learn commercial art, he took a long subway ride every day to a vocational high school in East Harlem. A classmate was Al Hirschfeld, who became the revered theater caricaturist and illustrator for the New York Times.

In 1923, Mr. Leff responded to an advertisement by composer and lyricist Sam Coslow, who was looking for an artist to design sheet cover music. Coslow, who went on to write "My Old Flame," "Just One More Chance" and "Cocktails for Two," among other pop standards, paid Mr. Leff $15 for his work and encouraged him to continue.

Mr. Leff freelanced his talents, making a comfortable living doing at times four covers a day for $25 apiece. Many of the songs were so forgettable ("Rock Me in a Cradle of Kalua") that he seldom needed to hear the music played to craft an acceptable cover drawing of a crescent moon floating in a raven sky above a peaceful slice of beach.

He made an exception for Berlin, a particular fan of his work who insisted the artist remain on hand to listen to his songs. "He and I became very close," Mr. Leff told the New York Times. "He was very concerned that I capture visually what he did on a song."

Mr. Leff left his industry when the sheet music publishers began dropping pen-and-ink illustrations in favor of still shots from movie musicals -- for example, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing to a Berlin ballad.

Later, Mr. Leff did freelance design work and was an art director with a Madison Avenue advertising agency, which he sometimes found stifling for its 9-to-5 hours and cerebral, conservative culture.

He tried into his nineties to revive interest in his sheet music work by placing his drawings on coffee mugs and other novelty items. It was not a success, but several of his covers were featured in a music exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York in 2000.

In his prime, Mr. Leff was a bon vivant known for elegant grooming and a fondness for costume parties. He once said he missed his early work because of the life he led then. "We would hang out all night at places like the Algonquin, just talking," he said. "It was fun, creative, a gay, lovely time."

His wife of 51 years, painter and illustrator Rita Zion Leff, died in 1979.

Survivors include two daughters, artists Joan Miller and Gail Raab, both of New York; four grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

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