“I want YOU for the U.S. Army.” Four million copies of this classic Uncle Sam recruiting poster were plastered on billboards across America during World War I. The skinny, scowling, bearded Sam, with his commanding pointer finger, would become one of the most recognizable images of the century. He was basically a self-portrait by the illustrator. But in fact James Montgomery Flagg was much more interested in pretty women than politics.
Flagg, who was born in New York in 1877, began drawing as a child and sold his first illustration to a magazine for $10 when he was just 12 years old. He became a contributing illustrator to Judge and Life magazines while he was still a teenager. Flagg studied art at the Art Students League in New York and fine arts in both London and France, before returning to commercial work in the U.S.
Flagg’s illustrations appeared in all the major magazines of the day, including Colliers, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, and the Saturday Evening Post, among many others. He won a commission to illustrate P.G. Wodehouse’s character Jeeves. Flagg’s work was in such demand that he once boasted he was creating an illustration a day. He was purportedly the highest-paid illustrator of his time.
Flagg enjoyed the perks of his fame, hobnobbing with the likes of publisher William Randolph Hearst and actor John Barrymore. For the proto-celebrity magazine Photoplay, Flagg painted Hollywood starlets. Though he was married to a woman 11 years his senior, he had fairly public affairs with several of his subjects. Later in his autobiography, Roses and Buckshot, he would write that they weren’t love affairs but “lust affairs.” He claimed he couldn’t resist the allure of attractive women. Of the actress Hedy LaMarr, Flagg wrote, “It would be only a blind and deaf man who wouldn’t fall in love with her.”
During World War I, Flagg was appointed New York State military artist. His famous Uncle Sam image first appeared on the cover of the July 6, 1916, issue of Leslie’s Weekly magazine, with the headline “What are YOU doing for preparedness?” Flagg repurposed the painting for the U.S. Army the following year, and it was reprinted again during WWII. The famous recruitment poster saw a revival during the 1960s, though sometimes with a hint of that era’s irony.
Flagg’s Uncle Sam was almost certainly inspired by a similar 1914 British poster designed by Alfred Leete, which depicted a mustachioed Lord Kitchener, the British secretary of state for war, pointing and saying “Your country needs YOU.” Flagg made a total of 46 propaganda posters and agreed to paint a portrait of anyone who contributed $1,000 to the Liberty Bond war effort.
During WWII, Flagg painted a companion poster, “Speed Up America,” for which he received a commendation from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The poster featured the same skinny, bearded Uncle Sam, who greatly resembled Flagg himself, running away from a burning swastika. “I congratulate you on your resourcefulness in saving on your model hire,” President Roosevelt said at the ceremony about the artist using himself in his work, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. “Your method suggests our Yankee forebearers.”
After the war, Flagg continued illustrating, and also wrote short stories and appeared in plays, but his health and eyesight began to fail him. He published his autobiography in 1946, which, like his many letters to newspapers and magazines, was full of sexist comments common to that time.
Flagg said that “physically attractive women are the most plentiful thing produced in America,” according to a May 28, 1960, obituary in the New York Times, adding that the type he preferred was “Not intellectual, but a lady.”
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Flagg was 82 when he died in 1960. “Mr. Flagg was noted both for his patriotic war posters and his magazine illustrations of lovely women,” as the Times noted. “A frank iconoclast, he had little use either for ‘modernistic’ art or the ‘stuffy’ type of business executive.”