by Riley Cran, with illustrations by Chris Sandlin
Mortimer Leach (1906-1976) was an American lettering artist. He was a master of his trade, and he spent his career passing on his skills to a generation of talent, many of whom are amongst the greatest American lettering artists of all time. And yet his story remains mostly untold. Often, in the field of fine art, an artist’s life and experiences are instrumental in truly understanding their work. With this in mind, I have researched and compiled the first biography of Mortimer Leach as a crucial part of the Mort Modern project.
Mortimer was born to Joseph Leach (Russia) and Mildred Leach (England) in New York, 1906. Records surrounding how Joseph and Mildred came to be in New York are vague and conflicting, but no doubt they were part of the mass immigration to the USA during this period. When Mortimer was a toddler, the family (the parents in their early 20s at the time) moved briefly back to Mildred’s native England, returning to New York four years later on the RMS Cedric. Part of the White Star Line fleet, the RMS Cedric was the fleet’s largest ship at the time that Mortimer sailed as one of the 1,223 passengers on their way to New York City. Mortimer arrived on the 14th of August 1910, to a New York where the Woolworth building was just beginning to be built. Coney Island was at its height, with the glow of thousands of light bulbs glimmering off the coast. The copper plates of the Statue of Liberty were only half green from oxidization. Two years later, Mortimer would have been 6 years old in New York when the RMS Cedric sat in the harbor once again, this time waiting to ferry the survivors of the Titanic Disaster back to the UK (a mission it was later dismissed from).
By 1920 the Leach family had a daughter, Evelyn, and had moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Living in Minneapolis provided Mort with his first formal art education, where he attended the Minneapolis School of Art, now known as mcad (Minneapolis College of Art and Design). Records indicate that he did not finish his schooling there, but instead moved to Chicago, where he attended the newly founded American Academy of Art. Although it is unclear what exactly he studied, his attendance card does mention ‘layout’, and he likely took classes on calligraphy, draftsmanship, or a related field. During his time there his tuition from 1927 to 1929 totaled $75.50 (approximately $1084, today).
Instead of finishing his schooling (an experience he wasn’t fond of, and apparently rarely spoke about even with his family), Mort moved back to New York in his mid 20s, to begin a career freelancing as a lettering artist for advertising agencies. One can imagine that moving to the big city to freelance in a not-yet thriving industry must have been quite an adventure. The ‘Murray Hill’ telephone exchange name became synonymous with the ad agency neighborhood of Manhattan in the early ‘Mad Men’ era. The immutable ‘Murray Hill Script’ typeface by Emil Klump, developed for the advertising boom, would later carry the name. Although technology for typesetting text had become quite efficient, large headline types (in wood or metal) were limited in the type cases of most printers, due to being expensive and physically large to carry. For a field like advertising that demands fresh new solutions for each project, lettering headlines by hand with pencil, pen, and ink was the more practical solution. Soon, an entire generation of lettering artists (pioneered by Mort and his contemporaries such as George Abrams, Hollis Holland and Sam Marsh), brought efficient headlines to life at large sizes.
The advertising found in magazines and newspapers had a new eye-catching energy, with the characterful illustrations pairing beautifully with this custom lettering. Originally adapting typefaces that were common for text (such as Bodoni, Clarendon and Century), the lettering artists modified these classics in their own ‘hand’, transforming the robust text faces into sparkling headlines.
By the mid 1930s Mort had married Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Leach, a talent manager who was the first to represent Bob Hope. In 1937 they were joined by their first daughter, Nancy. Mortimer found great success in his trade, working for many agencies on projects that were seen across the country, including the Union 76 ‘orange ball’ logo in the 1930s, a long-running series of advertising for Old Gold cigarettes, and the Hunt’s ketchup label. His work, which he tirelessly drew with his left hand while chain-smoking cigarettes, became part of the landscape of American advertising vernacular, delivered in Life Magazine to homes across the continent in the era that introduced Raymond Loewy’s Coldspot refrigerator and Scotch Tape from the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (which had not yet adopted the shortened name 3M). When Mort wrote notes about his work, he did so with his right hand, as he had been taught in school.
With the outbreak of WWII, Mort received a letter from the United States government informing him that he was not permitted to enlist for the draft, but instead his presence had been requested in California for a top secret project. With this, Mort moved with his family to Pasadena, California, where Mort worked with the early long-distance weather forecasters at Caltech to produce maps for the army. Enjoying California, and feeling the family had been settled there, they decided to remain in California after the war, moving to Los Angeles. Mort returned to lettering for clients, eventually designing the logotype for Robinson’s department stores, at the height of the mid-century shopping mall boom. In 1945, Mort and Betty welcomed their second daughter, Lauren ‘Laurie’ Leach.
In California, Mort became aware of Art Center, a school founded a decade earlier by Edward A. ‘Tink’ Adams. Tink’s dream for Art Center was to create a school where students could be taught a curriculum of real-world art and design skills by actual working professionals. Art Center had run a technical illustration program with Caltech during WWII, and it was likely through this association that Mortimer eventually met Tink. By 1950, Mort had begun teaching five separate 3-hour lettering classes at Art Center for students in Advertising Design and Packaging Design.
His curriculum covered the sort of real-world practical lettering that he had done his entire career. First allowing students to become acquainted with the basic forms of popular text alphabets, and then showing them his preferred modifications, to help headlines maintain an even ‘color.’ He covered drawings of Caslon alphabets, Bodoni alphabets, formal scripts, and casual brush scripts, all with his own twist. He produced packets of exemplar alphabets, which he handed out to each new student in his class. With sample pieces from his career hanging on the chalkboard, he would draw large size sample drawings to introduce basic concepts, then pace the room providing one-on-one feedback on each student’s drawing.
In 1953, a 27-year-old student named Doyald Young enlisted in Mort’s class at Art Center. Doyald was a natural talent, and soon was being asked by fellow students for advice and feedback during class. After his 4th semester, Mort invited Doyald to be the assistant teacher of his lettering classes (which had now grown very popular). Doyald accepted, and the two grew to be close friends despite the 20-year age difference between them. Both men wore white shirts and black ties to class, teaching together at Art Center for over 15 years.
Although the origin of the commission is not well documented, it’s safe to assume that eventually this packet of exemplar material made its way to someone at Reinhold Publishing, a company who specialized in producing textbooks for art and science. Mort was eventually asked to compile his class materials from Art Center, along with other practical knowledge on lettering, into his first book. His wife Betty set up her Royal Typewriter on the dining room table of the family home, and she began transcribing the nearly illegible right-handed notes that Mort had written in the corners of large boards mounted with lettering sample paste-ups. Laurie Leach, Mort’s daughter, recalls the boards of lettering and typewritten text covering every surface of the living room furniture, eventually ending up in her bedroom as well.
Mort posed for photos, showing the correct way to hold a pen, and the various stages of producing a piece of finished lettering. For these photos, he posed with his right hand (instead of his left which he used for lettering) in order to make the photos more relevant to right handed readers, and to avoid obscuring his work in the shots. Instead of simply compiling his existing material into one volume, he worked with Betty to send letters away to lettering artists across the country, asking them for samples of their work for reproduction in this new book.
Their letters to esteemed lettering artists and studios from the period such as Sam Marsh Studios (New York), George Abrams (New York) and the team at Lettering Incorporated (Chicago), were returned with samples of gorgeous headline work. They were joined by equally beautiful pieces from lesser-known lettering artists that Mort had met throughout his career, such as Willie Martino, who despite my best efforts, I can find almost no information about. Mort included two pieces by his friend and apprentice Doyald Young as well. His book, now part-instruction, part-design-annual, was a perfect glimpse into the industry as it existed, when it was published as Lettering for Advertising in 1956. It is dedicated to Betty, Nancy and Laurie. Doyald is thanked for his assistance in a following page.
Lettering for Advertising (1956) quickly became a go-to textbook not only for lettering artists wishing to learn outside of a formal class environment, but by other institutions, trade schools, and internal art departments at companies that employed lettering artists. Much as Edward Johnston’s Writing & Illuminating, & Lettering (published the year of Mort’s birth) had been an inspiration to a wave of British and European calligraphers at the turn of the century, Mort’s book unlocked the secrets of mid-century advertising lettering in a pleasant-to-read, easy-to-digest book that drew upon his years of drawing and teaching. This success prompted the commission of his second book, Letter Design in the Graphic Arts (1960).
This second book, functioning more as a portfolio of various lettering artists, and compendium of opinion from reputable industry leaders, shows samples of the potential implementations of this lettering work. From wine bottles to advertisements for automobiles, the book shows beautiful samples of top notch lettering, interspersed with interviews and articles. It represents a standard of quality Mort had hoped to perpetuate, in the design people saw each day in the aisles of grocery stores and in the pages of magazines. The post-war desire for consumerism left people wanting to leave behind wartime rations for Coldspot freezers, and cupboards full of canned goods. To trade up for the new model automobile. To have comfort and stability. The second book is dedicated to Betty.
In the 1960s, Mort was offered the position of Head Lettering Artist at Hallmark, which he turned down, not wanting to move the family to Kansas City. Mort remained in California, teaching and taking on client work, for the rest of his life. The industry of New York City that Mort had left behind, the world of advertising lettering, had been largely replaced by the era of phototypesetting. The leaders of the golden era of mid-century lettering were the first to be hired by phototype companies, who produced massive catalogs of typefaces for use in advertising (freed as they were from the constraints of heavy metal and wood type production). A board of lettering, showing a complete alphabet and other characters (occasionally with some alternate characters) was drawn for conversion to a photo-negative, often stored on a reel of film or a spinning disc. One letter at a time, the words would be reproduced photographically. Headlines were ordered via phone, and companies like Photo-Lettering Inc. delivered the results of the process to ad agencies via bicycle couriers. The machines eventually became so sophisticated that they replaced hot-metal typesetting (such as the Linotype machine) altogether, with even the New York Times converting to ‘cold’ typesetting by 1978. Contemporaries that Mort admired began to have their lettering expertise immortalized in the less-ephemeral medium of type, and included in the massive type specimen tomes produced by these companies.
Freeman Craw (1917–2017, New York) had spun his career in advertising and identity design into a career in type, working with American Type Founders in the mid 1950s to produce Craw Clarendon and Craw Modern, classic typefaces redrawn through the lens of his experience. Tony Stan (1917–1988, New York) had moved from hand drawing headlines for advertising to produce a variety of typefaces for Photo-Lettering and International Typeface Corporation (ITC). ITC published Tony Stan’s versions of Century, Cheltenham, and Garamond. Each a version of a classic text face that carried his unique ‘hand’, and perhaps could be considered more suited for headlines. Lettering artist Ed Benguiat (b. 1927) became one of the most prolific type designers of the era, creating hundreds of alphabets for Photo-Lettering and ITC that were licensed for use around the world.
Although Mortimer’s second book, Letter Design in the Graphic Arts, does show several styles of an alphabet that Mortimer produced as a phototypesetting face for use in Chevrolet advertising, Mort’s work never was published in the form of a typeface. His letters, which he spent years perfecting and then sharing with his hundreds of students, never were captured as a typeface that could be utilized directly by designers. His recipe for his unique ‘hand’, and preference for the drawing of serif letters has inspired lettering artists (through his books) for over 60 years without being made into a typeface. Mort Modern was designed specifically to capture his preferences in a typeface intended for the needs of today.
In the early 1970s, Mort slipped and fell, breaking his hip and suffering a stroke. He was paralyzed on his left side (which he used for lettering), and was mostly bed ridden for the remainder of his life. However, Betty diligently kept up on his correspondence, sending letters on Mort’s behalf to lettering artists who he stayed in touch with. Mortimer Leach passed away in 1976. He taught at Art Center for over 20 years. Betty passed away in 1985.
Doyald Young took over Mort’s lettering class at Art Center, and continued to teach there until his death in 2011. During his career he drew logotypes for Prince, The Cheesecake Factory, General Electric, Prudential Insurance, John Deere, Frank Sinatra and the Grammy Awards. Like his mentor, he published several books on lettering (which today are themselves considered to be must-have textbooks) along with several typefaces. He taught at Art Center for over 50 years. Doyald is considered by many to be the greatest American lettering artist of all time.
Mort’s student Rick Cusick went on to become the head of the lettering department at Hallmark. Countless other students of Mort’s went on to succeed in the fields of Graphic Design and Art Direction, benefiting from the attention to typography that Mort instilled in them.
Nancy Leach went on to be a flight attendant, and passed away in 2011. They are survived by Laurie Leach, who still lives in California and works training dogs. Like her father, she is an author and has published three respected instructional books based on her experiences in dog training. She has her father’s books in her home library, and often shares them with visitors. She has been instrumental in compiling this story, and I thank her very much.