Mary Doyle Keefe, the model for Norman Rockwell’s iconic 1943 Rosie the Riveter painting that symbolized the millions of American women who went to work on the home front during World War II, has died. She was 92.
Keefe died Tuesday in Simsbury, Connecticut, after a brief illness, said her daughter, Mary Ellen Keefe.
Keefe grew up in Arlington, Vermont, where she met Rockwell — who lived in West Arlington — and posed for his painting when she was a 19-year-old telephone operator.
The painting was on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on May 29, 1943.
Although Keefe was petite, Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter had large arms, hands and shoulders.
The painting shows the red-haired Rosie in blue jean work overalls sitting down, with a sandwich in her left hand, her right arm atop a lunchbox with the name “Rosie” on it, a rivet gun on her lap and her feet resting on a copy of Adolf Hitler’s manifesto “Mein Kampf.” The entire background is a waving American flag.
Rockwell wanted Rosie to show strength and modeled her body on Michelangelo’s Isaiah, which is on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Keefe, who never riveted herself, was paid $5 for each of two mornings she posed for Rockwell and his photographer, Gene Pelham, whose pictures Rockwell used when he painted.
“You sit there and he takes all these pictures,” Keefe told The Associated Press in 2002. “They called me again to come back because he wanted me in a blue shirt and asked if I could wear penny loafers.”
Twenty-four years after she posed, Rockwell sent her a letter calling her the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen and apologizing for the hefty body in the painting.
“I did have to make you into a sort of a giant,” he wrote.
The Rosie painting — not to be confused with a poster by a Pittsburgh artist depicting a woman flexing her arm under the words “We Can Do It” — would later be used in a nationwide effort to sell war bonds.
Keefe said people in Arlington didn’t make too much of a fuss about her being in the Rosie painting, aside from teasing her a little about Rosie’s big arms.
“People didn’t make a big deal about things back then,” she told the AP.
The painting is now part of the permanent collection at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.
Keefe spent the last eight years in a retirement community in Simsbury, according to an obituary prepared by her family.
She graduated from Temple University with a degree in dental hygiene, and was working as a dental hygienist in Bennington, Vermont, when she met her husband of 55 years, Robert Keefe, who died in 2003. They had four children and lived in Whitman, Massachusetts, and later in Nashua, New Hampshire.
Keefe’s family will receive friends and take part in a memorial Mass on Friday at McLean Village in Simsbury. A graveside service is scheduled for Saturday at Park Lawn Cemetery in Bennington.
The real Rosie is shown at right, the best known variation on the left. Both were wartime inspirations to the Americans.
It should be noted that there were many variations on the Rosie theme of girls doing their bit helping the war effort:
One such was a, at the time, unknown:
Marilyn “Rosie” Monroe
One of the “Rosies” during the WWII years was none other than Marilyn Monroe — well before she became “Marilyn the Hollywood star,” however. In the 1945 photo at right, Marilyn was then the 19 year-old Norma Jean Dougherty working at the Radioplane munitions factory in Burbank, California. Monroe was then married to Merchant Marine seaman James Dougherty, whom she had wed in Los Angeles in June 1942. In 1943, after Dougherty joined the U.S. Merchant Marine and was sent overseas in 1944, Monroe started work at the Radioplane plant, where she was “discovered” by an Army photographer. In the summer of 1945, Capt. Ronald Reagan of the Army`s 1st Motion Picture Unit, sent 26-year-old private David Conover, a professional photographer, on an assignment forYank magazine, the Army weekly. Conover was sent to the Radioplane plant to shoot morale-boosting photographs of pretty girls doing their job to help the war effort, none of which were used by Yank. (There have been some discrepancies on this point, as Yank did a prior story, “Women in Industry,” published in December 22, 1944. But apparently no photo of Norma Jean Dougherty was ever used by Yank). Conover, on his first encounter with Marilyn at the factory, would later write: “I moved down the assembly line, taking shots of the most attractive employees. None was especially out of the ordinary. I came to a pretty girl putting on propellers and raised the camera to my eye. She had curly ash blond hair and her face was smudged with dirt. I snapped her picture and walked on. Then I stopped, stunned. She was beautiful. Half child, half woman, her eyes held something that touched and intrigued me.”
Conover introduced himself to Monroe, and there began a professional relationship. Monroe’s appearance and natural ease in front of the camera captivated Conover. He would later write that she had “a luminous quality in her face, a fragility combined with astonishing vibrancy.” Upon hearing that she wanted to become an actress, he told her that she would need to become a model, and then spent the next two weeks snapping photos of her, and coaching her on how to pose and “address” the camera. Thereafter, Conover was sent to the Philippines and the two lost touch. Monroe, meanwhile, moved out of her mother-in-law’s home, stopped writing to her husband, James Dougherty, and filed for divorce in 1946. Dougherty later remarried after the war in 1947 and joined the Los Angeles Police Department. In 1950, he was one of the police officers who held back the crowd at the premiere of Monroe’s movie, The Asphalt Jungle. It was not until 1953 that photographer David Conover learned that Norma Jean Dougherty had become movie star Marilyn Monroe, who would later credit Conover with having “discovered” her. Tutor and student were reunited in 1953 on the set of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. To learn more about the Conover-Monroe photos, read Conover`s 1981 book, Finding Marilyn. See also at this website, a short story about Elton John’s tribute song to Monroe, “Candle in the Wind.”
Press prose and Photo credits:
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