The model for Norman Rockwell’s iconic Rosie the Riveter painting highlighting women’s vital role working on the home front during World War II has died. Mary Doyle Keefe was 92.
A trip to Norman Rockwell’s studio in Arlington, Vermont for 19-year-old telephone operator Mary Doyle created an image that would symbolize the millions of women working in factories supporting the U.S. war effort abroad in the 1940s. Rockwell’s painting is not to be mistaken with J. Howard Miller’s 1942 image of a woman with a red bandana flexing her arm with the words “We Can Do It!” above her head. At the time Miller’s creation was not recognized as a symbol of Rosie the Riveter, as it is today.
According to the book World War II and the Postwar Years in America the name Rosie was apparently inspired by a Rosalind Walter who worked on airplanes at the Grumman Aircraft Corporation’s Long Island plant.
In Rockwell’s depiction of Keefe, people picked up on the artist’s touch of placing the name “Rosie” on a lunch pail in his Memorial Day May 29th, 1943 Saturday Evening Post cover. Americans made the riveting connection to a song recorded by numerous artists including the Four Vagabonds.
The Post loaned the image to the Treasury Department for use in war bond drives. The painting features a broad-shouldered Rosie on break wearing blue work clothes, a rivet gun across her lap, a sandwich in hand and her penny loafer resting on a copy of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. In a 2002 interview with the Norman Rockwell Museum’s media manager Jeremy Clowe, Keefe describes what she saw in the painting.
“In one pocket he’s got the makeup and a fancy handkerchief hanging out and the red nails on,” Keefe said. “To make you think of being a woman and also working for the war effort. I think that was his idea.”
Keefe says Rockwell did reach out to her about one detail before the cover came out.
“He called me one day and he said ‘Mary, I apologize but I made you very large,’” Keefe recalled. “Of course as a young girl I said ‘Oh, that’s all right.’ When I saw it, it was a different story.”
Keefe said she was photographed for Rockwell for about 2 hours in a seated pose, which Rockwell based on Michelangelo’s depiction of the prophet Isaiah on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Having met Keefe a number of times, Clowe says people are surprised to learn that she was shy and modest about the whole experience of becoming a cultural icon.
“When she would come in here she really was in some ways treated like royalty,” Clowe says. “People were absolutely awestruck to see this figure from the canvas come to life.”
Keefe died in Simsbury, Connecticut Tuesday.
“It was a privilege to be able to sit for Norman Rockwell and be able to do these things because he was quite an artist,” Keefe said. “So I got quite a bit out of it.”