Rockwell's real people.
Faces here and there have a certain familiarity--that of one-time acquaintances you knew and liked and remember fondly. But you have trouble recalling exactly where and how you last met.
Then you remember. This is Norman Rockwell's town.
For the last 24 years of his life, from 1953 to 1978, America's most beloved magazine illustrator, the master storyteller in oils, lived and worked here. And the faces you see--the lady decorating the Red Lion Inn with fresh flowers, the guy pumping gas at the Mobil station, the fellow behind the desk at the insurance agency, the elderly man walking down the street--these are "Rockwell's people," the hometown folks he used as models for magazine illustrations, most notably for The Saturday Evening Post.
Norman Rockwell died in 1978. But his people remain, dozens of them. They're older now but still there, living legacies of the painter. Each has special memories of him.
Joan Mahoney's first memory goes back to early 1955. Her name was Joan Lahart then, and that January all that concerned he was her upcoming marriage in May to Francis "Moe" Mahoney.
One day, though, her older sister, Peggy, came to her with a seemingly strange request.
Peggy had been asked to pose for a picture, and she didn't want to do it. Would Joan do it, particularly since the picture was going to be of a prospective bride and Joan was going to be married shortly? The man who wanted her to pose, said Peggy, was Norman Rockwell.
"Who is he?" asked Joan.
"He's a painter," said Peggy.
Joan agreed to pose for the picture and managed to get her fiance to participate. The 6'5" Mahoney had gone to Brown University on an athletic scholarship, was a former Boston Celtics basketball player whose career had been halted by the Korean War--and wasn't much for posing for paintings.
Joan finally got him to agree to let Rockwell look him over--"He had to love me to do something like that," she says. Mahoney came up that weekend from his native Brooklyn. Rockwell agreed that Mahoney would do fine, and having two amateur models who were really going to be married tickled his fancy.
The painting Rockwell had in mind was of a young couple applying for a marriage license. The location was the Stockbridge town clerk's office.
Rockwell did the painting in February; Joan and Moe Mahoney were married in May, and The Marriage License was The Saturday Evening Post cover for June 11, 1955.
It turned out be one of the most enduring of the 323 Post covers Rockwell painted over five decades. It has been reprinted countless times, engraved on plates, used for greeting cards and done in ceramics.
It's 1983 now and the Mahoney's have been married for 28 years. They have four children and two grandchildren, but Joan Mahoney, still slim and pretty, remembers that winter day in 1955 as if it were yesterday.
Rockwell, she says, was a stickler for accuracy and detail. "He said that Moe had to wear a light blue shirt and have wing-tip shoes. And I had to have a certain type of dress--yellow and white checks with puff sleeves.
"He said he'd pay for the clothes; but I couldn't find a dress like that anywhere, and finally I had to go to a dressmaker to have it made. She charged $25 for it, and Moe and I got $25 each to pose. It was a lot of money then. We were going to be married, and we appreciated it."
Rockwell had come down to Stockbridge from Arlington, Vermont, and his first studio in Stockbridge was on Main Street, above a market. He became a familiar figure in the center and just seemed to fit in wandering about and always, it seemed, on the lookout for people he could use in his paintings. He was never regarded as a celebrity by the people of Stockbridge. To them, he was just another character in a New England town. "Norman had a big basset hound," one native recalls. "That dog was forever running away, usually to the meat market for handouts. Norman spent more time running after that dog."
The man who posed as the town clerk in The Marriage License was Jason Braman, who ran the little department store in town. His daughter-in-law, Anne Braman, says Rockwell picked him for a special reason. Braman's wife had just died, and Rockwell thought posing for a painting might snap him out of his depression.
"Norman said he had used people like that before, that it seemed to cheer people up," Anne Braman says. "And it did. After the Post cover came out, dad was just so proud. People came around to seem him and he'd say, 'Would you like me to sign my name on your magazine?'" The next year, Jason Braman died.
Anne Braman's turn to gain a measure of immortality came in 1956. Rockwell asked her to pose for a Post cover that also turned out be one of his most enduring. It was called Teacher's Birthday.
She was not a teacher. At the time, she recalls, she was working either in the family store or as a receptionist at the Austen Riggs Center, a renowned psychiatric hospital whose graceful buildings dominate one side of Stockbridge's Main Street, just as the huge Red Lion Inn dominates the other. For the past several years, she has been the "flower lady" at the Red Lion--she decorates it with fresh flowers.
But to Rockwell in 1956, she was the perfect model for the school teacher, and she says she had no trouble with the role.
"He asked me to wear tailored clothes, but I've always worn tailored clothes, so that wasn't hard. He really went into details, though. I forget what kind of shoes I wore, but he didn't like them. We were at the grammer school posing with the children, and my shoes bothered him. His wife, Mary, was there and he asked her to take off her shoes. I put on her shoes, and he liked them for the picture. They were abou three inches too big for me, but he said they were fine. He was such a perfectionist."
She has no idea where the original painting is now. A great many of Rockwell's Post covers and inside illustrations have disappeared. Once he finished them, they became the property of the magazine.
"I suppose," says Anne Braman, "that some executive at The Saturday Evening Post had a daughter who was a teacher and he asked if he could have the painting. So they gave it to him. I often said to Norman, 'Who would want it, who would want it?'"
Everyone, it seems, would love an original Norman Rockwell painting today, if just for an investment. The Old Corner House, a museum of Rockwell's works on Main Street, had just purchased a painting titled Aunt Ella Takes a Trip, used to illustrate a story of the same name in the April 1942 issue of the Ladies' Home Journal. The price was nearly $200,000. Some of the people of Stockbridge seem surprised the paintings for which they posed are considered so important today. The paintings didn't seem very important when they were posing. It was sort of fun, and Norman. . .well, he was just Norman, sort of a good old shoe who was around all the time.
"My aunt was his cook, and my mother would help out at his house when he was holding parties," says Marty Salvadore, "and one day he asked me if I'd pose for a picture."
Salvadore is now a vice president of Wheeler & Taylor, a real-estate and insurance company on Main Street. He's a native of Stockbridge, and in 1966, when Rockwell asked him to pose, he was 17 and a student at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield.
"He was always walking around, looking at people's faces, and if he found one he wanted, he'd just ask you to pose," says Salvadore. "so one day he called me and asked if I could sit for him."
The painting featured the Peace Corps for the cover of Look magazine, and Salvadore's face was one of many faces on the cover. John F. Kennedy's was another.
Charlotte Markham also works at Wheeler & Taylor, and near her desk is a copy of a Rockwell painting known as The Church Supper. She is one of the people waiting to be fed as the turkey is carted in.
"All those people are local people," she says. "Some are dead now but most still live here."
Rockwell had his critics--particularly during the era of confrontation and unrest in the 1960s and 1970s--who accused him of painting an idealistic and unreal America that never existed. Don't tell that to the people of Stockbridge, though. He was real, they are real and their town is real. If he was idealistic and reflected it in his paintings, what's wrong with that?
Rockwell did adapt to a changing America. Some of his most powerful work was done in the 1960s, particularly Look magazine illustrations--one, The Prlblem We All Live With, of a little black girl being escorted to school by four deputy U.S. marshals and another, The Right to Know, of a diverse group of people standing in front of a judge's bench.
David Gunn knows those paintings well. He is 83 and was one of the people in The Right to Know, as was his son, his son's wife and a grandson. The proud little girl in The Problem We All Face was a granddaughter now married and living in Texas.
If Rockwell can be accused of limiting his painting to true American types, then Gunn certainly fits that description. He is proud that he was the first black man to be athletic director of a white private school in New England, at Lenox School for Boys. He is also pround that he is the great-grandson of Agrippa Hull, who was born in Northampton in 1989, died in Stockbridge in 1852 and served in the Revolutionary War as the servant of the great Polish general Thaddeus Kosciusko. One of Gunn's special possessions is Hull's Continental Army discharge, signed by George Washington.
And Gunn is certainly proud he knew Rockwell and proud of their relationship. "He called me Dave and I called him Norman, and he'd tell me he was looking for someone with a certain facial expression. So I'd look around and find someone for him, and it usually worked."
Whe he absolutely couldn't find the exact model he wanted in Stockbridge, Rockwell would resort to professional models, but such occasions were few. In one case it was disastrous. He needed a cat and hired an animal trainer to bring one to his studio. The cat was so hyperactive from the ride, however, that it wouldn't sit still. The trainer finally gave it a tranquilizer, and the cat rolled over and went to sleep. Rockwell finally went out searching for a neighborhood cat, which did just fine. Mostly he was happier sticking to the people and animals he knew in Stockbridge.
Ernie Hall, who has run Hall's Auto Service in the center of twon for 35 years, is the quintessential Yankee, sparse with words, reluctant to divulge any secrets of Stockbridge.
But the "yeps" and "nopes" he customarily gives as answwers to a stranger's questions are expanded to friendly and enthusiastic sentences when it comes to Norman Rocwell.
"Everybody in thi stown liked him," he says. "He was just one of those people. He'd do anything for you and you'd do anything for him. Remember all those boy Scout calendars he did for years? He did those for nothing. That's what kind of a person he was."
As happened so often in Stockbridge, one day Rockwell told Hall he'd like him to pose for an illustration. "So one day I went over to see him, says Hall.
The result was The Expense Account, with Ernie as a suffering salesman returning home on a train and worring over his expense account. It was the Post cover for November 30, 1957.
It also has a special distinction from any Psot cover before or after. Rockwell used the name of his that was the background of the painting had Ernie's name on it. There it was: Ernest Hall.
"He asked me if he could use my name and I said sure. He said I'd never see another name on a painting. I think it just amused h im."
Asked if Rockwell lived near the center of town when the painting was done. Hall had a most appropriate reply.
"He's still here."
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|Title Annotation:||memories of artist's models|
|Publication:||Saturday Evening Post|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1984|
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