immortality was thrust upon Mary Keefe, when, as a 19-year-old telephone operator, she was chosen by the artist Norman Rockwell as the model for what would become a game-changing Second World War poster which helped galvanise the American war effort after the US finally entered the fray.
Keefe was transformed into the working heroine Rosie the Riveter, a graphic call-to-arms to American womanhood, to take up jobs left vacant as their menfolk went to war.
Keefe had red hair, like the Rosie who appeared on the cover of the Memorial Day issue of The Saturday Evening Post magazine in 1943, but she had never wielded a rivet gun.
And as portrayed in the painting, she was considerably bulked up from her petite 110lbs to embody a muscular American can-do spirit – an image inspired by Michelangelo’s Isaiah on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling in Rome.
“Except for the red hair I had at the time, and my face, the rest I don’t think is me at all,” Keefe said in a 2002 interview for the Norman Rockwell Museum.
Penny Colman, author of the 1995 book Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II, said the Rockwell painting “is iconic because it portrays a rarity – an image of a powerful woman with a don’t-mess-with-me attitude.”
To Chris Crosman, founding curator of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas, which bought the painting in 2009 from a Colorado gallery, the work “is emblematic of a sea change in American culture.”
“Importantly,” he said, “the artist’s depiction celebrates, even helps to invent, due to mass distribution as a War Bond poster and magazine cover, the beginnings of gender equality.”
In the museum interview, Keefe recalled that Rockwell “was trying to get people to realise that all the women could help out with the war effort when the men were away”.
When she posed for his photographer, she wore dungarees, changed into flat shoes and was equipped with both a visor and unnecessary goggles. Rockwell added touches to make her look more feminine, she said, tucking a gold-trimmed compact and lace-edged handkerchief into her pocket and having her wear lipstick, rouge and polished nails – to “make you think of it being a feminist woman, but also working for the war effort,” she said.
Mary Louise Doyle was born in Bennington, Vermont, on 30 July, 1922. Her father, John, was a tree feller. Her mother, Sarah, ran a restaurant in nearby Arlington, took in boarders and ran a telephone exchange from her house, where neighbours, including Rockwell, came to pay their bills.
Mary graduated from Temple University, became a dental hygienist and married Robert Keefe, who died in 2003. She is survived by two daughters, two sons, 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Rockwell, who painted 321 covers for The Saturday Evening Post, was primed to create Rosie by a 1942 song, Rosie the Riveter, by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb. They had apparently been inspired by a syndicated newspaper column by Igor Cassini about Rosalind P Walter, a 19-year-old school leaver who had done her part for the war effort by going to work as a riveter in an aircraft factory in Stratford, Connecticut.
The bandleader Kay Kyser, the vocal harmony group the Four Vagabonds and others recorded the hit song, whose lyrics included:
All the day long, whether rain or shine
She’s a part of the assembly line
She’s making history, working for victory
Rosie (mimicking the rat-a-tat-tat of a riveter) the riveter
Keefe posed as Rosie not for Rockwell but for his photographer, Gene Pelham, in two sessions, lasting about two hours in all. She was paid $5 (about £100 today) per session.
In the finished 52x40in painting, Rosie’s red hair, white skin and blue work shirt are superimposed on the Stars and Stripes. Her head is adorned by a halo, and her right shoe crushes a copy of Hitler’s racist rant, Mein Kampf. She is holding a ham sandwich. Her name is painted on her lunchbox.
Promotional placards advertising the 29 May, 1943, issue of The Post featured the cover and the title Rosie the Riveter, but the Curtis Publishing Co withdrew the placards for fear of infringing the song’s copyright.
The painting was eventually donated to the US Treasury Department’s War Loan Drive, which raffled it off. It was, after a series of owners, auctioned off at Sotheby’s to the Elliott Yeary Gallery of Aspen, Colorado, in 2002 for $4.9 million.
It was bought, presumably for more, in 2007 for the Crystal Bridges Museum, which was founded by Alice Walton, the Wal-Mart heiress.
Keefe was not the only neighbour Rockwell recruited to pose for paintings. An uncle of hers was in Rockwell’s Four Freedoms.
“He called me one day and he said, ‘Mary, I apologise, but I made you very large,’” Keefe recalled before the Sotheby’s sale. “Of course, as a young girl, I said, ‘Oh, that’s all right.’ But when I saw it, that was a different story.”
She was mollified a bit in 1967, however, when she received a letter from Rockwell.
“The kidding you took was all my fault,” he wrote, “because I really thought you were the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.”
l Copyright New York Times 2015. Distributed by the NYT news syndication service.