Norman Rockwell’s Ghost

The most artistic collaboration of the entire Apollo program.

On a Sunday morning in November 1966, my wife and I were having breakfast at our home in Bethesda, Maryland, when the phone rang. I answered it, and the operator said, “Pierre Mion, please.” I said, “Speaking.” She then said, “Go ahead, please.” An older voice came on the line, saying, “My name is Norman Rockwell, and I’m an illustrator.” And I said, “Sure. And my name is Mickey Mouse.” The caller again said his name, but I didn’t believe him, thinking it was a friend of mine who frequently played practical jokes on me. I kept saying, “Come on Billy. I know it’s you.” After a couple more minutes of this, he became frustrated, saying, “I’m not Billy. I’m 72 years old. Ask me any questions you would like.” Then I began to think: What if it really is Norman Rockwell and he hangs up? So I said, with tongue in cheek, “Go ahead Mr. Rockwell, what can I do for you?”

He told me that Look magazine had commissioned him to do three paintings depicting the first manned landing on the moon, which at this point was over two and a half years away. He added that he was having problems with the subject and could use some help and advice. Now I knew it must be a hoax because not only would Norman Rockwell not call me, but surely he would not need my advice.

He went on to say he had seen an article I had illustrated in National Geographic magazine four years earlier about robotic spacecraft landing on the moon, liked what he saw, and felt I must be familiar with the subject of space. He then asked me if I could come up to his studio in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, to help him. I asked when he would like me to come, and he said, “How about tomorrow?” I said okay, and he told me to make a reservation to fly to Hartford/Springfield. After I booked the flight, on Allegheny Airlines, I called him back: He told me his friend Ken Hall, who owned the local gas station and garage, would pick me up at the airport. He said, “You can’t miss him. He’s well over six feet and quite large.” I told him I would see him tomorrow.

Now, at this point, I still was not sure this wasn’t a practical joke, but if it was, it was becoming pretty elaborate. I wondered if, when I arrived in Stockbridge, my crazy friend Billy would be waiting to greet me with “Boy, I really got you this time!”

When I arrived at the house, I immediately went into the studio, an old converted carriage house. Rockwell, a thin man with thick silver hair, was waiting for me, and as soon as I met him, I tried to give a speech I had prepared and started by calling him Mr. Rockwell. He told me to call him Norman and said how pleased he was I had come. We went right to his easel, on which was an oil painting in progress of an astronaut climbing down the ladder from the lunar lander, about to place his left foot on the moon’s surface. Rockwell put his arm around my shoulders and started asking me questions about technical details and the colors of the lunar surface.

During the design and construction of most spacecraft, details change on a daily basis, and NASA people kept sending Rockwell updates on the lunar module at a confusing rate. What he needed was someone who had my experience with the subject of space to make some final decisions for him so he could finish the painting. As a boy, I had painted imaginary rockets, and later I honed my skills working for a design studio that frequently got contracts from NASA. I had also worked on several Apollo program illustrations, so I gave him my opinion on several details, which he accepted.

At the end of a day of productive discussion, Rockwell told me he did not have enough time to complete all three paintings for the Look assignment. Besides the first-footstep painting, he had been asked to do a generic-astronaut portrait, as well as the lunar ascent stage’s liftoff from the moon. Rockwell asked me if I could do the third painting for him, and he would add his touches and sign it. I was so speechless I could not answer him right away, so he said of course he would pay me what the National Geographic would. I still had not answered him, so he said, “Oh, hell. I’ll pay you whatever you want.” I couldn’t believe that Norman Rockwell wanted me to ghost a painting for him. I told him I would be delighted to do it and that the National Geographic (at that time) would pay me $1,000 for a similar effort. He said that was fine, so I left shortly after to make the last flight home.

A week later, after I finished the painting, I called Rockwell and asked if I should send it up to him. He said he would rather I bring it up so we could compare our two paintings. Needless to say I was extremely nervous, but I made reservations for the next day (Rockwell later reimbursed me for the airfare) and once again was met by Ken Hall at the airport. I kept wondering what kind of touches Rockwell would want to add to my painting. Truth be told, I thought I had done a nice job, and adding touches might only mess it up.

When I arrived at Rockwell’s studio, he immediately asked me to unwrap the painting. You can imagine how uneasy I felt. He said, “Oh, this is really quite good. Better than I thought it would be. I mean, I thought it might look something like an engineer’s drawing.” Realizing he was putting his foot in his mouth, he again said how nice it was and that he liked my colors better than the ones he had used on the first-footstep painting. He asked me if I could stay a few days to bring his painting closer to mine in color. I agreed, and during that time, I learned that Rockwell was an absolute workaholic: He rose at dawn every day, prepared himself a breakfast of two boiled eggs and fresh-squeezed orange juice, then headed to the studio. He painted all morning (either standing at his easel or sometimes sitting before it in a wooden chair), broke for lunch, then resumed painting until sundown.

Fortified by the breakfast that Rockwell had prepared for me, I started working on his painting, drawing the antenna atop the spacecraft, repainting the stars, and drawing and painting the interior of the spacecraft as seen through the windows. He was quite embarrassed to be receiving this kind of help, including having one of his paintings done by someone else. He had never had anyone do this for him. To put him at ease, I reminded him of the Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens, who had 40 students working in his studio; when he liked one of their paintings, he would sign his own name to it. There are still some Rubens paintings that are of indeterminate origin.

One day while I was working on his painting, Rockwell was relaxing on a cushioned bench under the large north-facing window, smoking his usual pipe, and he said, “You know Pierre, I’m getting to like this Rubens idea.”

The three paintings were done by Look’s deadline, and when they were published, the one I had done had not been “touched” or “signed” by Rockwell. The caption read: “Norman Rockwell, assisted on this painting by artist Pierre Mion, shows the departure of Apollo astronauts from the moon….” I could not have asked for more. If Look had given me full credit for the painting, people would have assumed Rockwell and I had worked independently. But because the caption linked the two of us, it gave me a great career boost. And by the way, Rockwell paid me $1,500 for my work instead of the $1,000 he had offered.

On another assignment, we went to Florida to do research and photograph the three Apollo 11 astronauts (Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins) for a large painting Rockwell was going to do for Look to commemorate the first manned lunar landing. NASA had arranged for us to photograph Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins in the manager’s office of the Holiday Inn in Cocoa Beach, where the astronauts were staying. Collins, who walked into the office first and was delighted to meet Rockwell, was extremely humble and most polite. When Armstrong and Aldrin came in a few minutes later, they seemed completely indifferent and unimpressed by meeting Rockwell and were obviously annoyed at this foolishness. Looking at Armstrong’s eyes, I felt as if I was looking at some sort of alien, cold as hell.

Before this trip to Florida, Rockwell thought he might paint the three Apollo 11 astronauts surrounded by many of the world’s explorers, such as Columbus, Magellan, and Admiral Richard E. Byrd. I told him that might be sort of old-fashioned, and suggested he show the three astronauts flanked by numerous NASA and industry people who had helped make the first manned moon landing possible. He liked the idea, and this is what he eventually painted. He also had the Holiday Inn manager photographed, and, believe it or not, put him in the final painting in the lower righthand corner, portraying him as NASA staff. Rockwell told me the reason he depicted all of the heads as profiles was because it took much less time to paint only half of a face. I assisted him back at his studio by painting the background, the Apollo assembly building and launch tower, and the astronauts’ helmets and suit valves. The Look article illustrated with this painting, as well as three others by me, wasn’t published until right after the Apollo 11 crew’s return to Earth on July 24, 1969. (No one was certain the mission would succeed; had it failed, there obviously would have been no congratulatory article.)

Rockwell and I worked together on other projects through the years and continued our friendship until his death in 1978. At one time, while visiting Washington, D.C., to promote a book of his work, he and his wife Molly went with me to an airport in Warrenton, Virginia, where I took each for a flight in a sailplane. I must say Molly had a better time than Norman. While in the air, he kept repeating, “As long as I know Pierre is at the controls, everything will be all right.” It dawned on me that I had the safety of this great artist in my hands.


Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.