Inside America’s Great Romance With Norman Rockwell

A new biography of the artist reveals the complex inner life of our greatest and most controversial illustrator

(Courtesy Deborah Solomon)
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By the time his first Post cover had appeared, Rockwell had impulsively proposed marriage to Irene O’Connor, an Irish-Catholic schoolteacher whom he met at the boardinghouse in New Rochelle. “After we’d been married awhile I realized that she didn’t love me,” Rockwell later wrote. He never seemed to flip the question and contemplate whether or not he loved her. The marriage, which produced no children, somehow lasted nearly 14 years. Irene filed for divorce in Reno, Nevada, a few months after the Great Crash.

Rockwell wasted no time in picking a second wife. He was visiting Los Angeles when he met 22-year-old Mary Barstow at the home of dear friend Clyde Forsythe, a cartoonist and landscape painter. Mary, who smoked Lucky Strikes and had frizzy hair, had graduated from Stanford the previous spring in the class of 1929. He had known her for exactly two weeks when he asked her to marry him. On March 19, 1930, they applied for a marriage license at the Los Angeles County Courthouse. He gave his age as 33, chopping off three years, perhaps because he could not imagine why a fetching woman like Mary Barstow would want to marry an aging, panic-stricken divorcé.

For the next decade, he and Mary lived in a handsome white Colonial in New Rochelle, a suburb in which a certain kind of life is supposed to unfold. But within the first year of their marriage, she began to feel excluded from her husband’s company. He derived something intangible from his assistant Fred Hildebrandt that she could not provide. Fred, a young artist in New Rochelle who earned his living modeling for illustrators, was attractive in a dramatic way, tall and slim, his luxuriant blond hair combed straight back. In 1930, Rockwell hired Hildebrandt to run his studio, which required that he help with tasks from building stretchers to answering the phone to sitting on a hardwood chair for hours, holding a pose.

By 1933, Rockwell had become the father of two sons, Jarvis, a future artist, and Thomas, a future writer. (The youngest, Peter, a future sculptor, would arrive in 1936.) But Rockwell was grappling with the suspicion that he did not feel any more attracted to his second wife than he had to his first. He still cultivated close relationships with men outside his family. In September 1934, he and Fred Hildebrandt headed off on a two-week fishing expedition in the wilds of Canada. Rockwell kept a diary on the trip, and it records in detail the affection he felt for his friend. On September 6, Rockwell was delighted to wake up in the cold air and spot him lounging around in a new outfit. “Fred is most fetching in his long flannels,” he notes appreciatively.

That night, he and Fred played gin rummy until 11, sitting by the stove in the cabin and using a deck of cards that Rockwell had made himself. “Then Fred and I get into one very narrow bed,” he noted, referring to a rustic cot made from a hard board and a sprinkling of fir branches. The guides climbed into a bed above them, and “all during the night pine needles spray us as they drop from the guides’ bed.”

Was Rockwell gay, whether closeted or otherwise? In researching and writing this biography over the past decade, I found myself asking the question repeatedly.

Granted, he married three times, but his marriages were largely unsatisfactory. The great romance for Rockwell, to my mind, lay in his friendships with men, from whom he received something that was probably deeper than sex.

In the fall of 1938, Rockwell and Mary bought a farmhouse set on 60 acres in southern Vermont. Rockwell learned about the village of Arlington from Hildebrandt, who fished there every spring. Eager to reinvent his art by finding new models and subjects, he left New Rochelle and became a proud New Englander. However, unlike the archetypical Vermonters whom he would portray in his paintings—people who savor long afternoons on front porches—Rockwell didn’t have ten seconds to spare. A nervous man, he drank Coca-Cola for breakfast, was afflicted with backaches and coughs, and declined to swim in the Battenkill River flowing through his front yard, insisting that the water was too cold.

Nonetheless, the change of scenery served him well. It was in Vermont that Rockwell began using his neighbors as models and telling stories about everyday life that visualized something essential about the country. New England was, of course, the site of the American Revolution, and it was here, during World War II, that Rockwell would articulate the country’s democratic ideals anew, especially in the series of paintings that took their theme from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. Rockwell originally offered to do the paintings as war posters for the U.S. government’s Office of War Information. But on a summer afternoon in 1942 when he headed down to Arlington, Virginia, and met with OWI officials, he received a painful snub. An official declined to take a look at the studies he had brought with him, saying the government planned to use “fine arts men, real artists.”

Indeed, in coming months, Archibald MacLeish, the poet and assistant director of the agency, instead reached out to modern artists who he believed could lend some artistic prestige to the war effort. They included Stuart Davis, Reginald Marsh, Marc Chagall and even Yasuo Kuniyoshi, who, as a native of Japan, might then have seemed an unlikely choice for American war posters. Rockwell, in the meantime, spent the next seven months in a state of jittery exhaustion as he proceeded to create his Four Freedoms—not for the government, but for the Saturday Evening Post.


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