(Or reason number 6,400,057 why I love the World Wide Web)
Hi. Barb here.
Last month I wrote a blog post about my investigations into whether my grandmother had modeled for Norman Rockwell in the early 1920s.
Well, I think we got the answer!
One of the comments on that blog post said,
When you have a moment, please feel free to contact me concerning your grandmother and Norman Rockwell. I believe I have the information you’re seeking.
Norman Rockwell historian”
A bit of Googling showed that Robert Berridge was a known Rockwell expert. (For example, he served as a source for Laura Claridge’s 2003 biography Norman Rockwell: A Life). So I wrote him right back. Here’s his response.
“Good Friday morning Barb – happy to help.
After your Grandmother posed for C. Coles Phillips, she modeled for Mr. Rockwell in the following artwork…
* February 25, 1922 cover of the Literary Digest
* Raybestos ad featured in the March 4, 1922 Saturday Evening Post
* March 23, 1922 cover of Life Magazine
Please feel free to send additional information concerning Eleonore and her New Rochelle days.”
This is truly astonishing. Because it means that when I came around that corner at the Rockwell museum that day and thought I saw my grandmother, I actually did. Naturally, as a writer, I started thinking about how I would make this moment believable if it was in a book. The answer is that the first, wholistic impression, the one that takes in the attitude as well as the totality of the physical aspects is the right one. After that, the more you study it, the less sure you are.
Here’s what I wrote back to Berridge about what I knew about my grandmother during those years.
“As for my grandmother’s New Rochelle days, I don’t know a lot. I think she would have been a junior at Smith college in 1922. Her family had moved to New Rochelle (Sea View Ave) when the suburbs opened up. She was the oldest in the family and always missed New York City–never quite made the switch. Her mother’s family were quite well-known interior designers–A. Kimbel & Son.”
I asked Mr. Berridge how he knew this was my grandmother, and this is what he said,
“Over the past forty years, I’ve conducted thousands of oral interviews, phone calls, letter writings and emails concerning the life and times of Norman Rockwell-a hobby that went out of control! My archives are vast.
In the mid 1980’s, I happened to interview a close friend of Mr. Rockwell’s in New Rochelle, NY – a behind the scenes Rockwell biographer of sorts. In that interview, I received a treasure trove of information including that of your Grandmother Eleonore.
In November of 1921, Mr. Rockwell traveled to South America. He started one sketch right before he left and two soon after he came back. Your Grandmother’s name was given to me as the young woman who modeled for those sketches – the illustrations listed….”
Once I knew what I was looking for, I found the other covers easily on the web. They’re both well-known works. Some people believe the Life cover, “Don’t Say I Said Anything,” is emblematic of Rockwell’s life-long hatred of gossip and presages his much better known Saturday Evening Post cover, “The Gossips.” “The Master Violinist” was made into a Rockwell plate (plate like a dish, not plate as in printing) and depending on the condition and lighting, you can see her face much more clearly.
All of the artwork my grandmother appears in, both the C. Coles Philips pieces and the Rockwell ones, was published in a period of a few months between December, 1921 and March, 1922. I have no idea what lead times were like in publishing in those days, but it makes me wonder if my grandmother spent the summer between her sophomore and junior years in college modeling.
It must be noted here that Venus Van Ness, the archivist at the Rockwell Museum writes that there is no documentation to support the oral histories Berridge collected in this case. Here’s her response.
“I spoke with Robert Berridge last week about your grandmother. Based on the extensive oral histories that he has conducted with individuals connected with Rockwell, he determined that your grandmother was in fact a model for Rockwell. He didn’t provide me with any real specifics or documentation, however, so that basically still leaves me at square one.
Unfortunately because the dates in question are so early in Rockwell’s career, it’s difficult to find supporting documentation. One source that we rely on here are Rockwell’s check registers. In many cases, the check stubs show us who modeled for Rockwell, the date(s), the particular work, as well as how much they were paid. The problem is that these check registers only date back to 1937. Additionally, the business correspondence collection that we have has very few items from the teens and twenties.
So, to make a long story short, I can’t confirm that grandmother was a model for Rockwell. However, based on the dates, the fact that she lived in New Rochelle, and had worked as a model for other artists, makes it very possible. At that time in Rockwell’s early career, he did employ professional models. Your grandmother may very well have been one of them.
So sorry that I couldn’t be more definitive in my response. Best of luck with your continued searching.”
Fascinating, Barb. Thank you for taking us along on your journey to solve this family mystery.
Great story, Barb. And with more proof than a lot of family stories ever have. Congrats on solving the mystery.
How incredibly exciting, Barb! I’d say you have 98% proof — certainly enough to say “YES!”
And how wonderful to have solved a family mystery! Now … if you can just work it (or a similar mystery) into a book ….!
Lea–since you are a print collector and dealer, I’m going to take your 98% number.
What an interesting story, Barb. I’m so glad you were able to verify that your grandmother was indeed a model for some of Normal Rockwell’s art.
Thanks, everyone. It has been fun, exciting, and of course, a mystery.
I’m already a scrapbooker, and I’ve often thought of doing some genealogy, but it feels like the kind of hole I could fall into and never come out! In other words, I’d never get any writing done.
Great follow-up. This is an example of the web at its best.
Thank you so much, Barb, for sharing with us readers your fascinating quest. How exciting. The resulting news of indeed a connection between Mr. Rockwell and your grandmother is most interesting.
Yes, family searching can take eons of time and effort, but sometimes it is worth it!
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