If you passed Mary Doyle Keefe on the street, you probably would not look twice at the attractive older woman with her gentle smile and carefully coiffed salt-and-pepper hair. But if she was carrying a copy of a 1943 Memorial Day copy of the then-popular Saturday Evening Post Magazine featuring burly, wild redhead, “Rosie the Riveter,” your curiosity might be piqued. See, Keefe was Rosie. Keefe, who recently turned 90 years old and lives at McLean Home in Simsbury was the model for American artist Norman Rockwell’s historic poster that helped make “Rosie” a household name. A former neighbor of Rockwell’s in Arlington, Vermont, Keefe still fondly remembers how she ended up being the bicep endowed poster girl with an attitude who let the world know in no uncertain terms that American women were ready and able to step up during wartime. And the mother of four, grandmother of 11 and great-grandmother of three did just that by Spilling the Beans with Java.
Q: It has been a long time since you posed for that poster. What do you remember about becoming “Rosie the Riveter” for Norman Rockwell?
A: I was a telephone operator, 19 years old, and we were neighbors. And he often used neighbors for his paintings. He liked to paint from photos so his photographer took pictures of me, just posing me different ways and telling me to look this way or that. I don’t remember the photographer telling me to have any kind of attitude on my face but I’m 90 and don’t remember. I ended up having to pose twice though because the first time I wore a white blouse and saddle shoes and Norman Rockwell wanted the pictures retaken with me in a blue shirt and loafers. My uncle also posed for him and is in one of his “Four Freedoms” paintings.
Q: Rosie has an incredible look about her and killer biceps? Yours?
A: Not at all (laughing). Other than the red hair and my face, Norman Rockwell embellished Rosie’s body. I was much smaller than that and did not know how he was going to make me look like that until I saw the finished painting. I was at the Big E one year with two other models who worked with him as part of a program there and someone came up to me and said ‘how did you have the strength to hold that pneumatic drill all that time while you posed?’ I never even saw a drill like that or held one for the photographs. He added that. That is how he did his paintings. He called me after it was done and apologized for making me so physically strong.
Q: The poster became iconic not only for its patriotic message but as the crack in the door when it came to women establishing their independence and their value outside of the home. Did you see it that way?
A: I didn’t think much about it and I didn’t really see myself as some epitome of the modern woman. There was a war on and you did what you could. And in a small town like Arlington, it was simply a matter of we knew he was a painter and asked a lot of people to come down to pose for his pictures. I didn’t really make anything of it and didn’t really see it or realize what would happen to that picture until it came out. I was proud that it helped the effort and that the Rosie poster went around the country to help sell war bonds. I think that is what made it more famous.
Q: Were you an independent woman for the times?
A: I didn’t consider myself independent and after the poster came out did not consider myself any kind of celebrity. Over the years I have talked at schools and programs about being Rosie. There was a Veterans Day program after 9/11 at one of my grandchildren’s schools and they invited veterans to speak. My granddaughter told the teacher about me and the teacher explained they only wanted veterans for the program. She told the teacher that her grandmother was “Rosie the Riveter” so I was invited to speak too.
Q: After posing for the picture, did you ever consider modeling as a career?
A: Oh no! (laughing)
Q: “Rosie the Riveter” served as one of many representations of the spirit of the country during that time. What do you think of the spirit in the country these days?
A: I wish we could get that spirit back. You thought more about the country as a country then. I remember there was a blood drive going on and Arlington was so small it didn’t have its own, so two other models and myself drove to New York to give blood. I don’t know if people are willing to get back to that kind of spirit.
Q: I understand Rosie’s biceps are still being tapped today at McLean House for a good cause. Explain.
A: A few years ago, two nurses came to my door here and were trying to come up with an idea on how to get people to get flu shots. They asked me if I would help promote it. They made photo copies of the Post cover and everyone who came in for a flu shot got a copy and I would autograph it. They had the largest turnout ever so we do it each year.
Q: Would you pose again for the poster if you had another chance?
A: I would do it again. I enjoyed it. It wasn’t bad at all. I have a copy of the magazine on my wall in my apartment and some other memorabilia. It was my 15 minutes of fame.
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