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Rockwell’s Favorite Model

“She was the best model I ever had,” Norman Rockwell said of Mary Whalen, who appeared on three Saturday Evening Post covers. Meet Mary, now known as Mary Whalen Leonard, who became Norman Rockwell’s favorite model. How did a young girl meet America’s favorite artist?

Rockwell Plymouth,Norman Rockwell December 22, 1951


Plymouth Ad
Norman Rockwell
December 22, 1951

Young Mary was thirsty. Seeing neighbors at a local basketball game carrying soft drinks, she asked her father for one. He was trying to explain that refreshments were only served at halftime, and that the concession stand was now closed, when a man seated behind them “came very gallantly to my rescue and said, ‘You can have my Coke.’” She “had no clue” who the man was, but gratefully accepted the drink. The gallant man was Norman Rockwell, who “was just sitting behind us, cheering. His son was on the team.”

Talking after the game with Mary’s father (who was Rockwell’s lawyer), the artist asked Mary if she would like to pose for him some day. “I said, ‘Sure!’ although I didn’t know what that meant,” she tells the Post.

She soon found out, when she (in the polka-dotted bathrobe at left), along with her mother, brother, and a young cousin posed for this 1951 Christmas ad for Plymouth. “There was something about the connection with Norman. Maybe it just came at the right time in my life. I was just kind of intrigued by him as a kid. I think it’s because he disarmed me when I went to the studio for the first time, and he said, ‘Call me Norman. My name is Norman.’ I really trusted him. [At that time] you would never call an adult by his first name!”

For the ad “I had to borrow a bathrobe,” Mary says, “because I didn’t have one.” (She’s still not a bathrobe person.)

It is significant that the Plymouth ad has no image of the product or even details about the car’s features: The excited faces of the family say it all. In addition to Post covers, Rockwell did a great deal of illustration for advertising.

Saturday Evening Post Cover from May 23, 1953


Outside the Principal’s Office
Norman Rockwell
May 23, 1953

When Rockwell decided to use Mary as the model for a cover about a girl with a black eye, he called for her at the local school. Unfortunately, this had the effect of scaring the child. Having never been summoned to the principal’s office, she jumped to the conclusion she was in trouble. “That was really frightening,” Mary tells us today, “I cried! But my sweet brother—he’s my twin brother, so we were in the same class—held my hand, and we walked together.” She was greatly relieved to discover Rockwell there and find out the reason for the command appearance.

Although the scene depicts the principal’s office, her part was done in the artist’s studio. And Mary says she never saw the principal and the secretary in the preliminary sketches. That’s because Rockwell added them later. According to Susan E. Meyer’s book, Norman Rockwell’s People, the artist “wavered back and forth” about including the adults. “He took them out and put them back in. [Fellow cover artist] George Hughes is convinced they were retained because he advised Rockwell to remove them.” (There was a long-running joke that Rockwell would solicit Hughes’ advice, and inevitably do the opposite.)

But Rockwell’s biggest challenge was getting the black eye right. He tried a charcoal mix on his young model, then makeup, but neither looked realistic. He finally advertised for a real black eye in the paper.

He not only got that tricky shiner right, his choice of Mary proved a great one. As a triumphant victor, the model manages the perfect devilish grin, even as the principal and school secretary confer on how to handle the situation.

Part II: Mary gives behind-the-scenes details on how certain poses were done as we review the Rockwell cover A Day in the Life of a Girl.

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