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Rosie the Riveter

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Rosie the Riveter

Plus-sized? Mary Doyle Keefe, who posed for this painting, was a petite woman in real life. Rockwell would apologize for painting her so large.
(Norman Rockwell © 1943 SEPS)

On the evening of June 6, 1994, the 50-year anniversary of D-Day, Jay Leno did a special tribute on The Tonight Show. He introduced several World War II veterans who were sitting in the audience before he presented his next guest, Mary Doyle Keefe. Mary was the model for Rockwell’s May 29, 1943, cover Rosie the Riveter. As Vicki Randle, a member of The Tonight Show band, sang the song “Rosie the Riveter,” Mary drilled several screws into a board making the drill sound at the end of the song.

Mary was a 19-year-old phone operator in Arlington, Vermont, when Rockwell called and asked if she “wouldn’t mind posing for a painting.” She posed twice because the white blouse and shoes for the first sitting were not what he was looking for. Mary explains that yes, she did hold a ham sandwich while posing; she did have the white handkerchief that peeked from a pocket; she never saw Hitler’s book Mein Kampf; and the rivet gun was a lightweight fake. “I’ve had people come to me and say, ‘How did you ever hold that rivet machine?’ ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘it wasn’t too bad.’” Rockwell had transformed the petite, 110-pound Mary into a brawny, muscular woman for the painting. She says, “He called me and apologized for making me so large.”

During the war, Rosie the Riveter and Rockwell’s Four Freedoms toured the country raising money for the war bond drive. “I was very pleased that they could make all this money for the war.” She adds, “I am proud of this painting. It’s a symbol of what the women did for the war, to do their part, and to give up their nail polish.”

Mary was also a special guest at Sotheby’s when they auctioned Rosie the Riveter on May 23, 2002. The painting sold for $4.9 million to the Elliot Yeary Gallery in Colorado, and has since been sold to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas.

Even today, Mary autographs Rosie the Riveter posters for people, and happily reminisces about the time she danced with Leno on The Tonight Show.

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