Rockwell’s Favorite Model, Part II

Ever wonder how Norman Rockwell achieved some of the poses we see? With close-ups and insight from model Mary Whalen Leonard, we'll show how a cover was done.

Weekly Newsletter

The best of The Saturday Evening Post in your inbox!


Day in the Life of a Girl Norman Rockwell August 30, 1952

Day in the Life of a Girl
Norman Rockwell
August 30, 1952


Rockwell said he enjoyed working with 9-year-old Mary Whalen, who “could look sad one minute, jolly the next, and raise her eyebrows until they almost jumped over her head.”

“He was very inclusive; he wasn’t authoritarian, telling me what to do,” Mary says. “It was, ‘OK, this is what we’re going to do today.’ He would act it out for me.

“I was reserved and he would just sort of pull [the expressions] out of me by laughing or clapping or stomping his feet or jumping up and down and making me laugh, that kind of thing. And I just felt such a part of what was happening. As a kid, I liked to be a part of something. He knew what he wanted and he knew how to get that out of you. And then when he got [the right expression], he would just shout, ‘Oh, that’s wonderful! That’s wonderful!’”

For the 1952 cover, A Day in the Life of a Girl, Mary gave Rockwell over 20 wonderful expressions.


“It took a week,” Mary tells us, to shoot all the scenes for the 1952 cover. Beginning with getting out of bed, A Day in the Life of a Girl is done sequentially, like a movie reel. Photographer Gene Pelham took dozens of shots, as the artist posed his models.

“When I posed for A Day in the Life of a Girl,” Mary tells us, “I got up early, my mother combed my hair, did my braids, and off we went [to Rockwell’s studio].” The first thing Rockwell said to them was, “We’re going to mess up Mary’s hair,” and with that he tousled her tidy braids.


The first six scenes were completed that first day. For this flying out the door on her way to go swimming look, her mother had to hold her pigtails back, while someone else pulled back her swimming cap. When the angles were just right, “Rockwell would yell, ‘Get it!’” Mary says, and Pelham would snap away.

The scene below depicts the old story: Boy meets girl, boy tries to drown girl, spunky girl bawls him out, and then gives him a taste of his own medicine. Ah, young love!

The boy in the love story is Chuck Marsh, another model with a wonderfully expressive face. He was in the earlier Rockwell cover, A Day in the Life of a Boy.


In real life, Mary tells us, she and Chuck never posed in a pool—it was all done in the studio. And when we asked about the dripping wet hair, Mary gave us a glimpse into the glamorous world of modeling: “They poured a bowl of water on me.”

The kids never pushed each other’s heads down either. “We used a bronze bust to lean on … to get the elbow right,” Mary reveals, then adds, “I went to the Rockwell Museum three or four years ago, and they still had that bust in his studio!”

[You can tour the artist’s studio at The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, or take the online tour here.]


Gradually, boy and girl become friends, go for a bike ride and a movie, and then we find them at a birthday party. In this scene, Mary is wearing a party dress Rockwell bought for her. But what sounds like an act of kindness was most likely the artist’s insistence on just the right details. As an example, he shopped several furniture stores for the exact chair he wanted for his delightful Easter Morning cover from 1959.

The party scene involved more models, including Mary’s twin brother, Peter; and Chuck Marsh’s little brother, Donnie, whose mission was simply to devour the cake and ice cream. Donnie’s single-mindedness about the treats made for a difficult day’s shoot, Mary recalls.


Ten-year-old Chuck Marsh noted that this scene was the “toughest time” he ever had posing. He liked Mary very much, but no how, no way was he going to kiss a girl. “Mr. Rockwell finally gave up trying to get me to kiss her,” he said, and the artist posed the two separately. Getting the smooch just right involved Chuck leaning toward—you guessed it—that bronze bust. Who knew the head of a Classical figure could be so utilitarian?


At the end of this long day, Mary is dressed for bed and writing in her diary, no doubt about that moonlit kiss. And the painting is almost complete.

But there was a problem when Rockwell reached his final scene. With the deadline almost upon him, he remembered the many complaints he had received about one aspect of A Day in the Life of a Boy—before retiring for the night, the boy did not say his prayers. So Rockwell called the Whalens and said, “You’ve got to get Mary down here!”

Because the prayer scene was added, another scene was taken out, Mary tells us. Deleted was a charming scene of Mary and Chuck smiling and thanking their hostess (the birthday girl in the pink hat in the party scene above). But the day is done, bedtime prayers said, and Mary drifts off to sleep with a smile on her face and a party favor beside her.

Previous: Rockwell’s Favorite Model
Next: The third and final installment of Rockwell’s Favorite Model, featuring a coming-of-age cover many feel is one of the artist’s finest works.

Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now