What was it about this woman that made the little girl want to grow up to be just like her? What was it that made her seem the perfect realization of womanhood, luscious embodiment of all that was alluring and desirable in a grown-up female? Was it the hair -- so thick, so brown, so curly? The face, naturally lovely and expressive?
Yes, Mary Whalen Leonard decides; it was both of these things. The hair. The face. But more than that, it was the woman's inner grace, her exuberant compassion. These were the qualities that captivated Mary's imagination when, in 1953, she posed for Norman Rockwell's "Girl at Mirror." At that time, however, the woman she admired most in the world wasn't Jane Russell, the buxom sexpot whose image Mary is shown wistfully holding in that painting. It was, and remains, her own beloved aunt, Mary Veronica.
Short Aunt Ronnie, no more than 4 feet 10, who, because of the way her hips were put together, never could walk properly, or squat.
Busy Aunt Ronnie, who, when she wasn't helping other people, or laughing, or listening, always seemed to be making braided rugs.
Beautiful Aunt Ronnie.
Crippled Aunt Ronnie.
Aunt Ronnie, who was not physically perfect but, in fact, physically disfigured.
"She was gorgeous," recalls Mary Whalen Leonard, who at 58 is silver-haired and beautiful herself, in an unadorned sort of way. She had no interest in makeup back when she posed for Rockwell, and even now regularly mortifies her adult daughters by venturing out without lipstick, or with a smear of toothpaste on one side of her cheek. Her relationship with mirrors remains fleeting, her attitude uninterested; during a visit to the ladies' room toward the end of a lunch interview, she barely casts a glance at her serviceable black cardigan, serviceable black slacks and serviceable shoulder-length haircut, but marches straight back out. "We have a whole wall at our house that's mirrors," she mentions, "and I hate it." Even so, her face regularly flashes the irresistible pointy-ended smile that animates the two other Rockwell covers she posed for as a child, "Day in the Life of a Little Girl" (1952) and "Girl With Black Eye" (1953).
It is no exaggeration to say that Mary Whalen Leonard was Norman Rockwell's quintessential American girl. She was his favorite model, it is often said, perhaps because of her instant likability. Back then, she was the sort of sparky, spiky, serious girl who read anything she could about Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale. But her own real-life choice of role models wasn't just a commentary on her; it also says something about America at the time she posed. In "Girl at Mirror," Rockwell was trying to capture the moment between childhood and adolescence, but he was also capturing a brief, transitory era when celebrity culture had already emerged but had not quite taken over -- a time when some girls might have been measuring themselves by Jane Russell's proportions, but when private life yielded a variety of remarkable women who had had their own quintessential American childhoods, their characters forged in part by the hardships the early part of the century imposed.
Mary Veronica Cullinan was one of these. Born in 1910 with a deformity known as congenital hip displacement, she never really walked but always lurched, horribly, from side to side. These days, congenital hip dysplasia, as it's now called -- a condition in which the leg bone is not held properly in the socket, and one that afflicts girls much more often than boys -- can be easily fixed, but in 1910 there was only one doctor who was beginning to develop a remedy. That doctor lived in Chicago, and to Aunt Ronnie's rural Vermont parents, going to Chicago was as feasible as going to the moon.
So the deformity was left untreated, as well as unmentioned, and at the time, a deformed girl was considered unmarriageable. So Aunt Ronnie did what unmarriageable women did: She developed a career, attending nursing school and working until 1942, when Mary and her twin brother were born, then taking time off to help Mary's mother care for the babies. Not long afterward, the influx of wounded World War II veterans prompted many medical schools to add physical therapy courses, and Aunt Ronnie took them, both at Harvard and Columbia, where, during one lecture, a doctor asked her to walk across the stage, demonstrating her disability. The students could learn more from seeing her, he explained, than from any textbook. Unabashed, she did so. At the end of her life she would will her body to the University of Vermont medical school for, her niece believes, the same reason that she willingly walked across that stage: "What I think Ronnie wanted to say was, `Work on this and study it so you don't miss it. Because this is a hard way to go through life.' "
Which may be why, after she finished her courses, Aunt Ronnie
began working as a physiotherapist helping children. The 1940s and '50s, after all, weren't just the war and postwar years. They were also the polio years, a time when each summer brought thousands
of newly disabled children. In Vermont, Mary Veronica visited many of them, working for a state agency that served crippled children, as they were then called.
Except for a couple of summers -- when the polio epidemics were so virulent that Aunt Ronnie wouldn't come near her own family for fear of infecting them -- Mary and her brothers would take turns riding around the countryside with her, waiting in the car while Ronnie worked. "We loved being with her," says Mary. "I think it was her sense of connection, of caring. She was also a source of encouragement. She had a wonderful sense of humor; she could tell marvelous stories." Aunt Ronnie eventually moved to Burlington, but visited them frequently, and in 1954, the year "Girl at Mirror" was published, she also brought with her a friend. A smallish, even-tempered man who worked for the Burlington water company and who thought Aunt Ronnie, by then in her forties, was the most beautiful woman in the world and who loved, more than anything, taking her out to dance.
"She hated to dance, but he would talk her out onto the floor," Mary Leonard remembers. "Her hips were big and stuck out, but it didn't matter to him."
When Aunt Ronnie called, afterward, to say they were getting married, Mary's mother got Mary out of bed to tell her. "I was so happy," she says.
"He came to regret it later," Mary remembers. She is speaking not of the man who married Aunt Ronnie but of Norman Rockwell, who added Jane Russell's photo to "Girl at Mirror" only after Mary had finished posing for him. She had not been holding the magazine with Russell's image, had not been holding anything. Rockwell also added the lipstick and hairbrush beside her on the floor, and as a result of these additions, Mary fears, the portrait was narrowed. This iconic depiction of adolescent girlhood became a picture of a girl lamenting her own looks rather than of a girl wondering, simply, what sort of woman she might someday be. That second idea is, she believes, the one Rockwell was after.
"I remember him saying, `Mary, dream about what a wonderful, beautiful woman you'll become.' But you have to remember what the ideal of woman was at that time. There was an emphasis on growing up to be a beautiful woman, rather than what your potential is. But I don't think that for Norman it was that narrow."
But what alternative, really, was there? What other glossy photo image could have served to point the way to the future? What other public role models were there? American celebrity culture would never find a way to accommodate a complicated woman like Aunt Ronnie. In many ways, Rockwell was right. A girl like Mary -- who only saw five movies, she reckons, through all of her childhood -- may have been able to define femininity in her own deep, rich way, but for most girls, and soon, perhaps, for all girls, celebrity culture would offer a set of more uniform models.
Not that it was necessarily easy, even for Mary, to apply the lessons of Aunt Ronnie directly to her own life. Things were changing too quickly. "Trying to decide who I'm going to be is a question that has always been traumatic," says Mary, who, thanks to Ronnie's example, grew up expecting to be a physical therapist, but was deflected by the difficulty of high school chemistry. She married after college, moving with her husband, Phil Leonard, a mathematician and academic, to Arizona. There, she raised three children, spending every summer back East, nursing her mother through three years of a slow-growing intestinal cancer, and then becoming, possibly as a result of this experience, a hospital chaplain and grief counselor, helping other families through the trauma of death and injury.
Along the way she has been a missile protester; a woman who didn't take an active role in the feminist movement but who wished feminism well; a Catholic who hopes the ordination of women will someday happen, feeling, strongly, that that there are other distinctly female qualities aside from beauty, that women bring a certain Ronnie-esque compassion to the task of spiritual guidance. And now the quintessential American girl has become the quintessential American grandmother, doting on a certain girl baby named . . . Mary Veronica. At the same time, there is one thing that Mary Whalen Leonard has never been quite sure of. After the interview is over, she puts a question to her husband, who is waiting for her out on the street.
"Jane Russell was a movie star," she says when she catches up to him. "Wasn't she?"
Liza Mundy is a Magazine staff writer.