Mary Doyle Keefe was a young telephone operator, with no experience in riveting, when a neighbor in Arlington, Vt., asked whether she would pose for a painting.
The neighbor was Norman Rockwell, and the painting was “Rosie the Riveter,” the iconic image of a red-haired, red-lipped bruiser of a woman with a rivet gun in the lap of her overalls and her heavy foot atop a copy of Hitler’s manifesto “Mein Kampf.”
On May 29, 1943, midway between the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the Allied victory in World War II, the painting appeared on the cover of the Memorial Day issue of the Saturday Evening Post. It later decorated posters advertising government bonds to finance the war effort.
Seen by millions, the painting became one of Rockwell’s most celebrated images and was credited with capturing the plucky spirit of American women who filled the factory jobs left behind by men who had gone off to war. Mrs. Keefe received $10 for her efforts — $5 for each of two sessions with the photographer assisting Rockwell — and what she described as a feeling of privilege and pride.
Mrs. Keefe, 92, died April 21 at an assisted-living community in Simsbury, Conn. The cause was complications from pneumonia, her son Bill Keefe said.
Rockwell was not the first artist to commemorate wartime factory women, whose ranks also included the lesser-known Winnie the Welder. In 1942, songwriters Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb penned a tune, “Rosie the Riveter,” popularized by musical groups that included the Four Vagabonds.
All the day long,
Whether rain or shine,
She’s a part of the assembly line.
She’s making history,
Working for victory,
Rosie the Riveter.
About the same time, the artist J. Howard Miller created the “We Can Do It!” poster featuring a long-lashed, determined-eyed woman sporting a polka-dot bandana and flexing her bicep. Many Americans in later generations would see her as Rosie the Riveter.
But Rockwell, with Mrs. Keefe as his initial model, surpassed perhaps any other artist in depicting that archetypal woman in fine human detail.
His ruddy-faced character wore civilian medals indicating that she had contributed to blood drives and purchased war bonds. A handkerchief and powder puff, of little utility at the factory, are stuffed into her hip pocket. In her left hand, she holds the provisions taken from a lunch bucket labeled “Rosie.”
While the painting may have captured the imaginary Rosie, it did not perfectly capture Mrs. Keefe, then Mary Doyle, whose petite 110-pound frame bore little resemblance to the figure Rockwell had drawn. Deborah Solomon, a Rockwell biographer, described the Rosie figure as “a female behemoth sprung from the dark lagoon of Rockwell’s imagination.”
“Other than the red hair and my face, Norman Rockwell embellished Rosie’s body,” Mrs. Keefe told the Hartford Courant in 2012. “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.”
Mrs. Keefe was photographed twice for the work, once wearing a white shirt and saddle shoes, she said, and again, at the artist’s request, with a blue top and penny loafers.
For Rosie’s ample musculature, Rockwell drew inspiration from Michelangelo’s rendering of the prophet Isaiah in the Sistine Chapel. An article in the Bennington, Vt., Banner, cited by Solomon in her book “American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell,” observed that Rosie’s arms may have belonged to the boxer Jack Dempsey.
Mrs. Keefe said years later that Rockwell apologized to her for the brawny depiction.
“The kidding you took was all my fault,” Rockwell was said to have written to her in a letter, “because I really thought you were the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.”
Mary Louise Doyle was born on July 3, 1922, in Bennington. In her youth, she assisted her mother, who ran the local telephone office from their home. Rockwell, Mrs. Keefe said, would drop by to pay his bill.
His other models included one of Mrs. Keefe’s relatives who appeared in each installment in Rockwell’s series “Four Freedoms,” according to her son.
Mrs. Keefe was a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia and became a dental hygienist. After the image’s wartime use, Rosie the Riveter was employed as a symbol of female empowerment, a development that Mrs. Keefe said she had not anticipated.
“I didn’t really see myself as some epitome of the modern woman,” she told the Courant. “There was a war on, and you did what you could. . . . I was proud that it helped the effort and that the Rosie poster went around the country to help sell war bonds.”
Her husband of 54 years, Robert J. Keefe Sr., died in 2003. Survivors include four children, Bill Keefe of Reston, Va., Barbara K. Boska of Sparta Township, N.J., Robert J. Keefe Jr. of Woodbury, Minn., and Mary Ellen Keefe of East Granby, Conn.; 11 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter” painting was sold at auction by Sotheby’s in 2002, fetching $4.9 million. Mrs. Keefe reaped a degree of fame in her later years. The first time she used a rivet gun, the New York Times reported, was during an appearance on “The Tonight Show.”