How Keefe’s likeness came to be immortalized — and turned into a symbol of female independence — happened rather serendipitously. Rockwell and Keefe were neighbors in Arlington, Vt., and he often asked folks in the community to pose for his work.
During a 2012 interview with the Hartford Courant, Keefe recalled how she returned for a second photo session because Rockwell asked her to model in a blue shirt and loafers. She was paid a total of $10.
“He liked to paint from photos, so his photographer took pictures of me, just posing me different ways and telling me to look this way or that,” Keefe said. “I don’t remember the photographer telling me to have any kind of attitude on my face, but I’m 90 and don’t remember.”
The resulting image — of “Rosie” with a rivet gun on her lap, sandwich in hand and “Mein Kempf” beneath her feet — didn’t quite resemble the 19-year-old. Keefe, who told the Courant she had never even seen a rivet gun before, was petite, contrasting with Rosie’s large biceps, broad shoulders and large hands.
“Other than the red hair and my face, Norman Rockwell embellished Rosie’s body,” Keefe told the Courtant. “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.”
Rockwell sent Keefe a letter 24 years after completing the painting, apologizing for bulking her in size “and calling her the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen,” the AP reported. “I did have to make you into a sort of a giant,” he wrote.
Keefe got teased a fair bit for the image, which Rockwell said was inspired by the way Michelangeo painted Isaiah in the Sistine Chapel. But, she told the Courtant in 2002: “It didn’t bother me. I was slim and trim. Just the idea of being able to sit for Norman Rockwell was a nice thing to do.”
A popular song, “Rosie the Riveter,” predated the painting, as did J. Howard Miller’s motivational “We can do it!” poster. But the Rockwell work, which includes a lunch pail emblazoned with the name “Rosie,” received wide distribution via the Saturday Evening Post.
Soon, the work took on a life of its own. The painting was taken across the country to sell war bonds, something Keefe said made her proud.
“I didn’t think much about it, and I didn’t really see myself as some epitome of the modern woman,” she said in 2012. “There was a war on, and you did what you could. And in a small town like Arlington, it was simply a matter of we knew he was a painter and asked a lot of people to come down to pose for his pictures.
“I didn’t really make anything of it and didn’t really see it or realize what would happen to that picture until it came out.”
The painting sold in 2002 for $4.9 million, which at the time was the highest amount paid at a public auction for a Rockwell, according to the AP. The work is now at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.
In an obituary written by Keefe’s family, the painting is described as “a nationally known icon of American resolve for women assisting in the war effort during World War II.” Keefe, the obituary said, earned “much appreciation and acclaim over the years” for it.
Keefe went on to earn a degree in dental hygiene from Temple University and married Robert Keefe, whom she met during a dental cleaning appointment. The pair had four children, 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Her husband died in 2003, the AP reported.
“Mary will be remembered as a loving, patient, and generous wife, mother and grandmother,” the family’s obituary reads. “Her personal interests included maintaining a daily interest in sporting teams, especially the Red Sox, Celtics, and UConn Women’s Basketball teams, as well as bridge, golf, cooking, and baking for her family and friends, and watching with great delight as her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren grew and prospered.”