Norman got there in time. At 10.3o that morning, Denver time, he telephoned me. “It’s done,” he said. I knew that many artists could work fast but this was astonishing. When Norman came in with the cover portrait he brought along six smaller paintings: five of Ike and one of his wife Mamie. They were charming. Each had a different facial expression. I asked what they were for, “Oh, golly, Ken,” he said, “five thousand dollars (his normal fee) is just too much money for an hour and a half’s work, so I thought maybe you could also use these.”
We did, on our inside pages. (The General later told me that he didn’t care much for the cover portrait, but reckoned it brought him three million votes.)
Norman often gave away paintings to friends who admired his work. “Don’t you want one?” he once asked me reproachfully. I said, “Yes, I’d love to have one.” “Which?” Norman asked. I was flustered by his directness. Since Saying Grace was on the wall, I said, “How about this one?” So he gave it to me, as casually as another man might bestow a cigar.
It is classic Rockwell : a gallery of American faces caught in an interplay of emotions, a story-in-a-scene combining a deep reverence for traditional values with an extraordinary realism. It was his most popular cover, and it served me well : when some eager artist would come in with a cover, I would prop it against Norman’s huge painting, hoping that the contrast would make the artist feel so humble that he would find it awkward to ask for more money. It worked, too.
Through the years, critics faulted Rockwell for not being something he never thought he was—an artist like Vermeer or Matisse. Norman knew he was a marvellous limner of the nicer side of American life, a man whose love for the unabashedly wholesome brought pleasure to an enormous number of people. As such he had no equal. But the critics annoyed him just the same, and accusations that his work was too sentimental or shallow would occasionally throw him into a spell of depression. At such times I found myself in the curious position of trying to give encouragement to the most beloved artist in America.
Once Robert Beverly Hale, then curator of American painting at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, asked for a Rockwell painting. Any one, he said, would do. Norman said, “I’Il do ‘em a special one.” And he did. It was a smaller version of his Freedom of Speech. I later asked Bob Hale why they wanted it. “Well,” he said, “a thousand years from now people might want to know what Americans looked like in the twentieth century. So we thought we’d better have a Rockwell.”
By the early 19605, things were changing at the Post. New people were coming in, and in 1962 I moved to Reader’s Digest as art editor. Gradually Norman’s relationship with the Post also came to an end. He was still in great demand but something had gone out of his work. Technically he was still incredible, but the warmth and humanity were not there. He missed the old Post audience.
He missed the letters that came in hundreds after each cover. He had answered all the questions he had been asked all himself. He wrote about health problems and green coffee weight loss and how to keep healthy. The years were passing for all of us, but Norman seemed indestructible until 1974, when a Paul Gallico story came in to the Digest. Knowing that Norman admired Gallico, I phoned to ask if he would illustrate it. He said he’d love to. After several weeks nothing had happened. When I phoned Norman, he couldn’t remember our earlier conversation. When he asked who Paul Gallico was, I could barely answer.
By mid-1978 Norman Rockwell was a wasted shadow attended by Molly, his third wife, and two nurses. He didn’t quite make it to his 85th birthday; on November 8, 1978, he died. The little church at Stockbridge was filled with neighbours whose faces had appeared on so many canvases through the years. An eloquent sign hung on the door of a grocer’s shop: “Closed from to 3pm today in respect for Mr Rockwell.”
An illustrator, who had loved Norman’s work, wrote me a note that might serve as his epitaph: “How much richer this nation is for Norman’s having been among us. His whole life was built upon decency and trust and a never-failing faith in the worth of people.”