Rockwell work inspires "Day in the Life of ..." books

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STOCKBRIDGE — "I want you to call me Norman."

When Mary Whalen Leonard began posing for Norman Rockwell at his Arlington, Vt., studio, the famous illustrator let his 9-year-old subject know that they were on a first-name basis. But that didn't mean it was just going to be fun and games between them as they created the 22 scenes that became "Day in the Life of a Little Girl," the oil-on-canvas and Aug. 30, 1952, cover of The Saturday Evening Post.

"He wanted me to know that we were going to work together on this,"said Leonard during a recent telephone interview.

Leonard wasn't intimidated by the artist's rigorous attention-to-detail, using his sketched guidance to express varying states of joy, fright and tranquility as she feigned sleeping, bathing, eating and other daily tasks. A photographer snapped shots of her and, often, fellow child model Chuck Marsh over the course of three days during August of 1951.

"I just bought into it," Leonard, now 75, said.

Like many of the artist's numerous child models, surely, Leonard has plenty of Rockwell stories to tell. A couple appear at the end of "Norman Rockwell's A Day in the Life of a Girl" (Abbeville Press; $16.95), a children's picture book that pairs the 22 scenes from Rockwell's painting with author Will Lach's descriptions.

"When we finished posing, Norman had a little bell that he rang. It was like magic — all of a sudden, the woman who worked for him would come out with a Coke for each of us," Leonard writes in the book.

Leonard will share more anecdotes when she appears with Lach at the Norman Rockwell Museum for a book signing and discussion on Saturday, Nov. 25. As part of a family-focused day at the Stockbridge institution, visitors will also hear Lach speak about "Norman Rockwell's A Day in the Life of a Boy" (Abbeville Press; $16.95), another picture book he authored using the scenes from The Saturday Evening Post's May 24, 1952, cover. (He did not have the painting, "Day in the Life of a Little Boy," for reference.) Museum-goers can illustrate a day in their lives, too, while on site.

"They tell a story frame by frame," Lach said of Rockwell's two works.

The former senior editor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was a Rockwell fan as a child. He began writing about a year ago, he said, drawing from his experiences authoring other children's art books. He kept his messages simple while capturing a child's curiosity.

"In the morning, my bed's the world's quietest place," the "Girl" book opens, a shut-eyed girl resting her head on a pillow.

The illustration is an example of Rockwell's diligence. When Leonard arrived at Rockwell's studio to begin their first modeling session, Leonard's mother had her hair "in perfect condition," Leonard said. But the artist wasn't content, according to Leonard. They were going to start with the girl waking up, so her hair needed to be messy, he instructed.

"Very disciplined about details," Leonard said of Rockwell.

He was also open to revision. According to Leonard, Rockwell heard some criticism about neglecting to include an illustration of the boy praying in the "Boy" work, which he had already composed. To appease these detractors, he removed a model from the bottom-left corner scene of the original "Girl" piece (now solely depicting a girl, boy and basket) and inserted a penultimate illustration of the girl kneeling with her hands pressed together.

"Norman really, really cared about pleasing the public," Leonard said.

He wasn't sure, however, what a little girl looked like when she was praying, Leonard said, so he deferred to her judgment on how to stage the shot.

"That was the only time he didn't orchestrate the picture," she said.

Rockwell's control over the illustrations' content meant that a day in the life of a little girl wasn't necessarily a day in the life of Leonard. For instance, she didn't have a diary, though the scene of the girl scribbling before bed is now her favorite. Nor did she don a bathing cap, which features in many of the early illustrations.

"I thought the concept of a bathing cap was silly," she said.

Marsh, 75, said that Rockwell exercised some artistic license in the "Boy" shoot, too. The boy's face is contorted as a baseball zips past him in one scene.

"I can't believe I really made that expression," he said during a telephone interview.

Lach understands that the models — and others — may not connect with some of the scenes. On the whole, the pieces still elicit nostalgia from Lach and the models, though.

"Somehow, it still brings you back," he said.

For Marsh, who now lives in California, and Leonard, who has returned to Vermont after residing in Arizona, that means revisiting a time before the two dated in Arlington (middle school or high school, depending on whom you ask). Ironically, they posed separately for the kissing scene in the "Girl" cover, in which the boy's lips narrowly miss the girl's forehead.

Marsh has a longer history with Rockwell. He appeared in one of Rockwell's illustrated advertisements with his parents as an 8-month-old. Growing up in Arlington, he worked consistently for the artist between the ages of 8 and 12, he said.

"Maybe he picked my parents," he said.

Leonard's introduction to the artist was less predictable. She was at a local basketball game when she pleaded with her father for a Coca-Cola. Rockwell was sitting behind her and overheard her request. He offered Leonard his Coke, eventually asking if she wanted to pose for him.

Rockwell featured Leonard in an advertisement before the "Girl" shoot. She was also a subject in several other paintings. While the artist called Marsh his favorite boy model, he wasn't the best overall, according to Marsh.

"Mary was his very favorite," he said.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.

If you go...

What: Norman Rockwell Museum Presents A Day in the Life of a Girl and Boy Family Day

When: 1-4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 25

Where: Norman Rockwell Museum, 9 Glendale Road, Stockbridge

Tickets: Free for museum members and those who are 18 and under; included with standard museum admission for others.

Information: 413-298-4100; nrm.org


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