Bernard A. Drew | Our Berkshires: Norman and Norman in California

Our Berkshires

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Noodling around Google — never mind the topic I was chasing, I'll reveal it when I find a sympathetic book publisher for the proposal I'm working on — I stumbled on an April 19, 2018, obituary for Nancy Joyce (Pett) Princehorn, 81, of Massillon, Ohio.

What jumped out at me was mention that she grew up in Hollywood: "She was partly raised by her Great Aunt Joyce, who was married to the famous Oscar winner [for screenwriting], Norman Reilly Raine. She lived a grand adventure there in a home just beneath the Hollywood sign. Her neighbor was Norman Rockwell, who would come to draw and visit on their patio."

I wanted to know more.

Princehorn was inspired to study art in college but became an airline attendant and, after her children were grown, a bus driver and playground monitor. I haven't found that she was anything more than a hobby artist. Nevertheless, she felt Rockwell's magic.

I knew Rockwell (1894-1978) was in Hollywood in 1930, hiding out from an aggressive Good Housekeeping art director. Prinechorn was born in 1936, though. So I dug a little deeper.

Someone named Fame Rybicki, reminiscing for a City of Alhambra webpage, said Rockwell first came to that community in 1929 to stay with his cartoonist friend Clyde Forsythe. The two had known each other when they were young, starving artists in New Rochelle, N.Y. Forsythe had a home at the corner of Alhambra Road and Alsmansor.

Rockwell, depressed when his first marriage ended with his wife obtaining a quickie divorce in Reno in 1930, was lonesome. He began what became a lifelong routine of bicycling while in the San Gabriel Valley. He befriended other artists on Champion Place, including poster craftsman Sam Hyde Harris, Western painter Frank Tenney Johnson and watercolorist Jack Wilkinson Smith.

Michael Clawson, describing the Champion Place enclave in the February 2018 issue of Western Art Collector, noted that Forsythe and Rockwell "were often thick as thieves, sometimes even posing for each other for their respective works. It is Forsythe and Irene Rockwell, the artist's first wife, Irene O'Connor, who appear as models in Rockwell's Comfort in Safety (Couple and Dog in Open Auto)." That was a Saturday Evening Post cover for the Jan. 12, 1924, issue.

Working in Forsythe's studio, Rockwell finished "The Doctor and the Doll" for The Post's March 9, 1929, cover. He also worked from Johnson's garage studio or rented studio space. He coaxed several Alhambra residents to pose for paintings.

"I'm just going to work in the studio," Rockwell told his hosts (he explained in "My Adventures as an Illustrator"). "I'm a bachelor and I'm going to stay that way." That lasted a few weeks, until sculptor Eli Harvey introduced Rockwell to Mary Barstow, a teacher and daughter of Harvey's across-the-street neighbor, attorney Alfred Barstow.

Sparks flew. Rockwell, 36, and Mary, 22, became engaged within three weeks and were married within three months. The ceremony was in the Barstow garden. The family bungalow, built in 1910, remained in the Barstow family for decades and was sold for $745,000 in 2014. Soon after their marriage, the Rockwells left for New York City, and after a brief stay at the Hotel des Artistes settled in New Rochelle. They visited California so often, the Barstows built an addition onto their home so the Rockwells — eventually a family of five — had their own vacation quarters.

Joyce Princehorn's story held up; Rockwell certainly was in California when she was growing up. As for Raine (1894-1971), according to a 1940 census he lived on Outpost Drive in Los Angeles. That Rockwell knew Raine makes sense. Rockwell painted many of The Post's most treasured covers. Raine wrote some 68 Puget Sound stories featuring the magazine's adored fictional heroine, Tugboat Annie Brennan of the towing and salvage vessel Narcissus. The two men had lots in common to talk about, not the least the Post's legendary editor, George Horace Lorimer. Oh, and they both smoked pipes.

The artist anchored in his family in Arlington, Vt., from 1939 to 1953. The Rockwells relocated to Stockbridge so Mary could be closer to the Austen Riggs psychological facility. After her death in 1959, Rockwell married Molly Punderson.

Loretta Young modeled for Rockwell in California (unfinished painting). So did Gary Cooper (Post cover, May 24, 1930). As his fame grew, actors came to Rockwell's studio in Stockbridge to pose — among them Ann-Margaret and John Wayne ("Stagecoach" publicity).

Anyway, that's how one stray discovery in a distant obituary led to a little story about a local artist in California — a little story that "adds many interesting facets to his fascinating and cosmopolitan life story," Norman Rockwell Museum Director/CEO Laurie Norton Moffatt said after reading it. "That is what strikes me as one of the intriguing aspects of Rockwell's life. People tend to think of him as a homebody who rarely left his studio as he painted small-town life. This could not be further from his reality, as he traveled extensively across the country and the world (first having grown up in New York City)."           y the way, it's Rockwell's birthday tomorrow, Feb. 3.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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