Did my Grandmother Pose for Norman Rockwell?

by Barb, still in book jail

Hi all. I am still in book jail and I barely have two brain cells to rub together. (To prove it, I just had to sit for a second to conjure up the word “cell.”) Therefore, I thought I would rerun an old post, or actually two. The posts were originally from August and September 2012 on the Maine Crime Writers blog. Though many people remember them, we have a whole new audience here that I thought might enjoy them.

I was thinking of my grandmother, and therefore these posts, because of a conversation Friend of the Wickeds Luis Nunez had here with author Marjorie McCown about Luis’s vintage hat collection. My grandmother, Eleonore Kimbel Taylor Ross, was a millinery buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue from the 1930s until she retired in the early 1960s.

The First Post: Did my Grandmother Pose for Norman Rockwell?

Originally published August 17, 2012 on the Maine Crime Writers

A few weeks ago, my husband Bill and I took advantage of a talk I was doing at the (gorgeous) Lee Library in Lee, MA to spend a few days at the Red Lion Inn in the Berkshires. On the first day, we visited Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount, which I totally recommend. We also saw King Lear at Shakespeare and Company, which was fantastic.

But when we went to breakfast on the second morning, the dining room was abuzz. We were traveling in that vacation news bubble and didn’t know that there had been a fire overnight at a transformer recycling company in nearby Ghent, NY and everyone was urged to stay indoors and turn off their air conditioning.

So we scrapped our plans for the day and decided to revisit the Norman Rockwell Museum because it is, at least, indoors.

After the main tour, I started poking around investigating something I’d wondered about for years. On a much earlier trip to the museum, I’d come around the corner in a exhibit on Rockwell’s early years in advertising and come face to face with…my grandmother. I was so startled, I think I even jumped.

As a child, I’d overheard references to my grandmother modeling for Rockwell, but this was in the sixties when both Rockwell and my grandmother were still alive and the references were in the “Man, we should have held on to those pictures,” vein. I think honestly I only heard it once or twice and I wasn’t sure if the story was apocryphal. It made some sense, yes. Rockwell was working in New Rochelle, New York in the late teens and twenties, which is where my grandmother lived, but beyond that, who knew? I didn’t think to write down details about the drawing the first time I saw it at the museum or take a photo.

But then, a few years ago when I helped my parents move, I found a couple of other illustrations my grandmother had posed for. That seemed to put a little more meat on the bones of the story. So this summer while we were at the museum, I spent time looking through the catalog trying to find that picture and came up with several advertisements that might possibly be my grandmother. And when I got home, I went back to the scrapbook and looked up those other illustrations.

Both have notes on them in my grandmother’s distinctive handwriting that say, “Eleonore Taylor by Coles Phillips.”

C. Coles Phillips was a well known American illustrator who lived and worked in New Rochelle until he died tragically young in 1927 at age 47. He owned his own advertising agency where one of his first employees was his fellow art school student, Edward Hopper.

The first item in the scrapbook was a December 15, 1921 cover of Life Magazine. The “fadeaway” technique of having the outfit and background be the same color is something Phillips was known for. Once you know what you’re looking for, you can find these covers all over the web and I ordered copies for family members.

The second item was just a fragment, an ad for Scranton lace, but you can find the full ad on the internet and I ordered an original via eBay. As with the Life covers, Coles Phillips did a whole series of these ads. This one appeared in the Ladies Home Journal in February, 1922 when my grandmother would have been a junior at Smith College.

But did my grandmother pose for Rockwell? Why keep copies of the Phillips illustrations and not the ones by Rockwell? Of course, I never saw any of them out in her house.  Which is odd because the advertisement for Lord Calvert whiskey my grandfather posed for was always displayed.

Maybe when I was growing up in the fifties and sixties, 1945, when my grandfather appeared in this series of ads, seemed a lot closer than 1922, when my grandmother’s ads appeared. The drawing at the top of this post (artist unknown) I found tucked in her page from her high school yearbook. So she wasn’t about displaying this stuff. I also remember Rockwell being quite out of fashion in those Mad Men days when I was young, dismissed as a mere illustrator of sentimental subjects for unsophisticated tastes. So that might have contributed.

I wrote to the archivist at the museum, Venus Van Ness (which should totally be a character name, don’t you think?). She said they do have some (scant) information on models and she would check.

What do you think?

The Second Post: Did my Grandmother Pose for Norman Rockwell–The Answer

(Or reason number 6,400,057 why I love the World Wide Web)

This post originally appeared on September 10, 2012 on the Maine Crime Writers.

Last month I wrote a blog post about my investigations into whether my grandmother had modeled for Norman Rockwell in the early 1920s.

Well, I think we got the answer!

One of the comments on that blog post said,

“Hello Barbara,

When you have a moment, please feel free to contact me concerning your grandmother and Norman Rockwell. I believe I have the information you’re seeking.

My best,

Robert Berridge

Norman Rockwell historian”

A bit of Googling showed that Robert Berridge was a known Rockwell expert. (For example, he served as a source for Laura Claridge’s 2003 biography Norman Rockwell: A Life). So I wrote him right back. Here’s his response.

“Good Friday morning Barb – happy to help.

After your Grandmother posed for C. Coles Phillips, she modeled for Mr. Rockwell in the following artwork…

* February 25, 1922 cover of the Literary Digest
* Raybestos ad featured in the March 4, 1922 Saturday Evening Post
* March 23, 1922 cover of Life Magazine

Please feel free to send additional information concerning Eleonore.”

This is truly astonishing. Because it means that when I came around that corner at the Rockwell museum that day and thought I saw my grandmother, I actually did. Naturally, as a writer, I started thinking about how I would make this moment believable if it was in a book. The answer is that the first, wholistic impression, the one that takes in the attitude as well as the totality of the physical aspects is the right one. After that, the more you study it, the less sure you are. I had never known my grandmother when she was twenty-one, yet I was positive it was her.

March 23, 1922 Life Magazine cover, “Don’t Say I Said Anything.” My grandmother is on the left.

Here’s what I wrote back to Berridge about what I knew about my grandmother during those years.

“As for my grandmother’s New Rochelle days, I don’t know a lot. I think she would have been a junior at Smith college in 1922. Her family had moved to New Rochelle (Sea View Ave) when the suburbs opened up. She was the oldest in the family and always missed New York City–never quite made the switch. Her mother’s family were quite well-known interior designers–A. Kimbel & Son.”

I asked Mr. Berridge how he knew this was my grandmother, and this is what he said,

“Over the past forty years, I’ve conducted thousands of oral interviews, phone calls, letter writings and emails concerning the life and times of Norman Rockwell-a hobby that went out of control!  My archives are vast.

February 25, 1922 cover of Literary Digest, “The Master Violinist.” My grandmother’s face appears just under the bow.

“In the mid 1980’s, I happened to interview a close friend of Mr. Rockwell’s in New Rochelle, NY – a behind the scenes Rockwell biographer of sorts.  In that interview, I received a treasure trove of information including that of your Grandmother Eleonore.

“In November of 1921, Mr. Rockwell traveled to South America.  He started one sketch right before he left and two soon after he came back.  Your Grandmother’s name was given to me as the young woman who modeled for those sketches – the illustrations listed….”

Once I knew what I was looking for, I found the other covers easily on the web. They’re both well-known works. Some people believe the Life cover, “Don’t Say I Said Anything,” is emblematic of Rockwell’s life-long hatred of gossip and presages his much better known Saturday Evening Post cover, “The Gossips.” “The Master Violinist” was made into a Rockwell plate (plate like a dish, not plate as in printing) and depending on the condition and lighting, you can see her face much more clearly.

All of the artwork my grandmother appears in, both the C. Coles Phillips pieces and the Rockwell ones, was published in a period of a few months between December, 1921 and March, 1922. I have no idea what lead times were like in publishing in those days, but it makes me wonder if my grandmother spent the summer between her sophomore and junior years in college modeling.

It must be noted here that Venus Van Ness, the archivist at the Rockwell Museum writes that there is no documentation to support the oral histories Berridge collected in this case.  Here’s her response.

“I spoke with Robert Berridge last week about your grandmother.  Based on the extensive oral histories that he has conducted with individuals connected with Rockwell, he determined that your grandmother was in fact a model for Rockwell.  He didn’t provide me with any real specifics or documentation, however, so that basically still leaves me at square one.

“Unfortunately because the dates in question are so early in Rockwell’s career, it’s difficult to find supporting documentation.  One source that we rely on here are Rockwell’s check registers.  In many cases, the check stubs show us who modeled for Rockwell, the date(s), the particular work, as well as how much they were paid.  The problem is that these check registers only date back to 1937.  Additionally, the business correspondence collection that we have has very few items from the teens and twenties.

“So, to make a long story short, I can’t confirm that grandmother was a model for Rockwell.  However, based on the dates, the fact that she lived in New Rochelle, and had worked as a model for other artists, makes it very possible.  At that time in Rockwell’s early career, he did employ professional models.  Your grandmother may very well have been one of them.

“So sorry that I couldn’t be more definitive in my response.  Best of luck with your continued searching.”

So there is still a leap of faith here, though a much tinier leap than before.


Since the original posts went up, I’ve found a couple of articles about the Raybestos ad, both in communications from the Rockwell Museum.

A 1986 article about the acquisition says, “Painted on canvas en grisaille, the picture is interesting for several reasons. The black and white palette reveals that the advertiser chose not to go to the expense of color printing. The ad predates the use of photography in advertising work and is one of seven known pieces done for the Raybestos company. It is one of the few Rockwell works which treat the subject of mother and daughter, and it is the only one in the series which is clearly aimed at the female reader. The picture is important as an addition to the collection since advertising art is not well represented in the Museum’s holdings.”

The image also illustrates the website for a 2020 exhibit on Rockwell’s paintings of women and girls. Part of the text says,

“This exhibition takes a lively look at Rockwell’s approach to painting women and girls. According to Rockwell, ‘…I paint the kind of girls your mother would want you to marry,’ but in fact, many of his female protagonists were strong and savvy. In his early career, he hired professional female models to pose for him, painting with a narrative realism that made his characters relatable to magazine’s target audience, women.”

So that’s it, long story long. I must say the journey on this investigation was a fun as the result.

Readers: Have you ever gone on an investigation where the journey was as much fun as the results?

31 Thoughts

  1. What a great story! And what an experience at the Norman Rockwell Museum. Great basis for a novel! The research process must have been wonderful. The discoveries you made make great family history. Document it all for your family with every media type you can! History gets lost so easily and people forget to add notes, names and dates to photos. As an historian, chasing down names and connecting details is always a mystery. Some are rabbit holes but the journey can bring some interesting results.

  2. What a fabulous opportunity to research and find out details about part of a loved one’s life. We often find as we mature about the lost opportunities after the passing of a loved one where we wish we could go back and ask a few questions. I commend you on sticking with it and find out as much as you did.

    It’s also through growing older that we learn that the journey is as much if not more so more enjoyable than the end destination. It’s then that we wish we could have some do overs on a few things. As a child of a military man, you knew that you would have one long vacation each year. it was a time that we traveled back from thousands of miles away to see relatives on both sides of the family. To me, the travel times were always more exciting than the end destination. As much as I loved seeing those we hadn’t seen since the year before, being allowed to eat burgers for breakfast and seeing sights I’d never seen before like a big adventure was also more fun than arriving at the end place.
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

    1. Those do sound like amazing destinations. My son loved Disney World when we took him when he was seven, but I often said, we could have stayed at the Marriott down the street and if we let him stay up late, have soda and eat popcorn, he would have been just as excited.

  3. Thank you for sharing the earlier articles, Barb. I’d seen the first one but not the second, I think. I does sound like a fun journey!

  4. I don’t recall these from earlier blogs. What a fabulous story and journey. And how wonderful that both your grandparents modeled. Thank you for sharing.

  5. WOWZA! Barb, you have done brilliant research, and gave us such an amazing glimpse into the past, featuring your grandmother! I am now convinced that your grandma did indeed pose for Norman Rockwell! I am thinking back about my own Italian/Chilean family, and about all the fun or funny stories that have circulated amongst my relatives. The sad thing is that today’s kids don’t really care to know much about our past 🙁 The conversation that I had with Marjorie McCown about my vintage hat collection reminds me of all the research we have done about our hats, and how much we have found out about the millinery world. It has been thrilling to discover so many details that can be passed along to new collectors as we list our treasures online. BTW, I am reading FINAL CUT, and I highly recommend it…I was practically glued to the book yesterday, but sadly had to go to bed 🙂 Barb, you writing always includes intriguing facts we can learn about while we sleuth along with your protagonists…I love that. THANK YOU, and I thank all authors who do so much research to amaze us as we read!!! Luis at ole dot travel

    1. I am so glad you are enjoying Final Cut. I’m lucky because my nephew married an historian. She’s actually an architectural historian, but she takes a lot of interest in family history, so I know when I pass this stuff on at least one member of the younger generation appreciates it!

  6. What a fascinating story about your grandmother!

    Yes, I have a story that I’m still investigating. My father died when I was a teenager after a work accident, but I have a strong memory of an outing a couple of years earlier. For some reason he & I were home alone in our house on Long Island, can’t remember where my mother & siblings were, and he asked if I wanted to go to the Fair (the 1964/1965 World’s Fair in New York). As we drove to Flushing Meadows he took a detour and showed me where his family used to live. Now both of my parents were from Brooklyn, so my brother & sister didn’t believe this memory, but a few years ago on Ancestry.com I found a Queens address for the family from before my father was born! Unfortunately the street name was a common one and predated the change from street names to numbers in Queens, and there isn’t a map showing the changes, but a lot of research resulted in finding a street in the right general area that might be the one! I still have a few things to check out, but the detective work has been a lot of fun.

  7. How very cool! So, the burning question: Do you still have the Rockwell photos yourself?

    I’ve gone on any number of long research trips related to writing. Spent a whole day once learning how washing machines worked in 1942. LOL

    1. I do still have copies of the the C. Coles Phillips ads. The Rockwell ones are a little trickier. The copyrights on the early work actually belonged to the advertiser not to Rockwell and they are out of copyright, so I think I just have to have physical copies made.

  8. No, I have never enjoyed a journey as much as Barb’s journey. Barb, your grandmother was very special. How many other women who grew up in the fifties and sixties have a grandmother who graduated from Smith college?? Many of us have grandparents who never finished high school, and some grandparents never even got THAT far! When we grew up, the general feeling was that a boy’s education was more important than a girl’s education was. Yet your grandmother graduated from college!!

    1. All four of my grandparents graduated from college, which at my age is very unusual, especially since none of them were wealthy and only one (my grandmother Eleonore) came from a family where any previous generation had gone to college.

  9. Oh, what a wonderful experience, Barb. How exciting to learn so much about your grandmother. And she sure was a beauty. I did do a little research in trying to identify an enormous number of photos of family that I inherited years ago. It was fun leaning things about family that no one else seemed to know. Thanks for sharing your discoveries with us.

      1. My daughter is somewhat interested, but then what? They’re no more descendants. Nobody else cares. More history lost.

  10. Barb, What an interesting about your grandmother moleling for Norman Rockwell. I’m sure you’ve put it together correctly. I remember we visited the Rockwell Museum about 20 years ago and we learned that he used his neighbors as his models. Everything fits together.

  11. No, I have not. That is fabulous Barb. I am sl glad you received the answers. Thank you so much for sharing. God bless you.

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