Telephonist who modelled for image of US war icon

Mary Keefe: July 30th, 1922 - April 21st, 2015


Mary Keefe, who has died aged 92, was a Vermont telephone operator whom her neighbour, the illustrator Norman Rockwell, immortalised as his model for the heroine of Rosie the Riveter, the second World War feminist anthem that encouraged women to leave home and work in military plants to support the war effort.

Keefe was a redhead, but as portrayed in Rockwell’s painting she was considerably bulked up to embody muscular American can-do spirit.

“Except for the red hair I had at the time, and my face, the rest I don’t think is me at all,” Keefe said in a 2002 interview.

Mary Louise Doyle was born in Bennington, Vermont, in 1922. Her father, John, was a logger and her mother, Sarah (née Smith), ran a restaurant and took in boarders. Doyle graduated from Temple University, became a dental hygienist and married Robert Keefe, who died in 2003.


Saturday Evening PostRosie the Riveter

Keefe posed as Rosie not for Rockwell but for his photographer, in two sessions, for which she was paid $5. In 2002 the painting was sold for $4.9 million. “He called me one day and he said, ‘Mary, I apologise, but I made you very large’,” she recalled many years later.

She was, however, mollified to some degree in 1967, when she received a letter from Rockwell.

“The kidding you took was all my fault,” he wrote, “because I really thought you were the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.”