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Thursday, May 23, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Rockwell's 'Rosie' sets record at auction

The Associated Press

NASHUA, N.H. — In her 78 years, Mary Doyle Keefe had burly arms once: when Norman Rockwell transformed her into Rosie the Riveter in 1943.

The enduring image appeared on the cover of Saturday Evening Post on May 29, 1943, giving an iconic face to the millions of women who powered the U.S. economy during World War II.

The work was auctioned off yesterday at Sothebys for $4.9 million, the highest ever paid at public auction for a Rockwell painting, said Linda Pero, a curator at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.

Songwriters Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb created Rosie the Riveter in a 1942 tune. Millions of U.S. women worked for victory during World War II, as Rosie did in the song, by donning overalls and hard hats and filling gritty jobs left by men at war.

Despite her legacy, Keefe never was a riveter. She was a 19-year-old, part-time telephone operator when Rockwell paid her $5 for each of the two mornings she posed for him and his photographer Gene Pelham at his Vermont studio.

"They called me again to come back because he wanted me in a blue shirt and asked if I could wear penny loafers," said Keefe, a retired dental hygienist.

Keefe was all of 110 pounds, but Rockwell wanted Rosie to have massive arms, shoulders and hands. So he modeled Rosie's body on Michelangelo's Isaiah, who appears on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

The resulting painting, along with Rockwell's Four Freedoms, toured the country to help sell war bonds.

In a 1967 letter to Keefe, Rockwell called her the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen and apologized for putting her face atop such a hefty body.

"I did have to make you into a sort of a giant," he wrote.

Despite the painting's success, no one in Arlington, Vt., paid much attention, aside from ribbing Keefe a little about the size of her arms.

Rockwell used many locals as models. Pointing to the characters in a collectable-plate version of Rockwell's "Homecoming" painting, Keefe identified the models as if she were looking through a family photo album.

One of her uncles appeared in each of the Four Freedoms paintings.

The Rosie painting sold to an anonymous buyer two years ago for $2 million. Keefe noted proudly that few other Rockwell paintings have sold for more than $1 million.

Yesterday, the painting sold in three minutes to Elliot Yeary Gallery of Aspen, Colo. The gallery bought the painting on behalf of Ranger Endowments Management of Dallas, which manages the assets of wealthy individuals.

"Now we know we couldn't buy it," Keefe joked.

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