When Norman Rockwell walked into his kitchen in West Arlington, Vermont, where he lived from 1940-1953, he would scoot past the stove if the pressure cooker confronted him. The way the steam hissed as it escaped through the cover’s valve made him nervous. Our family friend Marie Briggs was his cook/housekeeper then, and relayed this to a mutual friend. (When I worked on a dairy farm in Arlington, Marie cooked for us.)
Perhaps the hissing pressure cooker confronted him with a reality too harsh. Norman lived inside one himself. Sometimes you could almost see the steam coming out of his ears, his son Jarvis told me. While illustrating Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer for Heritage Press during the 1930s, Norman was a year behind. Of course Heritage knew the public would love the work of Twain and Rockwell. They didn’t mind being a little put out. They waited patiently at first, nudging him with notes. But after that year, they finally called. C’mon Norman, you gotta get us the illustrations now!
Jarvis has a tremendous sense of humor, and when he tells anecdotes about crazy situations his father found himself in, he often gives a good chuckle. One of his favorites involves a man named Clair Fry, who worked for a publishing company called, Brown and Bigelow. B&B published a calendar each year featuring a Rockwell painting. It sold better across the U.S. than any other calendar. However, Norman often missed deadlines.
This following anecdote is from my Upcoming book, CALL ME NORMAN, Stories of Rockwell’s Beloved Vermont Models. B&B would turn up the flame under the pressure cooker by flying Fry from Minnesota to Vermont to make sure Rockwell finished the painting before it was too late. Norman would receive a phone call from Fry. After hanging the receiver back on its wooden box, Norman would cry out, “Oh God! Clair Fry is at the Arlington Inn.” Fry, an illustrator himself, would call every day or two “to see how it was going.”
On a couple of occasions during the winter, Norman invited Fry to dinner at their home. Jarvis explained that “if you didn’t ski, there wasn’t much to do during the winter.” Jarvis remembers Fry as a nice man. “But my father wasn’t going to invite him to stay with us though,” he laughed.
The moment Norman informed Fry the painting was done, he would swoop down on the artist’s studio like a hawk and whisk the painting off to Brown and Bigelow in Minnesota.
Incidentally, heavy pressure often forces the best work out of artists. Norman produced three of his top works, Saying Grace; Breaking Home Ties; and Girl at the Mirror during the years of 1951 to 1954, under the worst (or greatest?) pressure of his life.