One of the neat things about conducting interviews in Vermont for my book Call Me Norman, The Stories of Rockwell’s Beloved Vermont Models, is that I renewed old friendships and made new ones. This came just when I needed it because we had just lost Charley Bentley, who had been my family’s closest friend in our rural village in the Green Mountains. Many of the models had been friends with Charley. Interviewing them made creating the book seem “meant to be.”
You could say Charley, a short, wiry and rugged dairy farmer, was like a second father to me. I began helping out with his herd near the West Arlington Village Green at ten. He was in his mid-forties then. My first “real job” was working for him loading hay in fields along the scenic Batten Kill River. He taught me how to get work done with “no dubbing around” and to take lumps in life like a man. “Don’t whine. Whiners become complainers,” he would tell us kids. He had been a young man when Norman Rockwell moved to town, and lived his life among the Vermont models. His cousin Floyd, a horse trainer and farmer, modeled for Breaking Home Ties, a Rockwell favorite. My brother and I stayed in Charley’s home on many weekends until he died in his early nineties a few years ago.
When Charley passed on, we not only felt a great loss, but lost touch with mutual friends. His house had been our gathering place. He had known everyone in Sandgate, the bordering town, where he and our family lived. Charley had been a fifty-year member of the Town Board there. During his last couple of terms, he’d fall asleep in meetings. A member of the board would wake him up when they needed information, such as when a certain culvert had been installed under a road.
To be honest, I found it painful to visit Vermont after Charley died. Fortunately, I saw people I knew while doing readings from my books at the Green River Inn, and my brother Bill lives in town. As I began interviewing models, my feeling of loss began to subside because many knew Charley. Catching up with those I had known was heartwarming. If I didn’t know a model, I found I knew their relatives, friends or neighbors.
The town of Arlington has around 2,000 people, and West Arlington is but a few hundred of them. Not only did I work on Charley’s farm, but I also swam at the at the red covered bridge on the Village Green. I attended local activities like Bingo, church events, and dances at the Grange Hall. Norman selected perhaps 100 of his models between 1940 to 1953 from a mile on either side of his home on that Green, which stands on a dirt road hugging the Batten Kill River. He used many of these folks several times for Saturday Evening Post covers and ads.
What made our conversations especially interesting was the fact that I had known the models and people of their generation when they were middle aged. I listened with fascination as they told anecdotes about their childhoods, which often included ones about Charley. The ones who had moved away listened intently as I brought them up to date on the lives of West Arlington people. We still have our house there.
The initial intention for a book project was to write a memoir about my childhood in Vermont, but things began to change when I met Mary Immen Hall. She attended a reading I did at the Bennington Bookshop because her husband Joe and I participated in the same event. I read from my book of poems and stories called Cows in the Fog. After the reading, as Mary and I chatted, I realized that her father, Bert Immen, had been my parent’s real estate agent. Mary explained to me that she modeled for several Rockwell paintings, including as the pretty blonde in CHRISTMAS HOMECOMING. I soon interviewed her at home about her family’s friendship with Norman and her experiences as a model.
Link to Christmas Homecoming
My memoir changed into a book after Don Trachte Jr., my neighbor who organizes Vermont Rockwell Reunions, read Cows in the Fog, my first book. I would see Don and his brother Dave around when I was a kid and had joined a friend as she babysat Dave’s daughter. Don lived just a few houses away from Charley and served on the town board with him. He missed Charley too. Don especially liked a poem where I described cows huddling under a tree on a gray rainy day, reluctant to head towards the barn. He said the scene was authentic. “Why don’t you write a book on the Rockwell models?” he asked. The models love the fact that Norman’s Vermont paintings offer a genuine feeling.
Off Don and I were, headed to interview Paul Adams, who lived just over the New York border in Cambridge, New York. We connected immediately because we knew many of the same people during our childhoods, such as the owner of a turkey farm where my parents would pick out our gobbler in a field. We learned we had both graduated from the same college in Bennington, Vermont. When he attended it was called St. Joseph’s, but the name had been changed to Southern Vermont College by my time.
Paul explained how Norman found him to model. Norman had called America’s most popular artist of the forties, Ana “Grandma” Moses, to ask if she knew any black people who might pose. She referred the artist to Paul and his family. Paul described how he and his brother and sisters had sung Gospel songs for Mrs. Moses and frolicked in her living room with her pet chinchillas. Norman hired a taxi to bring the Adams to the studio, where they modeled for Golden Rule as well as for We the Peoples, which hangs at the United Nations Building. Paul is near center, holding a bowl.
Next, Don and I headed to the home of Pauline Adams Grimes, Paul’s sister, who lives in Bennington. In rural Vermont and nearby New York, people know many of the same folks for miles around. One of the locals we have known throughout our lives is Dennis Yushak, the proprietor of nearby Yushak’s country store. Pauline also posed for We The Peoples, as well as for a Rockwell Look Magazine painting called How Goes the War on Poverty? Pauline is a warm caring person who made me feel at home.
When Don gave me the name of Marjorie Squiers Coulter, the little girl asleep in bed in Freedom from Fear, I was pleasantly surprised. I remembered Marjorie from the days she, her son Jerry, and daughter Ginny would swim at the covered bridge. I listened with intrigue as she took me back to the early forties. Her parent’s home had been a half mile from the Rockwell home but was closer than any other. She knew Charlie too, as one of his cow barns had been across from the Wayside Country store, we all frequented. Marjorie had learned to ride her bicycle in Norman’s his studio. Her father Walt had posed for more people in Arlington than anyone, including as the blacksmith at the left anvil in The Forging Contest.
Shortly afterwards, I began a string of interviews in the home of Norman’s son Jarvis, and we have become friends. We will sit and reminisce about our old friends in West Arlington and books we have read. I attended Jarvis’ art show in the Berkshires and a party afterwards in his home. Jarvis, a warm man with a terrific sense of humor, posed form many of his father’s paintings, including as the boy with an “R” on his sweater in Homecoming Marine in the red hat in Marbles Champion.
I found myself at the homes of more Rockwell models and on the phone chatting with others. A nice thing about traveling in Vermont is that the Green Mountains are majestic, and the roads are free of heavy traffic. I had a lovely ride a couple of hours upstate to interview Mary Whalen Leonard, the model for Girl at the Mirror, one of Norman’s most popular. While sitting on lawn chairs under a bright blue sky, I described how I would sit in her driveway as a kid while I waited for my mother. She sometimes consulted Mary’s father John, the real estate lawyer for our family as well as for the Rockwells. Mary described the crush she had on Norman as a teen and remembered him as a “wonderful man.” She has always been grateful that he brought her out of herself to experience emotions she had never felt before, as a director would an actor. (Click on the link to see Mary in Girl at the Mirror.)
I was soon to chat with Buddy Edgerton, who grew up next door to Norman on the West Arlington Green. His father Jim, also a dairy farmer and model, had been good friends with Charley. Charley had sponsored Buddy in a 4-H agricultural show. Buddy and I connected immediately as we chatted about our childhood experiences in the same settings, such as at the bridge where we swam, the country store, and the gas station run by Carl Hess, model for Freedom of Speech. Buddy is known as “The Scout who was never a Scout.” He appeared in many Rockwells, such as Guiding Hand with Tommy Rockwell, Norman’s son. They were next door neighbors and close friends. Buddy was a hunter and camper but had never actually been in the Boy Scouts. He wrote a terrific, personal book about his friendship and his many modeling experiences with Norman called, The Unknown Rockwell. Click the link to see Buddy as the Boy Scout with Tom.
Buddy referred me to Tom Rockwell. It turned out he lived near me in Dutchess County, New York. As a small boy, he had lived in New Rochelle, where our office is located. Tom, who co-wrote My Adventures as an Illustrator, has given very few interviews, but he agreed to chat with me. “Anyone who is a friend of Buddy’s is a friend of mine,” he said. Tom and I and reminisced about our old Arlington friends. Tom worked on the farm of Jim Edgerton, who was a good friend of Charlie’s. Tom is a charming man who loves a good chuckle. He described how his father once asked a man who had no running water at his shack near The Green to model. He smelled like an old Billy goat because he did not shower. After his odor lingered for a spell, Norman, a neat freak, could not stomach it. He asked his assistant to see the odiferous fellow out even though he’d have been the perfect model.
At the invitation of Buddy’s sister Ardis Edgerton Clark, I spent a week in Florida reminiscing with her about the good old days with our Vermont neighbors. She appears in a blue dress in G.I. Homecoming. I found her anecdotes particularly interesting because she worked in the Rockwell home preparing food, washing dishes, and helping with chores like laundry. She actually wore Norman’s white shirts knotted at the waist during her teens. His wife Mary gave them to her after cleaning out his closet.
G.I. homecoming link Over the next few years, I continued interviewing Rockwell models and writing my book. A friend of mine named Jeff Edrich filmed a video at one of the Rockwell Reunions, and I will be showing segments on my timeline. Jeff is a New York City sound engineer who works with news crews, celebrities and business people. It took me four years to complete the book, and the heartache of losing Charlie has healed considerably after having enjoyed so many good times with our mutual friends, the Vermont Rockwell Models.