Norman Rockwell’s Granddaughter Tears Apart Deborah Solomon’s Biography

Is American Mirror riddled with errors and omissions?

Norman Rockwell, Fact and Fiction (1917). Cover illustration for Leslie's illustrated weekly newspaper, vol. 124, no. 3201, January 11, 1917. Public domain.

Art critic Deborah Solomon’s 2013 biography of Norman Rockwell, American Mirror, grabbed headlines not because it was very thoroughly researched and written in a casual, engaging style—which by most accounts it was—but because of her speculation regarding Rockwell’s sexuality. Now, almost a year after publication (and just after the book was shortlisted for a PEN book award), Solomon’s headline-grabbing thesis that the illustrator may have been homosexual has earned her a vitriolic reply from the artist’s granddaughter, Abigail Rockwell, claiming to document serious errors of scholarship in the tome. In an extensive essay published by the Huffington Post, the younger Rockwell writes:

Solomon’s spurious theory is that Norman Rockwell was a repressed homosexual with pedophilic impulses. She tries to minimize her outrageous, completely unfounded claims by repeatedly offering disclaimers—”there is no evidence that he acted on his impulses,” etc.—to mislead the reader and obscure her claims. To be clear, there is no diary entry, letter or memoir that supports her bizarre theories of my grandfather’s sexuality. She creates “evidence” throughout with her relentless falsifications and insinuations and by claiming she sees these impulses in his work.

In American Mirror, the crux of Solomon’s case, aside from highly subjective readings of homoerotic themes in a handful of Rockwell’s works, rests on one incident, a journal entry the artist wrote during a 1934 hunting and fishing trip. One night, while staying in a remote cabin, Rockwell and his friend, studio assistant, and frequent model Fred Hildebrandt, shared a bed. The journal entry, as Solomon quotes it in American Mirror, reads:

“‘Fred and I get into one very narrow bed’ … the guides climbed into a bed above them … ‘We paddle to portage near waterfall. I strip and frollick about — see photos.'”

Investigating the claim, Abigail Rockwell says she returned to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts to consult its archives and read the supposedly homoerotic diary entry. There, she discovered the context in which her grandfather and Hildebrandt had shared a bed:

The night Solomon writes that Fred and Rockwell ‘get into one very narrow bed’ was the night that another man, Joe, his sister and five children (four girls and one boy) stayed over in the cabin, which was only supposed to accommodate four people.

From there, Abigail Rockwell goes on to go after numerous other claims from American Mirror. For instance, Solomon claims that Rockwell led an ascetic life devoid of passion, portraying him as essentially asexual, and saying that by modern standards, his relationships with women seem “less like genuine unions than a strategy for ‘passing’ and controlling his homoerotic desires.” In support of this conclusion, Solomon says that, based on her research, “Nothing that can be described as a love letter survives among his papers. It seems unlikely that he ever wrote one.” Yet, as Abigail Rockwell points out, a very passionate love letter from the artist to his wife Mary is quoted in Laura Claridge’s biography, Norman Rockwell: A Life. It reads:

“I love you devotedly and completely, Jerry and Tommy and Peter love you … I love you and need you always … No one else but you could have helped and sustained me as you have for twenty years. We have come a long way and I know we can, as a team go further and higher. You are the finest person I have ever known … You are surrounded by people who love you … But most of all I love you completely and want you always … Norman.”

Abigail Rockwell seems clearly personally offended by the book, and based on the evidence of this essay, seems determined to press the issue: “Fictions and insinuations masquerade as the truth in the guise of a ‘scholarly,’ ‘well-researched’ biography,” she writes. “My father and I have painstakingly compiled a list of at least 263 errors, false sexual references, and omissions.”

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