Mary Doyle Keefe, the model for Norman Rockwell's iconic 1943 Rosie the Riveter painting that symbolized the millions of American women who went to work on the home front during World War II, died Tuesday after a brief illness in Simsbury, Connecticut. She was 92. Keefe grew up in Arlington, Vermont, where she met Rockwell—who lived in West Arlington—and posed for his painting when she was a 19-year-old telephone operator. The painting was on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on May 29, 1943. Keefe, who never riveted herself, was paid $5 for each of two mornings she posed for Rockwell and his photographer, Gene Pelham, whose pictures Rockwell used when he painted.
Although Keefe was petite, Rockwell's Rosie the Riveter had large arms, hands, and shoulders. Rockwell wanted Rosie to show strength and modeled her body on Michelangelo's Isaiah, which is on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Twenty-four years after she posed, Rockwell sent her a letter calling her the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen and apologizing for the hefty body in the painting. "I did have to make you into a sort of a giant," he wrote. Keefe went on to work as a dental hygienist and have four children with her husband of 55 years, who died in 2003. The real-life Rosie the Riveter, who inspired the Rockwell painting as well as the iconic "We Can Do It" poster by a Pittsburgh artist that was used to sell war bonds, died in 2010.