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Mary Keefe, 92; Norman Rockwell’s model for Rosie the Riveter

Ms. Keefe was petite, but Rockwell wanted Rosie to show strength and modeled her body on Michelangelo’s Isaiah.
Ms. Keefe was petite, but Rockwell wanted Rosie to show strength and modeled her body on Michelangelo’s Isaiah.Jim Cole/Associated Press/File 2002

HARTFORD, Conn. — 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, has died at 92.

She died Tuesday in Simsbury, Conn., after a brief illness, said her daughter, Mary Ellen.

Ms. Keefe grew up in Arlington, Vt., where she met Rockwell — who lived in West Arlington — and posed when she was a 19-year-old telephone operator. The painting was on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on May 29, 1943.

Although Ms. Keefe was petite, Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter had large arms, hands, and shoulders. The painting shows Rosie with a sandwich in her left hand, her right arm atop a lunchbox with ‘‘Rosie’’ on it, a rivet gun on her lap and her feet resting on a copy of Adolf Hitler’s manifesto ‘‘Mein Kampf.’’

Rockwell wanted Rosie to show strength and modeled her body on Michelangelo’s Isaiah, on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling.

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Ms. Keefe, who never riveted, was paid $5 for each of two mornings she posed for Rockwell and his photographer, Gene Pelham. ‘‘They called me again to come back because he wanted me in a blue shirt and asked if I could wear penny loafers,’’ Ms. Keefe said in 2002.

Twenty-four years after she posed, Rockwell sent her a letter calling her the most beautiful woman he had 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.

The painting was later used to sell war bonds.

Ms. Keefe spent the last eight years in a retirement home in Simsbury, family said.

She graduated from Temple with a degree in dental hygiene, and was working in Bennington, Vt., when she met her husband of 55 years, Robert Keefe, who died in 2003. They had four children and lived in Whitman, Mass., and in Nashua.

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Ms. Keefe’s family will receive friends and take part in a memorial Mass on Friday at McLean Village in Simsbury. A graveside service is scheduled for Saturday at Park Lawn Cemetery in Bennington.