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Deborah Solomon's Disaster (and How She Duped So Many)

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Norman Rockwell and Ann-Margret during the making of Stagecoach, 1966. (Norman Rockwell Family Agency)

Deborah Solomon has been desperately trying to outrun the truth ever since American Mirror, her biography of my grandfather, Norman Rockwell, came out last November. But the truth is catching up with her.

Solomon's biography is one of the biggest non-fiction literary snow jobs in the last 50 years -- it makes the James Frey memoir debacle look like child's play. At least Frey took liberties by embellishing his own life, not defaming one of America's most beloved painters. Deborah Solomon doesn't just bend the truth, she breaks it. Many people are aware of the controversy, but few know and understand how Solomon has falsified almost every source she could get her hands on. This is not about differing opinions -- this is about an art critic who went out of her way to falsify, misquote, omit, distort and mischaracterize news stories, obituaries, my grandfather's autobiography (My Adventures As An Illustrator), his journal, my grandmother's letters, an insurance letter, a New Yorker article, and many other sources. And now American Mirror has been nominated for a PEN Award; the winners are being announced July 30th -- this, after it was nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Award in April. Astonishing!

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. My grandfather would be beyond horrified at this book and at the early reviewers' acceptance and praise of it -- the most memorable of these reviews coming from John Wilmerding in the New York Times, who proclaimed that Solomon's book was "a revelation."

Perhaps the early reviewers' acceptance can be partially explained by the lavish endorsement of Solomon's book from the Director and CEO of the Norman Rockwell Museum, Laurie Norton Moffatt. Her fulsome praise is on the book's dust jacket:

"American Mirror is a masterpiece -- vivid, forthright and insightful. Through superb research and keen interpretation, Deborah Solomon tells the story of an artist so many thought they knew well, and perhaps did not know at all. An epic achievement."

Ms. Moffatt's endorsement means one of two things: She either didn't read the book or she knows very little about Norman Rockwell after being the director of the Norman Rockwell Museum for 28 years. This endorsement and the Museum's subsequent promotion of the book have essentially given Solomon's biography an unwarranted "seal of credibility." A museum that Norman Rockwell helped to found and that bears his name cannot accept and promote a book that defames the man and sullies the perception of his artwork -- especially in the name of "academic freedom" or freedom of speech. Deborah Solomon's book is an egregious example of the most irresponsible use of that freedom. Ms. Moffatt and the Museum Board were given numerous opportunities to withdraw their endorsement, and they repeatedly refused. As the holder of the Norman Rockwell Archives and the artist's own art collection, they had a chance to do the fundamentally right thing and protect Rockwell and his legacy, and they shirked their duty miserably.

The official book launch for American Mirror was held at the Norman Rockwell Museum in October 2013. The event was hosted by Laurie Norton Moffatt and was televised on C-Span. In closing, Ms. Moffatt declared:

"I think you can see from this conversation how carefully Deborah really has looked at her original source material and at Norman Rockwell's life and I think, in many ways, humanizes him -- goes beyond the surface of the paintings, the optimism, the hope, which really convey in many cases so much more detail than the surface perhaps suggests. And we want to congratulate you and celebrate this epic achievement -- a truly scholarly and thoughtful, sincere biography on Norman Rockwell."

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"Merry Christmas, Grandma ... We Came In Our New Plymouth," 1951. (Norman Rockwell Family Agency)

Last week I visited the Archives at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA and discovered one of Solomon's most outrageous falsifications -- it is a prime example of what she does throughout her book.

The archivist, Venus Van Ness, graciously tracked down my grandfather's journal of a fishing/hunting trip he took with model/studio assistant Fred Hildebrandt and two guides in 1934. Solomon writes:

"Reading through their diaries, it is hard to ignore the homoerotic aspects of their camping trip ... Rockwell is delighted to ... spot his friend lounging around in a new outfit. 'Fred is most fetching in his long flannels,' he notes appreciatively. That night, he and Fred played gin rummy until eleven, sitting by the stove in the cabin and using a deck of cards that Rockwell had made himself."

And then she quotes his journal: "'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.'"

Solomon then comments: "All of this is suggestive material, up to and including the 'lick' in his spelling of 'frollick.'" Then Solomon trots out her theory that Rockwell was gay according to her idea of modern theory.

Solomon has dramatically altered the actual content of Pop's journal. Reading it for myself, I very quickly realized that none of it is "suggestive material." Rockwell writes of ...

"Rain squalls ... continuous wind. Hard paddling against it. Kept thinking of Jerry's remarks, 'Hard work, Daddy.' ... Our arms and backs fatigued ... Very cold ... Wore all clothes during night as well as two blankets. The pike is now frying the pan for breakfast. Fred is most fetching in his long flannels."

But then, to my absolute astonishment, I came upon Solomon's most brazen omission. 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. "After dinner we, that is Dan, the guide, ... Joe, his sister, Fred and I play rummy til 11 pm." Then, the guides took one bed, Rockwell and Fred took another, and Joe and his sister took the other two. The kids, three of them sick and coughing badly all night, slept on the floor rolled up in blankets. Incidentally, Fred and Rockwell made the cards together -- another Solomon error.

According to Laura Claridge in her 2001 biography, Norman Rockwell: A Life, "The subject of family was not far from the artist's thoughts throughout the trip ..." And she quotes his journal: "'Before lunch, I was terribly low, wished I was home, lonesome of Mary, Jerry and Tommy. Tried to figure out how I could get home without losing face altogether.'"

In the Arthur Guptill book, Norman Rockwell Illustrator (1946), Rockwell is quoted as stating:

"I had to read Little Women in order to illustrate it, so, as I was going on a hunting trip, I took it with me. Every evening I would sit reading Little Women while my three companions -- great husky, broad-shouldered guys -- were talking about killing moose. They must have wondered what was wrong with me. Then I came home and got busy with my pictures for Little Women."

So Solomon wants us to believe that in the midst of all this hunting, fishing and portaging, and all these thoughts about his family, and reading and preparing to illustrate Little Women and his admitted dislike of the tedium of hunting (see his autobiography), Rockwell was still "frollicking" around with homoerotic desires? Patently ridiculous and inexcusable.

I haven't checked every one of her sources, but every one I have checked, Solomon has found a way to falsify.

Months ago, at the beginning of this controversy, the extent of Solomon's falsification of sources began to really dawn on me after I reread my grandfather's autobiography. It is staggering what she leaves out and how she misquotes and distorts it. My father, Thomas Rockwell, Norman Rockwell's middle son, caught the first brazen omission: Solomon quotes Rockwell's statement in the autobiography that he used to, "'hang about the grade schools at recess ... and stop little boys in the street, turning them around and sideways to see if they were the type I wanted.'" Solomon then comments, "Today, with our awareness of pederasty scandals, this kind of behavior might sound problematic, but there is nothing to suggest that Rockwell's love of boys ever spilled over into inappropriate touching."

Solomon then omits the rest of the quote from the autobiography in which Rockwell describes how he would first persuade a reluctant boy to pose and then go with him to ask his mother's permission (the mothers were always more than pleased to have their sons pose). Solomon misuses the quote, and chooses the very incendiary term, pederasty -- which means "A man who has sexual relations, especially anal intercourse, with a boy" -- to explicitly introduce her theory of pedophilia.

Solomon also makes no mention of how Clyde Forsythe, who shared a studio with Rockwell, described Pop's search for models in his interview with the Saturday Evening Post in 1926: Rockwell would walk around New Rochelle, sparing ...

"... neither time nor expense in finding the right model or object needed to fit into the subject he is painting; he never fakes. All the dogs in town know him. Along the street he is greeted by schoolboys and their granddads and grandmothers. They all love him; they are his models first; then his friends." (Laura Claridge, Norman Rockwell: A Life, 2001)

Solomon also misquotes Forsythe, writing that he commented that Rockwell's painting of a ballerina looked like a "schoolboy in a tutu," when in fact Forsythe actually said, "... a tomboy who's been ... pinned into a new dress." Perhaps this seems insignificant, but when an author intent on pressing her agenda of pedophilia employs this tactic, it is a glaring error. And this is just one of so many.

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"The Meeting," Good Housekeeping, 1942. (Norman Rockwell Family Agency)

I then went to the New Rochelle Public Library to look at the actual news story and obituary of Billy Payne, Rockwell's favorite early boy model who died from an accidental fall when he was 15½-years-old. Solomon tries to make it into a suicide, tying it into her theory of pedophilia and Rockwell's supposed rejection of Billy as a model because, according to Solomon and her twisted agenda, Rockwell "needed new ones to excite his gaze."

Solomon falsifies the details of the news story and obituary of Billy, presumably to make the fall seem suicidal; she states that it was, "On New Year's Eve -- an icy Wednesday night ... he decided to climb out of the window ..."

According to the actual news story in the Evening Standard on January 2, 1920, it was "on Wednesday afternoon" and about 44°F (according to weather records) when Billy fell.

Solomon speculates wildly, "It is possible that Billy's fall from the rooftop was not an accident, but a suicide. As the papers reported, no one saw him fall." But according to the Evening Standard's obituary, Billy didn't fall from the rooftop, but rather "climbed out of his window on the third story of the house, intending to work his way to the window of a little girl's room to hide her box of candy."

Solomon expounded on her outlandish Billy Payne theory in her Wall Street Journal interview on October 31, 2013. The interviewer asked, "How did you come to the suicide theory?"

Solomon:

"We have a boy falling out of a window on New Year's Eve with no witnesses, so clearly it wasn't a party. What I realized, and it came as a terrible revelation, is that Rockwell would drop models when he was through using them. He left them in bewildered and sometimes very wounded states, and he didn't care."

Solomon's "revelation" is false. On the contrary, many Rockwell models have come forward to refute her claims and revealed that they had warm, continuing relationships with Pop.

It is very telling that in the 36 years since Rockwell's passing, not even one model has come forward to confirm Solomon's allegations -- despite the frequent, yearly reunions of models, many at the Rockwell Museum.

Solomon's unsupported claims of pedophilia, pedophilic impulses, etc. in Rockwell's life and work should have raised red flags at the very least -- especially with all the early reviewers and initial publicity. But it seems that today we have become inured, in general, to all forms of sensation -- even to the hideous suggestion of sexual impulses towards a child. Many of the early reviewers did not mention it or if they did mention it, did not question it.

After discovering Solomon's falsification of the news stories about Billy Payne I realized that I couldn't trust her account of any source that she cited.

Solomon repeatedly states that the boys that Rockwell painted were "beautiful." This is simply absurd; Rockwell's boys were ordinary boys in the vein of Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer and Penrod. Her skewed take leads her to make other false assertions about his work: in media interviews, Solomon has stated, "All I say is that he painted men more than women" -- a nebulous, ridiculous statement that Solomon does not back up with any actual numbers. But this is the way Solomon misleads and deceives.

She tops off all these relentless insinuations of pedophilia and repressed homosexuality with strange musings throughout, aligning Rockwell with Thornton Wilder, who some thought of as a closeted homosexual, and commenting that Wilder "... enjoyed close friendships with younger men. ... Rockwell, too -- he did not resemble the characters who inhabit his paintings ... an odd-duck artist yearning for normalcy and community."

Tricky wordplay. And then she aligns Rockwell with Vladimir Nabokov and his novel about pedophilia, Lolita, outrageously stating: "In a way Rockwell was Humbert Humbert's discreet and careful twin brother, roused by the beauty of children but (thankfully) more repressed." Note Solomon's parenthetical disclaimer. And then she incorrectly states that Rockwell used to call five o'clock cocktails "children's hour" -- he in fact always called it "cocktail hour." Children's Hour is a Lillian Hellman play about rumor and closeted homosexuality. Solomon seeds her book incessantly and obsessively with these insinuations and allusions. Sometimes in such subtle off-hand ways the reader hardly notices. But the impression is made.

She falsely claims, "Granted, he married, but his first marriage and to some extent his second were not happy. They seem less like genuine unions than a strategy for 'passing' and controlling his homoerotic desires, whose expression he confined to his art. He was afraid of all physical intimacy, male or female, but decidedly more comfortable in homosocial male groups than in any standard domestic role, be it that of husband, father, or man of the house." This is simply not true -- there are numerous references in his autobiography and from people who knew Rockwell personally and intimately that squelch her theory.

She continues seeding: "Norman's love life ... was predictably stark. Nothing that can be described as a love letter survives among his papers. It seems unlikely that he ever wrote one."

This is nonsense. Pop wrote a beautiful, heartbreaking letter to my grandmother, Mary, while she was at Riggs after her breakdown:

"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." (Quoted by Laura Claridge in her Rockwell biography.)

Also, Rockwell's nurse in his final years, Mary Quinn, found love letters from Rockwell's first wife, Irene, in his bedside drawer, and there were sweet love notes to his third wife, Molly, that we shared with Solomon. Solomon also fails to notice Pop's "secret" love note to Molly that he painted into "The Problem We All Live With" -- a heart with MP + NR in it (this is just one of a number of significant and sometimes crucial details that Solomon misses in Rockwell's work, i.e. the badly rendered cat in Shuffleton's Barbershop, etc.) No love letters? Come on, Deborah.

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"The Problem We All Live With," Look Magazine, 1964. (Norman Rockwell Family Agency)

Solomon insinuates: "Tense as [Norman Rockwell] was about the female body, he was less guarded about acknowledging the beauty of the male body."

But she omits many of his recollections of girls and women as a boy and an art student. Two incidents, among others, from his autobiography, "I fell passionately in love with Miss Helena Geer, becoming dizzy and dazed whenever she passed ... her silk petticoats rustling about her trim little feet and ample hips ... I went out with girls ..." etc. In art school a nude female model in the rest period started doing cartwheels, double back flips, bends and somersaults and Rockwell quipped, "I don't know whether or not you've ever experienced it but it shakes you up considerably to see a nude woman doing cartwheels."

Solomon also omits accounts of my grandfather's extramarital relations with women during his first marriage.

Solomon neglects and misquotes my grandmother's letters from Paris in 1932 to support her theory of homoeroticism: Solomon quotes, "'Norman was all down on society as represented by Mrs. C,' she reported. He preferred the company of Alan Haemer, an art student, 'to any one in better circumstances.'"

The actual quote from Mary's letter reads: "Norm was all down on 'society' as represented by Mrs. C. and preferred being with Roberta Pafflin and Alan Haemer, two young artists, to anyone in better circumstances."

I just discovered that Solomon even mischaracterizes the content of a New Yorker item about Rockwell's "Yankee Doodle" mural from the July 17, 1937 issue and actually creates a quote -- simply makes it up -- to once again press her homoerotic theory by making a smutty joke. Solomon writes:

"The mural was the subject of an amusing item in The New Yorker in July. Rockwell was planning to stencil the song lyrics across the bottom of the mural, and 'couldn't decide whether it should read 'Yankee Doodle came to town, or went to town,' as the magazine reported ... Rockwell settled on the word came. Interpret at your own risk."

Fred Hildebrandt was the model Rockwell used for "Yankee Doodle." Indeed, most of Solomon's falsifications are connected to her overriding sexual agenda. However, she also fictionalizes my grandfather's whole character. "He eschewed organized activity." This is completely false. Rockwell joined the Larchmont Yacht Club and the Country Club in New Rochelle. In Vermont he joined the W. Arlington Grange, attended square dances, basketball games, and joined the Masons; he had a summer art school one year and socialized with a close group of artistic couples. He worked in a Los Angeles art school, was a founding member of the Marching and Chowder Society in Lee, MA, and was a member of a men's group in Pittsfield, etc.

"On most days he felt lonesome and loveless." How can Solomon possibly know this? Pop went through his trials and storms, as we all do, but he ultimately affirmed life -- and that is in every one of his paintings.

The book is riddled with errors. As an art critic and historian, she inexplicably misses important shifts in his work, as when the Post redesigned its cover in 1942 and full paintings, instead of just vignettes with one or two characters, were published. Solomon also doesn't mention the technique he learned in the late 1940's involving multiple glazes, a technique of the Old Masters, which he used when he painted what many consider to be his masterpieces, "Shuffleton's Barbershop," "Saying Grace," "Girl at Mirror," etc. Solomon fails to adequately mention Rockwell's illustrations inside magazines, like the wonderful "NR Visits" series for the Post, etc. Pop credited magazine illustration for pulling him out of his depression in the 1930's -- Solomon makes no mention of this.

The list goes on. Solomon garbles almost everything from 1948 onward: she inadequately interviewed Rockwell's three sons, barely interviewed his next door neighbors in Vermont, the Edgertons, who were very close with the family, and she didn't even bother to interview still living models, like Mary Whelan Leonard, Pop's favorite girl model ("Girl at Mirror," "The Shiner," etc.). What credible biographer would fail to intensively interview those who intimately knew her subject -- who knew the wonderful behind-the-scenes stories of his most famous paintings and could fill the biographer in on invaluable chronological and unknown details?

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"Girl At Mirror," Saturday Evening Post, 1954. (By permission of the Curtis Publishing Company; Copyright 1954)

Add the errors and omissions up and what you have is a fraud.

Fictions and insinuations masquerade as the truth in the guise of a "scholarly," "well-researched" biography. My father and I have painstakingly compiled a list of at least 263 errors, false sexual references, and omissions. Yet Solomon incorrectly stated in a public talk in Philadelphia that "the sex part ... takes up about four sentences."

It is evident that Solomon does not like my grandfather and she has said as much in her public talks. It is not necessary for a biographer to like his/her subject in order to write a stellar biography, but Solomon allows her dislike to color and taint her overall portrait of Norman Rockwell. Her dislike led her to lose her objectivity -- much like a faulted police investigation -- Solomon looked only for what supported her skewed take on Rockwell, including "evidence" that she either created or distorted, or incidents and events that seemed to confirm her overall characterization of him, instead of finding and discovering the real man and artist he truly was.

Frankly, if Pop were gay I wouldn't care a bit -- it would actually amuse me that I'd had no clue. But the fact of the matter is, he simply wasn't. Family is privy to intimate, private confidences that convey the truth about a person, but also a variety of other sources have verified my grandfather's sexuality. For Solomon to pathologize homosexuality by linking it so casually to pedophilia -- this I find offensive.

Deborah went out of her way to befriend me, a year before her book was published. Her book had already been written. She invited me over for Rosh Hashanah dinner with her editor from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Ileene Smith. Deborah broke bread with me on Rosh Hashanah, knowing the content of her book. What kind of a person does this? When she handed me a copy of her book a year later, she inscribed it: "For Abigail ... whose friendship means so much to me."

At a recent PEN workshop, Solomon condemned herself, stating, "... to be accurate is a huge thing, it's very hard to get all the facts right in a story ... to me that's what distinguishes good writing from shoddy journalism."

No one has investigated this story. Apparently, no one from Farrar, Straus and Giroux properly fact-checked the book.

Norman Rockwell and his legacy will survive this blight that Solomon has created. But what will she be left with?

The man Deborah Solomon created for her biography never existed. He bears no resemblance to the real Norman Rockwell.

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Abigail Rockwell is a jazz singer/songwriter. She recently finished the final draft of show she has written, called Torch Light, about deconstructing the concept of torch music. She has worked in voiceovers for years. Abigail joined the Norman Rockwell Family Agency to assist her father, Thomas Rockwell, a year ago in April. She has since left the agency and has written a comprehensive 62-page paper on the Deborah Solomon book -- extensively detailing the hundreds of errors and omissions.