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Autopsy of a Fraud: Update on Deborah Solomon's Disastrous Norman Rockwell Bio

02/23/2015 08:20 am ET | Updated Apr 25, 2015

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"On Top of the World," Norman Rockwell; 1928.

Why did Deborah Solomon think she could get away with writing a fraudulent biography of Norman Rockwell, the great American illustrator? Why did a respected publisher -- Farrar, Straus and Giroux -- publish a biography they knew would cause a sensation, yet seemingly did not bother to properly fact check it? Why did almost all the reviewers and media eagerly jump on this author's bandwagon and blindly accept the book's credibility and validity without questioning it? Why did no one pick up on Solomon's outdated, completely backward and insidious ideology, conflating homosexuality with pedophilia? And why would my grandfather's own museum, the Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge, lavishly endorse the book and continue to promote and sell it even after they were shown in detail that it was a fraud?

The story of the Norman Rockwell biography fraud is one of unchecked hubris and outsized ego, aided and abetted by a relentless propaganda machine and the unspoken conspiracy of the establishment. Deborah Solomon's malignant ambition sparked and set off a whole chain of events, pulling others with matching ambition into the fray and blindsiding unwitting victims with her duplicity.

While many newspapers, magazines and media outlets have refused to publish the fact-based rebuttals of my father, Thomas Rockwell, Norman's son, and my own deeply researched refutations of the falsehoods in Solomon's disingenuous work, it is only here on the Huffington Post that I was able to publish the truth.

Since my Huffington Post article last July, buried information and newly discovered falsifications in the biography have been uncovered and brought to light. Every time I have tried to put this scandal and book behind me and move on, I discover either a new falsification, or further information, or the media keeps it alive with new publicity and press.

Just recently I tracked down Alexandra Hildebrandt Hoy, Fred Hildebrandt's daughter. Fred Hildebrandt was a fellow artist and Rockwell's model, studio assistant and friend. I had been trying to find her for over a year -- I knew she was a vital missing key to the falsifications in Solomon's book. Solomon uses my grandfather's friendship with Fred to concoct just one of her spurious theories about my grandfather's sexuality. Solomon states in "American Mirror":

"Reading through their diaries, it is hard to ignore the homoerotic aspects of their camping trip."

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"End of the Working Day," Norman Rockwell; 1920.

I just learned from Ms. Hildebrandt Hoy that Fred Hildebrandt did not write a diary account of this Canadian camping trip in 1934. By this account, the diary that Solomon refers to does not exist, it never did. Hildebrandt only left behind two journals -- the first journal covers April 1935 to September 1937; the second journal goes from April 1938 to May 1942, but includes a few disparate entries at the beginning from April 1930 and Spring 1933, then skips to 1938. Solomon's footnotes cite an entry from April 15, 1936. According to Ms. Hoy, Solomon took a few notes, but did not spend much time on the journals. I was already aware of her egregious falsifications of Rockwell's journal from this trip and my hunch that she had falsified Hildebrandt's journals too was correct -- but to go so far as to "create" the existence of a diary to try to feebly support her unsupportable theories is beyond irresponsible. It is corrupt. Moreover, Solomon once again omits crucial information -- Fred went on many of the fishing trips that he mentions in his journals with his steady girlfriend, Helen, and these trips were sometimes family affairs which included my grandmother, Mary. Occasionally children joined the adults on these outings. These trips were ones of camaraderie, great fun and adventure; Fred's account of them is very matter of fact:

"Had no strikes but Schaef got two dandy brown trout of about fourteen inches on an awful looking squirrel tail which he wrapped with lead foil to weight it."

Solomon hangs her hat on the importance of this hunting trip in 1934 and her perusal of their diaries from it -- this trip is the cornerstone of her unfounded theory of homosexuality.

Another hunch I had was verified by Ms. Hildebrandt Hoy: Fred may have become "too close" to my grandmother Mary at one point and that would explain why he and my grandfather did not remain friends; Ms. Hoy's uncle recalled details about the friendship before he passed. Interestingly, in his journals Fred refers to Mary as "Mary Barstow," her maiden name, even though she had already been married to my grandfather for some years. Solomon absurdly tries to imply that the fracture between the two men was a fallout over some sort of homosexual affair gone wrong.

In addition to Ms. Hildebrandt Hoy, I have talked to two other people who Solomon used as primary sources -- Jo Haemer and Susan E. Meyer, author of Norman Rockwell's People. All three women feel betrayed and badly used. Solomon falsified Jo's father Alan Haemer's friendship with my grandfather in yet another gross mischaracterization and Solomon also misquoted and falsified Susan E. Meyer's taped interviews in the Norman Rockwell Museum archives. Ms. Haemer and Ms. Hildebrandt Hoy stated that their lives were thrown into turmoil by the scandal Solomon created.

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"Young Valedictorian," Norman Rockwell; c. 1922. On display at The National Museum of American Illustration.

Deborah Solomon, a journalist and NYC art critic, brings her checkered credibility along with her. It is curious that none of the reviewers or media noted her history. Her contract for her "Questions For" column that she wrote for The New York Times from 2003 to 2011 was not renewed after a series of ethical lapses. Journalists Tim Russert, Ira Glass and Amy Dickinson were outraged and called her out for distorting and mischaracterizing her interviews with them, taking things out of context and recreating the interviews, sometimes by introducing new questions she made up after the interview took place. She employs similar methods with the Rockwell biography, but this time engages in full scale falsifications and deceptions.

What do we know about publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux's stance on American Mirror? We know they offered the previous Rockwell biographer, Laura Claridge, a book deal in April 2012. Solomon's agenda was well known to them by then, much of her book was written by that time -- FSG knew they had a sensation on their hands.

We also have an idea of what was taken out of the book, as Solomon stated in her interview with The Wall Street Journal on October 31, 2013:

The interviewer asks, "In one painting, 'Girl at Mirror,' you say the doll in the picture could be masturbating."

Solomon: "Did I say that? I took out so much, you cannot imagine. You know who else is masturbating? Rosie the Riveter. Women to him (NR) were sexual demons. (She looks up the painting.) Over here, the riveting-gun penis on her lap, and in the background these pulsating red waves. Even though she's a worker she's not working, she's just eating and satisfying her desires. But I thought it was too much -- no one would agree with me -- so I took just took it out."

FSG then appointed Solomon's editor, Ileene Smith, to be Laura Claridge's editor for her upcoming book. Offering Ms. Claridge a book deal ensures her silence -- she would be hard pressed to come against the Solomon book publicly now. And giving her the same editor? Too many "coincidences" are piling up.

The New York Times resurrected and promoted the book and Solomon this past December by placing the biography on its "100 Notable Books of 2014," even though American Mirror was published on November 5, 2013. In addition, the Times published an article by Solomon in the same issue of the Sunday Book Review Section, thereby lending Solomon more credibility and directly endorsing her book once again. The Times has helped to promote her book from the beginning with two positive reviews, a spread in the Travel section and then by calling her in as a Rockwell "expert" on the recent elevation and blockbuster sales of Rockwell's work.

Why has The New York Times been pushing the book, blindly disregarding the documentation that irrefutably proves the book is a fraud? "All the news that's fit to print," except for the "exceptions"; when it comes to "friends," their policy unaccountably alters. Unless pushed, the Times will not address certain issues as they were compelled to with the plagiarism of Carol Vogel, the misinformation of Judith Miller and the fraudulent reporting of Jayson Blair, etc. The Times also chose not to publish or answer the two letters my father and I sent to the Public Editor on two different occasions.

And now Deborah Solomon and Laurie Norton Moffatt, Director/CEO of the Norman Rockwell Museum, are presenting a wall of silence; they have both refused to speak with Art News, a widely read and respected art publication, about Solomon's book and the controversy it has caused. This silence, after repeated attempts by Art News, is their admission of guilt. The Board of the Museum is also remaining silent.

Why did so many reviewers and media outlets allow themselves to be fooled? Starting with a BBC promo last October 2013, the media for the most part fueled the propaganda machine instead of researching the story, writing an intelligent piece about it and helping to set the record straight. One reporter, Alan Bisbort, in a piece of pure propaganda in the Hartford Courant in January 2014, wrote that the Rockwell family was just crying foul because Solomon's biography was the first "honest" biography written of Norman Rockwell: "In a way, Deborah Solomon was asking for it. Writing an honest biography of a beloved cultural icon is a bit like being a bomb disposal specialist. Sooner or later, you unearth a bomb you can't defuse."

My father, Thomas, wrote a firm but reasonable letter to the Hartford Courant which they refused to publish, perhaps choosing to protect their local museum, The Hartford Atheneum, which was hosting Solomon, instead of acting with journalistic responsibility.

Christopher Benfey in The New York Review of Books references my grandfather's autobiography, which he has obviously read, but does not note that Solomon egregiously distorts and misquotes it. He also questions Solomon's suggestions of pedophilia yet ends his lengthy article with praise. He seems to smell a rat but can't put his finger on the problem. Is it carelessness that leads him to praise the biography nevertheless?

A fraudulent biography is a newsworthy event, yet the Norman Rockwell Museum and the media have refused to acknowledge my original Huffington Post article and findings. Why are reporters running scared from properly covering this story? I have been told that PR teams turned us down in the beginning because they didn't want to go up against Solomon's powerful literary agent. I have also been told that an investigative journalist was scared off this story, his career threatened. A 60 Minutes staffer told me they "balked" at the idea of doing this story -- no one wanted to take it on for fear of being labeled homophobic, even though the real issues are the falsification of sources, the suggestion of pedophilia, the pathologization of homosexuality by linking it to pedophilia, and the brazen disregard for the truth. Even the PEN Awards and the LA Times Book Awards were sucked into the vortex of the propaganda machine and nominated the book. It really is about who you know in the literary and publishing worlds these days. If you are connected to even more powerful and manipulatively persuasive people, you can control the narrative and essentially "buy" credibility. There has been a systematic, deliberate cover up of the truth. Are they protecting Solomon? No. They are protecting themselves and their investment. Did Solomon feel completely protected by this publicity mechanism -- does that explain her radical bravado? Yet nothing could protect her from herself.

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Part Two

So, why? Why did almost everyone fall for this book? The acceptance of the biography really is a cultural phenomenon. Alison Lurie's article on Fay Weldon in The New York Review of Books goes a long way to explain what may have been behind the reviewers' immediate acceptance of it. Ms. Lurie states:

"It is natural to be annoyed by well-known writers (artists)... The only way many of us can forgive them for their talent and luck is to think that they are really miserable and afflicted people. It is good if a writer (artist) had a horrible childhood, was deeply unlucky in love, drank or took drugs, committed suicide or died young of an unpleasant disease... Then we can, sometimes almost completely, forgive them."

I believe there is an even deeper issue at work here. Solomon's book can be seen as an attack on goodness, decrying that belief in the goodness of people that runs through my grandfather's paintings. That concept of goodness is anathema to someone like Solomon. She did what she could to sully that perception of goodness. If she couldn't find "dirt," she'd "create" it. And that is something that obviously appealed to the media and reviewers.

It is not surprising that someone would want to create a sensation and garner attention for themselves by coming up with outrageous, unfounded theories on my grandfather. What is more than surprising, astonishing in fact, is that the Norman Rockwell Museum continues to sell and promote the book as part of "The Story of Rockwell." This is another aspect of the scandal that is shocking and unaccountable. It is especially puzzling because I have the documentation that definitively proves that Solomon falsified many sources from the Museum archives. And the Museum insists on selling the book in the name of free speech and scholarship? It is their willful insistence on endorsing and selling the book regardless of facts that helps to keep this scandal alive. On January 30, 2014, Anne Morgan, then president of the Board wrote:

"You have asked that the Museum's board of directors withdraw the endorsement that our director/CEO (Laurie Norton Moffatt) gave of the Solomon book. That is not something that we can do. There are 33 individuals on our board, not all of whom have read the biography, and among those who have read the book, there are a number of different views. The board's proper role here is to support the Museum's mission to serve as a forum for the free, informed and respectful exchange of ideas, not to express a single point of view on the book. The board is unanimous in supporting our Chief Executive's right to offer her considered opinion of the biography."

Solomon's biography is neither "informed" nor "respectful." Ms. Morgan's statement is contradictory and faulted at best. They had already stepped out of the realm of "neutrality" when Laurie Norton Moffatt endorsed the book with her over-the-top praise. The Museum rigidly and without foresight adopted a stance that if you say anything about a scandal you only give it more fuel. Were Moffatt and the Board protecting the multi-million dollar acquisition from the Famous Artists School last spring 2014 or the $500,000 grant from the George Lucas Family Foundation last summer?

This isn't the first fraud that Moffatt and the Museum failed to detect and rectify. For three years they displayed a fraudulent "third rate replica" of "Breaking Home Ties" by Norman Rockwell. One very respected, well known portrait painter, John Howard Sanden, wrote the Museum seven times, pointing out the possible fraud and questioning the painting's authenticity. He asked, "Why is the Museum refusing to respond to scholarly inquiries?" Only after the real "Breaking Homes Ties" was found behind a wall did Laurie Norton Moffatt correct the situation and apologize to Mr. Sanden.

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"Till The Boys Come Home (Women Sitting by Edge of Sea)," Norman Rockwell; 1918.

Another bewildering aspect of this whole travesty? My grandfather was a charming, kind, generous man; his models, without exception, say that posing for him was one of the highlights of their lives. He had a marvelous sense of humor, was a remarkable observer of people and human behavior... None of this is in this wretched biography. Solomon didn't even try to find out who the real man behind the icon was. She also has no understanding of his work, his technique or its content -- more than perplexing for a putative art critic. I did bother to find out who my grandfather was by going to the primary and secondary sources -- I found a man of depth and compassion, someone who was very driven to contribute something of worth through his work, always striving, never complacent. But even Norman Rockwell did not always have a "Norman Rockwell" life -- there was darkness and shadow, difficult periods to move through, as we all have in our lives. We have never tried to obscure any aspect of his life -- the mental illness and alcoholism in the family, for instance. The family has never tried to whitewash his story in any way.

I started the Facebook page, "Rescuing Norman Rockwell" to restore the truth and have placed my 62 page detailed list of the countless errors and omissions in Solomon's book under "Slanders and Stupidities."

The real paradox? It is 2015 -- aren't we well past caring if someone is gay or not? Apparently not. Solomon's relentless unfounded suggestions of homosexuality are what set off the media firestorm. No one seemed to pay much attention to the pedophilia, but they sure fixated on the idea of Rockwell being gay, clothed in double talk of camping "trips," his supposed love of "manhood," "the male figure" and the "company of men." It is a revealing, very sobering look at where we are as a society regarding sexuality. It shouldn't matter, but it did. And it still does -- to some people.

Fraudulent biographies like this one damage and even destroy our implicit trust in the credibility of contemporary biography. It's a dangerous precedent to establish -- denying and disobeying the basic rules and tenets of good, responsible biography. Deborah Solomon was given everything she needed to write the definitive biography of Norman Rockwell. The luxury of unlimited time, a Guggenheim Fellowship for biography in 2001, the support of a respected publisher, a powerful literary agent, the cooperation of the Rockwell family and the Norman Rockwell Museum and full access to its archives. She squandered this rare opportunity, perhaps fueled by a tragically misguided need to stand out from other Rockwell biographers.

What is most alarming? She almost got away with it. If my father and I hadn't stepped forward and pressed the truth continuously, her biography would still be accepted as the "latest and most comprehensive" version of his life. There are others who have come forward to help correct the narrative -- Patrick Toner on First Things and the Huffington Post, Bruce Cole in The New Criterion, Steve Duin in The Oregonian, Sherman Yellen on the Huffington Post. Rockwell models have written letters in defense of my grandfather; Mary Whelan Leonard in The Berkshire Eagle, Chuck Marsh in The New York Times, among others. Many Rockwell scholars and friends, including The Saturday Evening Post and Judy Cutler of the National Museum of American Illustration, have thanked me personally.

Deborah Solomon underestimated me and my father and our steady pursuit to correct the record. But what she really underestimated is the power of the truth.