The Story of Norman Rockwell’s Forgotten Model
min Read27 June 2022
Much has been written about Norman Rockwell’s neighbors who posed as models for his illustrations and Saturday Evening Post covers. Now 87, but looking decades younger, Cathy Burow, née Smith, one of the models, laughs about her fleeting fame in an interview.
Norman Rockwell was born in New York City on February 3, 1894, and he began his artistic career at Boy’s Life, the Boy Scouts of America magazine, at age 19 as a staff artist. Throughout his career, he produced nearly 4,000 works, but he is most famous for his Saturday Evening Post covers, portraying an idealist view of American life.
He pulled inspiration from the world around him, often photographing, then painting, staged scenes featuring whatever models he could find to fit his vision. Among the more famous are people like Doc Campbell, clad in his white coat giving a shot; Eddie Lock, the apprehensive boy about to receive the shot; and Mary Whalen, the girl at the mirror.
But little has been written about the forgotten Southern California model who graced the cover of the March 19, 1949, issue of The Saturday Evening Post in a painting titled Prom Dress.
Cathy Smith was a 14-year-old junior high school student living in West Hollywood in the fall of 1948 when the famous illustrator – who was working in Los Angeles to escape the snowy, cold Vermont winter – approached her at school and asked if she would model for a Post cover.
Now 87, but looking decades younger, Cathy Burow – her married name – laughs about her fleeting fame. “At the time, I thought it was a big thing. Most people knew of him then. Most of my life I’ve been a little bit famous. In 1949, I had my 15 minutes of fame.” Burow says most of her friends have passed, and she doubts younger people know or care about Norman Rockwell or The Saturday Evening Post.
“About a year ago I went to the dentist to have my teeth cleaned and for some reason it came up that I was on the cover of a magazine. And the young woman who was a hygienist said, ‘Oh, a magazine?’ And I said, ‘Yes, The Saturday Evening Post. Do you know who Norman Rockwell is?’ She didn’t know any of it.”
Burow’s kids all have pictures hanging in their house of the Post cover. “They still admire the fact that it happened, and I do too. Still.”
73 Years Later
Though 73 years have passed, Burow vividly remembers the experience. “We were at a junior high football game. We didn’t have a field or anything when a friend of mine said, ‘He’s looking at you and one other girl that was there.’ So, he approached me with a teacher, I think a history teacher, and they came over and introduced themselves as Norman Rockwell and photographer Pete Todd, and asked if I would be interested in posing for Mr. Rockwell.”
“I guess I said, ‘Oh yeah, sure.’ This man, Mr. Hatch – I still know his name, a young science teacher or English teacher? I don’t remember – took me in his car home, to my house, and Rockwell, with Todd driving, followed.”
Her eyes widen and her brows climb. “Can you imagine that today?” she asks rhetorically, allowing her words to hang. “There is no way the school would let him do it! In this day and age, it would never happen.” But it was 1948 – a time before school shootings, SWAT teams, lockdowns, drug-sniffing dogs and overdoses. People trusted people – especially the celebrated illustrator Norman Rockwell.
“My mom phoned my dad at work and he came home,” Burow says. “He was like a junior artist and was really impressed. So, my mother and dad were there and me, of course, and they [Rockwell and Todd] looked at my bedroom and it wasn’t suitable. They would need to find another background. This was a school day, so the following Saturday they picked me up and took me to North Hollywood. We lived in West Hollywood. Pete Todd said he knew somebody he thought had a suitable bedroom. We drove out there, the two men and me.”
She rolls her eyes and laughs. “Can you imagine?” she asks. “I was 14. My folks said, ‘Yeah, take her, go with those men.’ We went to Hollywood Boulevard and got this dress from Nancy’s, which is gone now. And oh my God, Norman Rockwell, they fell apart. And he picked out this dress – I don’t think I did – and it was beautiful! He said, ‘I will give you the formal. Do you have one?’ It wasn’t cheap. It was $110. That was a lot of money. I didn’t own anything like that.”
But her delight faded to disappointment after the modeling for the photoshoot was finished. She realized she was not getting the dress after all. “He was supposed to buy the dress, but he reneged,” Burow says, a slight tone of indignation rising. “Well, he was quite thrifty, you know.” She rolls her eyes again.
“He didn’t want to pay so he talked Nancy’s into loaning the dress to him and then he gave it back” Burow explains. “He had a deal with Nancy’s to give them some kind of PR. So he put this box – which was supposed to be from Nancy’s – in the painting. It said Nancy’s on it. So, I never got it.”
She continues replaying the day’s events. “We drove to North Hollywood and we went to this house and the people weren’t there,” she says. “Nobody was there! And we went to this bedroom, and he (Rockwell) rearranged a few things, like the ice skates. They might have been roller skates? I think he hung them so you could see them, and I was in the jeans and the red shirt and whatever I had for shoes.”
All of the props and articles in the painting already were in the room. Asked if it felt weird being in another girl’s bedroom she didn’t know and going through her stuff, Burow exclaims, “Yeeeah!” as if still a teenager.
Rockwell asked Burow if she had any loafers, which she did not. “So, the girl – whoever this was that I never met – she had a pair of shoes in her closet, and they were sort of loafers in the front with a strap in the back,” Burow says. “The shoe wasn’t filled in in the back. The girl had much smaller feet, way smaller than my feet, but I got my feet in them, and he just drew them in the way he wanted them to be. If you look at that picture, they looked kind of funny.”
After the Photo Shoot
Likely sensing her disappointment at not getting to keep the prom dress after the photo shoot, Rockwell and Todd took the teenager to get a hamburger on the way home. “I thought that was a big deal” Burow remembers. Todd and Rockwell each gave her $10. “I would have done it for nothing,” she says. “I wasn’t expecting any money, but I was happy to have it.”
That was the last time she ever saw Rockwell. The two exchanged letters a couple of times. Burow says she was impressed the famous artist always responded.
Once, she wrote asking him when the cover was coming out “because it seemed like forever,” Burow says. She posed for the cover in the fall, likely September, so it was about six months before publication. Years later, she asked if Rockwell knew where the original painting was. He said he did not, speculating the painting was likely destroyed in one of two devastating home fires.
The last letter she received from him was in 1977. He confessed that because of his age and fading memory, he did not remember details in the creation of the Prom Dress. Rockwell died in November 1978.
A Different Era
As a teen, Burow did get her prom dress – though not a new formal from Nancy’s – and attended her Fairfax High School senior prom with Glen, her boyfriend since her sophomore year, and the one she married. “From the 10th grade on, he was it!” she says. “We had our high school prom, called a senior prom, in the gym. Nowadays, around here at least, they go to some hotel, and oh my God, they take a limo.”
The two married in 1953, raised three children and were married 59 years, until Glen’s death in 2012. “In my era if you weren’t married by 20 or 21, what was wrong with you?” Burow says. “You were an old maid already. Now they all go to college. I had no idea of going to college. I didn’t even think about it. Get married and have kids.”
Burow’s voice softens with melancholy. “It was an innocent time, and it was so naïve compared to now,” she says. She says she feels sadness for children growing up today. “The young people, they are like an island now with a tone of worry, noting how disconnected they are from personal contact with other people. They have their texting and their emailing and stuff. (…) Some of my friends, when we talk, will say we lived in the best generation. When I think of high school, nobody got shot. I didn’t know anybody on drugs. I am not saying somebody was and I didn’t know if they were. It was just very innocent. Now you send your kid to school, you walk them, you drive them and you are afraid to let them walk to school. They would let them go on their bicycle. But now, oh my God, you have to have a helmet and you gotta have this and that. Poor kids. There are so many rules and regulations. It’s different.”
“In our generation, you don’t worry about it. You let them go out and play in the street. When the light comes on in the street they come home. It was the innocent era because we got things done, we had a good life, but we weren’t scared of everything like now. It was very simple compared to now. But that’s gone, just like the dinosaurs.”
According to a story published in the Beverly Hills Shopping News following the 1949 cover, “Rockwell, in search for a model, visited Bancroft Junior High School and picked Cathy out of hundreds of girls he observed there.”
“He chose me because of my cute ass,” Cathy Burow says with a smile. The quick-witted mother and grandmother with a great sense of humor and endearing sarcasm is not kidding. According to photographer Todd, they picked out the 14-year-old because of her shapely backside. “That’s what they said,” Burow declares. She says either Rockwell or Todd explained their choice to some of her neighbors, though she does not remember who told her.
Meeting the Forgotten Model
Working as a photographer for the Ventura County (California) Star at the time, I proposed we look at Rockwell’s America as a turn-of-the-century project for the year 2000. Along with writer Tom Kisken, we traveled to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and interviewed models, including Jarvis, Rockwell’s oldest son.
The Star published an eight-page special section. Afterward, a county resident who had seen the article sent a letter saying we had overlooked a model living in our circulation area, not 20 miles from the newspaper. We planned to do a follow-up story on this “forgotten” model but never did. 20 years later, while cleaning out some files, I came across the letter. My curiosity led me to wonder if this “forgotten” model was still among the land of the living. After a few phone calls, I reached Cathy Burow, who at 85 was very much alive. Spirited and funny, I felt like I was talking to a teenager.
I explained to her how I got her number and why I was calling, and my desire to come to California and interview her. She said, “Sure, come on out.” I flew to Los Angeles, rented a car, and visited her twice in her Somis, California, home. A beautiful woman, mother of three and grandmother of six, Burow looks years younger than her 87 years, smiling easily and laughing often. Quick-witted and with a great sense of humor wrapped in endearing sarcasm, she says: “My doctor said I could pass for 75, no, 65. And I said how about 55? He said, don’t push it.”
David LaBelle is many things: a photographer, a teacher, an author, a speaker, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lover of baseball. Above all, he is a Christian who strives to be a compassionate storyteller and celebrate the beauty of life with words and pictures. After an award-winning career as a photojournalist, he taught at the University of Kentucky, where he was an adviser for the award-winning The Kentucky Kernel, before directing the Photojournalism sequence at Kent State University. He has become a popular seminar speaker for conferences around the world. LaBelle has written five books, his most recent was his first novel Bridges and Angels: The Story of Ruth published in 2019. Often called the Norman Rockwell of photography for his focus on the beauty of small-town America, David contributes a monthly photography column for Oregon-based Ruralite Magazine, in a blog titled Bridges and Angels.
Check out David’s website.
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