Chasing Norman Rockwell

Text by Iraisa Ann Reilly / Winter 2017
The Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts |Photo: Iraisa Ann Reilly

“It’s like a Norman Rockwell painting,” I’d say, describing Cape May’s charming atmosphere.

I grew up 50 miles “up the road” from Cape May, and visiting was a bi-annual excursion. On college Christmas breaks, my mother and I would walk the quiet beaches and streets and look at the historic homes, on one visit bringing out-of-town relatives on a MAC Christmas trolley tour. Perfectly trimmed trees shone from the windows of gingerbread-style houses framed in tiny white lights.

Something about the entire scene seemed idyllically familiar. My mother is a big Norman Rockwell fan, and the walls of our home were filled with prints of Saturday Evening Post covers. One of my favorite coffee table books had Rockwell’s illustrations set against the classic Christmas story, Yes, Virginia and each December I unwrapped our decorative plate with the Rockwell painting depicting three kids, a mother, and a dog looking excitedly out a snowy window. After that trolley tour, I walked around breathing in the freezing salt air, watching people walk up old wooden stairs into storybook houses. It was like being inside the familiar paintings. Rockwell said, “I paint life as I would like it to be.” From the outside looking in at this little historic town from yesteryear, it seemed like Cape May captured that.

Post-college life and a job as a tour guide brought me to Cape May regularly. I tried describing Christmas in Cape May to summertime crowds. I would stumble through patter like “There are big perfect trees and twinkle lights and people in Dickensian garb and a big parade and….” Inevitably, though, I’d say “It’s hard to describe, but what I can tell you is that it’s like being in a Norman Rockwell painting.” The summer visitors would immediately nod in recognition, as wives turned to husbands saying “We’re coming back for Christmas.” One day about two years ago, after hearing my Rockwell comparison, a gentleman approached me with a very interesting piece of information.

“Do you know that Rockwell painted a house in Cape May?” he asked me.

In fact, I had no idea that Norman Rockwell had even heard of Cape May, much less visited here. The gentleman informed me that Norman’s brother, Jarvis Rockwell, had stayed at a house on Hughes Street, now known as “Rockwell Cottage,” and owned by John Mistratta. I called Mr. Mistratta to tell him about my interest in the cottage, and he graciously gave me a tour. He’s been living in Rockwell Cottage, otherwise known as 660 Hughes Street, for 17 years. The women who owned the home before him were two artists, Karen Federman and Milly La Confora. John gave me a copy of a handwritten piece of loose leaf paper they’d given him, tracing the history of the home back to the early 1900s. Below Jarvis Rockwell’s name is a note that says “Norman vacationed here along with his good friend, [actor] Burgess Meredith.” The women told John a delightful anecdote about that time.

Apparently, Jarvis was a summer-long resident and worked during the day. When Norman visited, Jarvis asked him to help out around the house, specifically to paint a room that needed sprucing up. Jarvis returned home late that afternoon to find the room in the very same condition that he’d left it. He confronted his younger brother, saying, “I thought you were going to paint the house!” Norman responded, “Oh, but I did!” and emerged with a painting of the exterior of the house.

According to the former owners, the painting resides in a private collection, somewhere in Pennsylvania, owner unknown. I knew that if I could track that painting down I would know without a doubt that not only was Cape May like a Rockwell painting, it was a Rockwell painting; that our little town by the sea isn’t just idyllic to the millions of visitors who venture here, but was idyllic to the godfather of Americana as well. Maybe these streets with the gingerbread houses and tiny white lights really were a physical manifestation of an idealized America.

A couple of years and a few Cape May Magazine articles later, I was given the green light on a Rockwell story. However, a couple of anecdotes with no actual copy of the lost painting did not make for a very compelling read. So I took to Google to dig beyond the southern tip of New Jersey to see what I could find. My searches for “Norman Rockwell Cape May” led me to the home page of the Norman Rockwell Museum and Archives in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I clicked “digital archives,” typed “Cape May, NJ” in the search page, crossed my fingers and held my breath. A slew of images popped up, the first two of which were labeled “The Cape May File.” I clicked on the first image labeled “Cape May Point,” and found two handwritten letters.

The first was an image of an envelope sent to Norman Rockwell in Stockbridge Massachusetts from a PZ Eadline, of Lake Drive in Cape May Point, postmarked October 25, year illegible. In Rockwell’s handwriting on the envelope it reads “Put in Cape May File.” The three-page letter begins “Dear Mr. Rockwell” and references photos that were taken of several children on the beach. He apologizes for the lack of clarity in some of the pictures and offers to retake them if necessary. “The mothers of the children have agreed to do this,” Eadline writes. “They were thrilled their children were chosen by you, in fact they had their checks Photostatted and are going to frame them along with some pictures of the children.” Eadline mentions taking pictures of houses, along with pictures of Wildwood’s boardwalk, because the picture of the boardwalk in Cape May did not show much detail and did not look much like a boardwalk. He finishes the letter with his address and phone number and signs it with “We enjoyed meeting you and Mrs. Rockwell very much and hope to see you soon. Sincerely, Perce Eadline.”

The second letter in the file is another from Perce Eadline, but this time it begins “Dear Norman.” This letter references some photos that were taken again, photos of the beach, and two bad nor’easter storms that caused some damage to the shore. It is signed “Sincerely, Perce.” I contacted the museum and asked if there was any further information about Rockwell’s visit to Cape May. Archivist Venus Van Ness replied. There was, in fact, an entire file pertaining to Cape May, she said, which included pictures of children on the beach, some houses, the letters I’d seen in the archives, and one more letter from 1966, with a carbon copy of Rockwell’s response. From these materials Ms. Van Ness was able to deduce that the Cape May pictures were to be for a cover of the Saturday Evening Post, but that the story was ultimately scrapped. She invited me to visit the archives and go through the materials.

The Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts | Photo: Iraisa Ann Reilly

At 7am on Labor Day I headed north towards New England to delve into The Cape May File. When I arrived, Ms. Van Ness had a box of several paper clippings and photos. While unrelated to Cape May, the hodgepodge of papers were in the same drawer as The Cape May File, which was a large, aging manila envelope with “Cape May Point” written on it in Rockwell’s handwriting. Rockwell had kept it in a drawer, along with all of the other clippings and pictures in this box. When the contents of his home office made their way into the archives, so did The Cape May File.

Besides the letters from Perce Eadline, there was a letter from a James D. Eadline, a public relations consultant from Vineland. The letter was dated October 25, 1966, and it begins “Although we’ve never met, I feel we’re old friends.” James Eadline references Perce several lines later, saying “Since your visit to Cape May and his personal meeting and working with you, the name generally pops up when we’re at the Eadlines at The Point.”

As the public relations director for the City of Cape May, James reached out to Norman in 1966. He was working in tandem with the Victorian Village Development Corporation to commission local and nationally known artists to create a book of paintings and sketches of Cape May. “What I’m asking is whether or not you produced any sketches, ad lib drawings, etc. based on your visit to Cape May several years ago even though your assignment did not make The Post,” he writes, ending with “PZ Eadline sends his regards.”

Paper-clipped to James Eadline’s letter was a carbon copy of Rockwell’s short response. “The Cape May picture was going to be for THE SATURDAY EVENING POST but I’m sure that you know that they have changed their policy entirely and are not using that type of picture, so the whole subject is dead. I don’t have any sketches or anything else because I threw them all out when I realized that it was something that I would not paint. I am very sorry I could not be of more help. I would have enjoyed painting this subject.”

While Rockwell may have thrown out the sketches, there were still dozens of photos taken by Perce Eadline in this file, mostly pictures of children on the beach. A little girl with a Dutch boy haircut in a sweater and bobby socks. A young boy with the name “NICKY” sewn across his sweater, sticking his foot in the water while holding onto a boot and tube socks. A grownup next to him, pointing him in one direction and then another. A boy in a plaid shirt in a similar pose. A boy several years older than the others, wearing a sweater, holding his shoes and socks.

Other photos showed houses, some of which I recognized as houses on Congress Place today. The Pink House, now a clothing boutique on Perry Street, was depicted in a black and white photograph. Old pictures of the lighthouse, Stockton Inn, several other hotels, motels, and St. Peter’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Cape May Point were also here.

According to Ms. Van Ness, the photos were taken in 1962, a conclusion based on several factors. Rockwell’s wife Mary died in 1959, and in 1961 he married Mollie Punderson, who enjoyed traveling with him all over the world. The letters mention his wife Mollie.

Around this time he was running into several disagreements with The Post. While it was not typical for Rockwell to discard sketches, it was entirely possible, during this contentious period. Ms. Van Ness told me more about his process: using models and photographs to tell a story about people. The focus of Rockwell’s paintings were always the people—whether he was using models in Stockbridge, Cape May, or during one of his overseas excursions.

After a couple of hours going through pictures, newspaper clippings and letters, I wandered around the Rockwell Museum and Rockwell’s Studio, where an early version of his famous Golden Rule painting rests on an easel. The painting shows individuals of different races, religions, and ethnicities with the inscription “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” According to the museum’s website, Rockwell felt himself a citizen of the world, welcomed wherever he went on his extensive travels. As for the actual Golden Rule, Rockwell said that he studied many religions and cultures, but that was the common thread. “Not always the same words, but the same meaning.”

Driving home from Stockbridge, I wondered about the kids in those photos. Who were they? Where are they today? Were they related to the Eadlines? Do they have anything to do with the house on Hughes? Are their parents still around, and do they still have a check framed in a living room somewhere in Pennsylvania or Cape May?

I posted the pictures I’d found on the Cool Cape May Facebook group with a simple question: “Does anyone know who these kids are? Pictures taken in 1962 by Perce Eadline for an artist by the name of Rockwell.” Within minutes, I had several responses.

April McPherson Wilburn informed me that they were of the Hober children: Mary, the young girl; Nicky, the boy in the sweater; their older brother Raymond was the boy in the plaid shirt, and was once married to Ms.Wilburn. Their parents owned the Mount Vernon. The oldest boy was Jule Hober, their cousin; Jule’s parents owned The Coachman. Nicky has since passed away, but Mary still resides in Cape May. I could barely keep up with the speed at which people responded, tagging names, obituaries, or simply commenting “It’s so cool to watch this unfold.” I was trying to put the family trees together, trying to decide who I should contact first, and realized that I’d traveled hundreds of miles to discover answers that were right here in Cape May. As I was in the midst of connecting the dots, a message popped up, reading: “I am the little girl in the Norman Rockwell picture.”

Several days later, I met Mary Moore at her home in West Cape May. The pictures on the beach were taken when she was about four years old, so she recalled very little of that day. She had a picture of Rockwell, his wife, a man with a camera (presumably Perce Eadline) another man (identity unknown) herself, and her brothers. As far as Mary remembered, her mother dressed them up because some guy wanted to take their picture on the beach. Occasionally her mother would reference the day when Norman Rockwell was going to use her kids for a Saturday Evening Post cover. Mary’s mother passed away in 2012, but she had framed the check, along with the pictures of her children. I showed Mary the other pictures, and she told me what it was like growing up in Cape May in years past, when the day after Labor Day turned the streets into a ghost town. She pointed out buildings that still stand, and others that are no longer there; the picture of an old lifeguard stand and the Cotton Court Apartments that no longer exist; a section of boardwalk subsequently washed away in the 1962 nor’easter. Our conversation drifted from the pictures to the evolution of Cape May, to stories about her family and how they moved from Philadelphia when she was even younger than the little girl in the photo. She talked about her own kids, now in their twenties, seeking adventures throughout the world, but always finding their way home. She talked about her mother, saying “If she were here today, she could tell you the whole story,” reflecting on her impeccable ability to recall things in great detail. While I didn’t learn much more about Rockwell or the article or the reasons it was discarded, I did learn a lot about the Hobers and their life at the Mount Vernon.

On Mary’s suggestion, I contacted Jule and learned more about the pictures. “He [Rockwell] and his wife saw us playing on the beach and I don’t remember the in between, but he came to our house and set things up with our parents and we were in the shoot the next day,” Jules said. “He was a very nice man. His wife was involved and we didn’t realize who he was until later in life. One of us was supposed to be on the cover of the magazine, but I remember something important in the news bumped us.”

Rockwell’s nearly 50-year career with The Saturday Evening Post ended in 1964, unfortunately timed for those photos taken in 1962 and the subsequent request from a PR firm in 1966. Since my search for the Hober children was successful via social media, I decided to use the same method to attempt to find the Eadlines. I found Kathy Eadline Lemme, Perce’s granddaughter, who shared some information that her brother, Douglas, had collected regarding Rockwell’s visit. “Perce Eadline was married to Viola, and they had two sons, David and James.” Her father was David, her uncle presumably the James from the Victorian Village Development Corporation. Perce had worked at Curtis Publishing Company in Philadelphia, which produced The Saturday Evening Post. He was an amateur photographer and artist, who held Rockwell in high esteem although he’d never met him. Upon his retirement, Perce and his wife moved to Cape May Point. A year or two later, the Cape May cover was commissioned, and Eadline was recommended as a suitable photographer. Thus began the friendship between Perce Eadline and Norman Rockwell. Douglas Eadline, Perce’s grandson, has since wondered about some missing correspondence between Rockwell and his grandfather and about the children in the picture and where that little girl may be today. While my search for Rockwell has some loose ends, I can say that the letters can be found in a museum in Massachusetts, and the little girl can be found in Cape May.

I wondered if James Eadline was ever successful in commissioning local and nationally recognized artists in creating a book for the Victorian Village Development Corporation, and I remembered paintings that I’d seen several years prior, created by Cape May-based artist Victor Grasso. Victor created a series of paintings in 2011 using locals as models, telling stories about Cape May in a Rockwellian style. I asked him if he knew about Rockwell’s visit in 1962 and if it had some influence on that project. Before creating the series he had no prior knowledge of the visit, but he did have this to say about Rockwell’s influence: “Rockwell’s amazing storytelling and use of ordinary people as models still sticks with me today. Through my observations, Cape May is very Rockwellian. It’s quaint, historic, old timey, and full of illuminated characters. Cape May’s beauty lies in its community, culture, and preservation, which is what Rockwell was able to capture for generations, branding an American ideal that people still dream of and recognize today.”

I went back to the house on 660 Hughes to get another copy of its history from John Mistratta, and to let John know that an article was forthcoming, and that the painting was becoming impossible to find. I thought he wouldn’t remember me, but he did, and I told him that I remembered the details about his family and his travels throughout the world. When we’d first met, John told me he’d visited five continents.

“It’s six now,” he said, smiling. “And you know what I’ve learned in all of the places I’ve been? Wherever you go, people are pretty much the same. No matter where you are in the world, people are just people.”

In that moment an image flashed in my head. “Do unto others….”

In his autobiography, Rockwell wrote: “Everything I have ever seen or done has gone into my pictures in one way or another.” All this time I’d been searching for proof that Cape May had an influence on Norman Rockwell. Over the course of two years, I met dozens of people from many different places with many different stories. My heart would sink when I found an obituary, and I was filled with hope when I sat listening to someone talk about Christmases spent with family, sitting around a fire or walking along an empty beach. I realized it in that moment standing on the porch of the Rockwell Cottage, two years after I’d first been there. All of this time I was searching for Cape May’s influence on the American artists’ work. For two years I’d asked myself “Was Cape May in a Norman Rockwell painting?” and the answer that I came to find was “Yes.” What Rockwell was looking for in Cape May was not quaint architecture and perfect twinkle lights. It was us.