Keane Eyes          

 

Judith Nakken 

 

Copyright 2018 by Judith Nakken     

 

Photo of a Margaret Keane big eyes painting.


I knew nothing about the artist, Walter Keane, when his big-eyed children became the rage of the Southern California art world in the early sixties. I only knew that I was drawn to the paintings’ soul-filled eyes even while I, true art lover that I claimed to be, was bashing them. Modigliani, Monet-before-water-lilies, Van Gogh, even Picasso prints adorned my walls. “I’m sure he has a Henry Ford assembly line somewhere,” I would proclaim. “Art students paint the portraits and, one by one, they flow down to Walter and he paints in the huge, round eyes and makes a fortune. Pfffft!” In truth, I longed for an original Keane.

And knew next to nothing about the good-looking guy I faced on the far right hand stool at the piano bar when I was asked to sit in for Paul. I had a couple of crowd-pleasers with my gamin haircut, fake French accent and throaty voice, so Allez-Vous-En usually brought down the house. If I hadn’t had too much Courvoisier or Black Jack Daniels. He wasn’t much older than my 26, I figured, but his manner was fortyish. If he was half in the bag, Paul could get him to sing one song, A Foggy Day in London Town. His nice, untrained baritone treated the song well, although it often faltered to near tremolo as he breathed the last lines. Usually apathetic to anyone else, I uncharacteristically wondered about him, and why he looked so sad.

He invited a few of us to his house for a swim after closing time one night. I went, although I didn’t swim – nude or otherwise – and so, it seemed, neither did he. I found myself in the living room of his upscale Downey home, drink in hand, lusting after an original Keane oil – a sketchy, long-haired blonde with traditional Keane eyes, hanging down the right side of the front door. The velveteen sofa and silk flower arrangement on a side table seemed to purposely match the teal of the portrait’s eyes. He caught me tracing my fingers over its face, checking to be sure it wasn’t a print. “Gorgeous, isn’t she,” he commented.

I began to stammer an apology, which he pooh-poohed, waving in the picture’s direction. “Cost me a small fortune, but I had to have it. It is the spit and image of my ex-wife.” Apathetic I may have been, but the indelible longing on his face erased all thought I may have had about making a move on him, and has stayed with me a lifetime.

The girls in the office had an extra ticket and asked me to go to the Hollywood Bowl to hear Johnny Mathis. They didn’t often ask me out, and I liked his voice, so off we went for Chinese after work and on to the Bowl. Karen was a recent employee, a kind of file-clerk-go-to-girl, and a pretty, unsophisticated 20-year-old. We all liked her already, and were thrilled at her news at dinner. “I’ve been going with this guy for only a couple of months, but he’s asked me to marry him and I am SO in love and gonna do it! Next Saturday, at the courthouse!”

We threw together a little bridal shower, mostly gags, in the last hour of the Friday workday, and he came into the conference room to pick her up. Karen’s new bridegroom-to-be was my Foggy Day guy from the piano bar! Maybe he didn’t recognize me in a suit and heels instead of a cut-to-the-navel cocktail dress, but just in case I didn’t acknowledge him, either. At first I was concerned for Karen, but then stopped to consider: I hadn’t seen him at the bar for weeks and weeks, and he was probably a pretty good guy. All worry was banished until months later, when Karen invited us to her new home for a jewelry party.

There were changes in the Downey house .. knickknacks in the bathroom and gewgaws on the kitchen counters, but the teal sofa and flowers were in the same place, paying homage to the big-eyed Keane blonde by the door. I gasped, and Karen noticed. Trying to cover my confusion, I breathed, “It’s an original Keane, isn’t it?”

Only pride transfixed Karen’s face as she replied. “Yes, it is. Ronnie loves that picture about as much as he does me.” Her giggle indicated the little white lie she thought she told.

What could I do, what should I do, what, what, what?

In the end, I went by the bar and had a drink or ten, resigning Karen and Keane, Ronnie and Big-Eyes to a walled compartment in the dark recesses of my mind. Until today.

Yes, I know Keane didn't do the paintings, even the eyes!  But I didn't know so then.  This is a true memoir, except the names are changed.

*****

(Editor's note:  From Wikipedia--
Walter Stanley Keane (October 7, 1915 – December 27, 2000) was an American plagiarist, who became famous in the 1960s as the claimed painter of a series of widely reproduced paintings depicting vulnerable waifs with enormous eyes. The paintings are now claimed to be painted by his wife Margaret Keane. When she declared her side of the story, Walter Keane retaliated with a USA Today article that again claimed he had done the work.

In 1986 Margaret Keane sued Walter and USA Today. In the subsequent slander suit, the judge demanded that the litigants paint a painting in the courtroom, but Walter declined, citing a sore shoulder. Margaret then produced a painting for the jurors in 53 minutes. The jury awarded her damages of $4 million.)

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