Behind the Big Eyes
Walter Keane, the subject of an upcoming Tim Burton biopic, reaped a fortune back in the 60s painting weeping waifs with hypnotic, saucer-size eyes. But it was his long-suffering wife, Margaret, toiling down in his basement studio, who painted the art...
Christopher (Coop) Cooper, Walter Keane, and Adam Parfrey in front of Keane’s La Jolla bungalow in 1991. Photo by Scott Lindgren
Editor's note: Adam Parfrey runs perhaps our favorite small press, Feral House Books. If you're interested in pills, black metal, and apocalyptic death cults, they're pretty much your one-stop shop. So when Adam sent us a snippet of his new book, Citizen Keane, we jumped at the opportunity to run an excerpt. The subject is Walter and Margaret Keane, 60s pop artists who caused a weird sensation painting kids with big eyes. They're also the subject of Big Eyes, Tim Burton's new biopic, which will see wide release this Christmas.
Nineteen sixty-five was a year of bug-eyed glory for the former real estate salesman turned pop artist Walter Stanley Keane, who bragged to reporters that he “romped through life with the evident enjoyment of a terrier rolling in a clover patch.” He wasn’t exaggerating. Keane art was seemingly everywhere—from the sales bins at Woolworths to the gilded mansions of Hollywood royalty. As his income surged comfortably into seven figures, Keane decided he would keep things simple. “All that really matters to me,” he explained to an admiring Life magazine reporter, “is painting, drinking (which, the way I look at it, includes eating), and loving.” It seemed like the party was just getting started.
Keane’s fortune was made from a style stunning in its simplicity. Weeping waifs. Tearful children. All bearing hypnotic, saucer-size orbs. It was said that if you looked at them long enough, the distressed children seemed to stare at you, even if you moved about the room. “Let’s face it,” he boasted to Life magazine: “Nobody painted eyes like El Greco, and nobody can paint eyes like Walter Keane.” More discriminating art enthusiasts, critics, and academics didn’t quite agree, finding the paintings formulaic and sickening in their sentimentality. But the rest of America fell in love with Keane’s Big Eyes, and he became a household name.
Meanwhile, lurking in the background, and painting Keanes in a basement studio, was Walter’s long-suffering wife, Margaret, the true artist behind the Big Eyes. But more on that later.
As the Big Eyes grew in popularity throughout the 1960s, dozens of imitators moved to cash in on the Keane style. Big Eye prints sprouted like toadstools; “Gig” painted moony-eyed mongrels and alley cats; “Eden” did corkboard prints of Keane-like waifs dressed as moppets in tattered clothing; “Eve” transformed Keane-like kids into precocious go-go dancers. Even black-velvet iterations of Big Eye kitsch followed in their footsteps.
Walter Keane was quite the operator, a true American type. A “naïf” who seemed to buy into his own sales pitch. Keane hired Tom Wolfe, who used the pseudonym “Eric Schneider,” to write an over-the-top satire that portrayed both Walter and Margaret Keane’s Big Eye kitsch as furthering the work of great masters deserving of great accolades. Keane’s self-inflation later permeated his autobiography, The World of Keane, in which he felt the need to tell readers that in his dreams his grandmother called him a “great master” until he came to understand that, yes, he was deserving of this title.
The gratuitous sentimentality of weepy waifs combined with Keane’s claims of eternal artistic genius make for a particularly American type of salesmanship. Yet Walter Keane’s insistence that he was a rare artistic genius has a desperate quality to it in light of the lawsuits he lost to Margaret Keane concerning the real originator of the Big Eye style. As it turned out, Margaret became a victim of her scoundrel husband, and her despair seemed to actualize in her art in ways the copycat competition failed to achieve.
Early Big Eye art monograph circa 1960
Keane wondered, why sell just a handful of paintings to a few well-heeled collectors? That’s not how real estate moved in new suburban tracts or how TV dinners were sold in supermarkets. Keane thought, why not eliminate the middleman, open a gallery, and sell directly to the public? It wasn’t easy at first. “I never intended to become an artist in the garret existence,” Keane remembered, “but there were lean years when we started.” Paintings went for as little as $20. When money was tight, a picture or sketch was bartered to help pay the bills. “We just about furnished our house by trading canvases for furniture,” Keane later recalled.
Selling paintings was hard work in the early 60s, and Keane’s art enterprise took a few years to get off the ground. Handbills were made, paintings were shown at community art festivals, and some of the earlier works were even hung in a local nightclub. Fortunately for him, Walter had an innate gift for blather that played well with newspapers, magazines, and nightly news programs. Articles about the Keane Gallery began to appear in various Bay Area publications—Oakland Tribune, San Francisco Call Bulletin, Hayward Daily Review, and others. Soon enough, reporters from the major national papers were running profiles of the larger-than-life North Beach artist who painted weeping, saucer-eyed children.
Hardly a week passed without Walter Keane devising a way to get his name and photograph into the newspapers. All he’d have to do was call an old “school chum” at United Press International, and a photographer would hurry to Keane’s home to snap a few pictures of Walter posting in front of a half-completed canvas. Keane had also snagged guest spots on a few television shows like the Jack Paar Show, which helped him gain a few influential celebrity admirers and a direct pipeline into millions of American living rooms. He understood the power of the medium. “We’ve used television more than any other way of getting ourselves known,” Walter explained, “It’s beautiful how many people can be exposed to your work through, say, just one TV show.”
Walter Keane wasn’t your typical brooding artist. He knew how to connect with Cold War conservatives. He wore his windswept light brown hair short, and favored monogrammed shirts. If you saw him on the street, it wouldn’t be hard to mistake him for an insurance salesman on his day off. And Keane had a certain genius when it came to making friends and cultivating business connections.
“We don’t need New York anymore,” he once said. “Our real strength, anyway, is in the interior, in places like Boise. What a reception they gave us when we went to Boise!” If millionaires could buy quality art, why couldn’t kindergarten teachers, housewives, or forklift operators? So Keane mass-marketed waif images like so many coffee mugs. If some art critics called it crass commercialism, he wasn’t going to let them spoil the party. He sold lithographs, miniatures, collectable plates, greeting cards, and wall posters. Big Eye “Little Miss No Name” dolls were mass-marketed, and the only reason they didn’t bear the magic Keane name is that the toy company Hasbro didnt offer Walter enough money.
While Keane originals went for anywhere between $25,000 and $50,000 during the peak years, unframed lithographs were available for $3.50 to $25 for a first edition print. In 1964, Keane grossed $2,000,000 from prints alone. This was popular art in the truest sense of the word, and Walter didn’t just think of himself as an artist. He was introducing millions of people to fine art. “I’ve helped the art world just as Picasso and Modigliani have,” he once bragged. “I’ve made more people aware of paintings, which makes them buy more, just like they go buy more records and books once they’re exposed.”
One of the many weird Big Eye offshoots of Keane art. This one was painted on black velvet and purchased in Tijuana
So why were so many Americans enthralled by Keane paintings? America was a nation in transition when Big Eye art appeared. The GIs were home from the war, the economy was booming, and the country was awash in consumer goods. Disposable incomes were rising, and thousands of new homes were going up as an exodus of families spilled out of the nation’s major cities. The home with the well-manicured lawn and the two-car garage had become the centerpiece of the American dream. By 1960, one third of the population lived in the suburbs
—that’s a lot of living room walls.
The US may have been enjoying a remarkable stretch of prosperity, but the world had also become more dangerous and unsettling. The melancholy waifs triggered an instant emotional reaction—and can any art that provokes an emotional reaction be called bad? “They drew you in,” says Bob Miller, a collector and longtime friend of Keane's. “There was just a certain magnetism about the paintings.”
Keane also maintained that the paintings’ children offered an underlying political message. “If mankind would look deep into the soul of the very young,” he once said, “he wouldn’t need a road map.” If Walter’s outspoken concern for the world’s children seems relatively commonplace today, it was uncommon in the early 1960s. The United Nations General Assembly had only recently enacted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, in 1959, and child abuse, once considered a taboo subject, had entered the national conversation with the 1962 Journal of the American Medical Association article “The Battered Child Syndrome.”
Though Keane thought he had a powerful message, he was treated like a joke. As far as the art establishment was concerned, the millions of Keane fans only seemed to reinforce the image of America as a cultural backwater despite the heralded rise of abstract expressionist artists like Pollock, Rothko, and de Kooning.
The New York School artists were renowned for their brooding self-absorption. They weren’t just making art—they exposed their raw, naked, tortured souls. Many of them dabbled in Jungian psychology, adopting an air of humorless self-importance. At the time Walter and his wife began selling paintings, the pop art movement was rapidly displacing the action painters. The irreverent pop artists brought a lively sense of mockery to the creative process. It could be argued that the mass-produced Keane paintings were op art in the truest sense of the world. Satirically or not, Andy Warhol praised Big Eye paintings just for being popular.
Walter Keane wasn’t worried in the least what critics thought. A look at the sizeable sum in his bank book provided him with the last laugh. More than that, Keane paintings appeared in art museums in Spain and Belgium, and despite hate from a New York Times critic, during the World’s Fair of 1964, the United Nations itself purchased and hung a Big Eye painting, as did Madame Chiang Kai-Shek. The list of celebrity owners of Keane paintings was growing with each passing day. Natalie Wood, Red Skelton, Joan Crawford, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Eve Arden, Kim Novak—all became proud owners of dearly priced Keane oils. All in all, it was a charmed life for a star-struck native of Lincoln, Nebraska. Even politicos like George Christopher, who served as the last Republican mayor of San Francisco from 1956 to 1964, paid Margaret Keane $4,500 (a fairly large amount at the time) to paint his portrait. According to the Modesto Bee in December 1959, Margaret also painted portraits of members of the super-rich DuPont family as well.
This being the golden age of the cocktail, the three-martini lunch, and the living room tiki bar, Walter Keane was in his gassed-up element. Fifty years ago, alcoholism wasn’t considered a disease like it is today. If you were drinking too much, it just meant that you needed to go on the wagon for a while. Most social activities revolved around a few shared drinks. Once he became a celebrity, Walter’s carousing grew legendary. “He was just always a lot of fun to be around,” Bob Miller remembers. “Wherever Walter went, his persona was like a magnet.”
As Keane later recalled his rock star lifestyle:
“I knew all the big shots. Dalí, Picasso, they were all my friends. One time in Paris, Picasso was throwing a big party, and I was there. I took a canvas and put it up on an easel, and I laid down ten $100 bills. I said, ‘Master, that’s for you and your girlfriends. All I want you to do is X, Y, and Z on there and write ‘Picasso.’ He thought I was making fun of him. Joan Crawford, she introduced me to one of my first great loves, Miss Chivas Regal. And she threw parties for me, introduced all the Hollywood stars to my work. I had this long bar in my Woodside home; it came around the horn. Red Skelton tried to buy it for $4,000 bucks once. Seventeen people could sit around my bar room. The Beach Boys, Maurice Chevalier were guests there. Howard Keel and all those guys. We’d have parties until four in the morning. Dinner, drinks, anything they wanted. Always three or four people swimming nude in the pool. Everybody was screwing everybody. Sometimes I’d be going to bed, and there’d be three girls in the bed. I took a photo once of three of the girls there. Crazy, wild...”
When he wasn’t trading drinks with Hollywood royalty, going to parties, or boozing it up in some exotic locale, Keane could be seen knocking back a Chivas on the rocks at one of his favorite North Beach nightspots, or tooling around San Francisco in a gleaming white Cadillac convertible with a telephone installed in the front seat (a rarity at that time). And the money kept rolling in.
While Walter hit the bars and kept the reporters busy, Mrs. Keane was trying to start a new life in Hawaii. In 1965, Margaret filed for a legal separation after a decade of fulfilling the role of being Walter’s wife. She later claimed that Walter was simply impossible to live with. He constantly criticized her, stayed out late drinking, and at times could be a jealous man. Once a judge approved their legal separation, they each started new lives, telling the press that they’d forever remain friends and business partners.
A southern blond with a gentle voice and a slender figure, Walter’s ex is an accomplished portraitist. Her paintings of winsome adolescent women, painted in a style akin to Modigliani, have earned her a certain degree of fame alongside Walter’s nationwide notoriety.
In the various media profiles of her husband, Margaret was usually depicted as the perfect wife: raising their two daughters, running the household, and painting in her spare time. If Walter was a gregarious, talkative extrovert, Margaret (who was 12 years his junior) was his opposite—polite, shy, withdrawn, and given to pondering spiritual matters. Walter’s soon-to-be ex-wife also harbored a well-kept secret that in a few short years would effectively destroy Walter’s well-crafted persona.
In the mid 1960s, at the height of Walter’s fame, Margaret was the only one who knew that he had perpetrated a humbug of monumental proportions. The man wasn’t a painter at all. Margaret was the creator of all the Big Eye art. Walter basked in the glory, partied with the celebrities, and reaped the rewards. As she would later relate, the tearful, doe-eyed children she painted had nothing to do with Walter’s supposed belief in children redeeming the world. The weeping waifs reflected her own sorrow.
Margaret played a part in Walter’s deception for over a decade, but after moving to Hawaii, remarrying, and getting her life back in order, she decided to end the charade once and for all. It wouldn’t be a clean break. Walter would not go away quietly. It required an ugly legal battle to finally settle the matter of who painted the popular Big Eye waifs. After all, Walter could display published art books featuring the Big Eye kids and Walter’s signature. Walter could also point to a hundred published news photos featuring him holding a paintbrush and a palette of acrylic paints dabbing at one painting or another. Why did she agree to the lies? “It was easier to agree to the lies than not” was Margaret’s simple answer.
Supported by her new husband, a sports writer named Dan McGuire, Margaret finally took it upon herself to challenge Walter’s lies in a substantial public forum. In a media splash, Margret organized a public “paint-off” in San Francisco Union Square, knowing that Walter wouldn’t be able to draw a circle or a straight line, much less an actual painting of a Big Eye waif. A photographer from Life magazine came to photograph the event, even though Walter stayed far away.
During a divorce court proceeding, a judge ordered both Walter and Margaret to engage in another “paint-off” to determine who was the rightful owner of all past, present, and future Big Eye paintings. Walter begged off, complaining of a hurt shoulder, and watched on as Margaret painted a Big Eye masterpiece in less than an hour. Margaret won back the right to claim to sign and sell her own art.
Margaret emerged from the ordeal relatively unscathed while she gained a new generation of fans, and the Keane Eyes Gallery opened in San Francisco. The gallery’s website claims that, in recent years, Margaret’s work has reflected her happiness and devotion to the Jehovah’s Witness movement.
After Parfrey’s “Citizen Keane” cover story appeared in the San Diego Reader, an angry Walter Keane wrote a letter to the editor, claiming that Parfrey was paid a million-dollar bounty by the Jehovah’s Witnesses to build up Margaret at his expense. Walter died in the year 2000 at the age of 85, while Margaret still paints prolifically, and her story will soon be the subject of a Tim Burton film, Big Eyes.
This article presents an excerpt from the book Citizen Keane: The Big Lies Behind the Big Eyes by Adam Parfrey and Cletus Nelson, published by Feral House, and available on June 1, 2014.