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A conversation with 'Big Eyes' subject Margaret Keane

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Margaret Keane
Courtesy Keane Eyes Gallery, San Francisco, CA

The big eyes are everywhere. Walk into Margaret Keane’s modest craftsman home in Napa Valley, Calif., and forlorn children with outsize peepers stare up at you from every angle. These whimsical kids are the trademark of Keane’s paintings, which, in the 1960s, filled the aisles of Walgreens and Woolworths, where they sold by the truckloads and brought in an estimated $4 million. Her paintings were so popular that celebrities including Joan Crawford, Kim Novak, Natalie Wood, and Jerry Lewis all sat for portraits. Today, they line the walls of the soft-spoken 87-year-old artist’s living room, adorn the labels of bottles of wine in her home, and make up a collage that covers her coffee table. They are her, she is them.

And for most her career, no one knew she had painted them.

For close to 30 years, Margaret’s former husband, Walter Keane, claimed that he was the genius behind these emblems of mass-market kitsch. She went along with the charade until after their 1965 divorce, when she announced the truth on a radio show. The dispute dragged on for decades until a dramatic showdown in a Honolulu courtroom in 1986. There, before a judge and jury, in 53 short minutes, Margaret painted a picture of a brown-haired boy peering over a fence. Walter painted nothing. He claimed a shoulder injury prevented him from demonstrating his skills with a brush. And so, with that single work, called, simply, Exhibit 224, Margaret proved once and for all that she was responsible for every piece of art that had carried the Keane name since 1955.

“In some ways, it’s my most important painting,” she says, gazing at the 11×14-inch rectangle that occupies center square on her wall of saucer eyes. “It brings back good memories. But I felt sorry for him.”

Those recollections—as well as the less sunny ones that preceded them—provide the framework for Tim Burton’s new film, Big Eyes. In theaters Dec. 25, the movie stars Amy Adams as Margaret and Christoph Waltz as Walter, and it unequivocally supports her as the true Keane artist. Walter, meanwhile, is depicted as a delusional cad whose quest for fame trumped reality. It sullies his name and legacy, already dubious to begin with. And in doing so, it compromises all the stories I was told about Walter as a child.

For I, too, am a Keane.

My mother is Walter’s niece, the oldest daughter of his older brother, James. Walter, whom I never met, was the closest my family ever got to celebrity. As an infant, I had my own set of oversize eyes, and my parents called me a Keane baby. Throughout my childhood, they regaled my brothers and me with wild tales of the larger-than-life rascal who lived in San Francisco. In one story, my father experienced a drunken night with Walter, who introduced my dad to every bartender—and stripper—in the Bay Area. For us kids, Keane paintings were high art. We didn’t own any originals, but we’d pour over the Walter Keane monograph of “his” work. We treated each page, separated with tissue paper, like it was the Magna Carta. In a family of down-to-earth salesmen and teachers, he was the ostentatious star.

Margaret first met Walter in 1954 at an art exhibit in San Francisco. After a whirlwind courtship, she married the real estate agent/aspiring artist, and soon Walter was hawking landscapes he’d claimed to have painted, as well as her big-eye paintings. Her work found buyers immediately. His, not so much. It wasn’t until 1957 that she realized he was selling her art as his own. First she found a crate of his landscapes signed with a different artist’s name. Then a couple who had just bought one of her pictures asked her, “Do you paint too?”

“I put two and two together and I thought, ‘Oh boy,'” says Margaret, a devoted Jehovah’s Witness who still paints every day. “We had it out, but he scared me to death. He said I had to do it. We would starve. People wouldn’t buy the paintings if they thought a woman painted them.”

Margaret admits that without Walter she never would have had a career. He was a shrewd salesman both of the Keane artwork and himself, cozying up to the San Francisco Chronicle columnist Dick Nolan, who frequently mentioned the would-be artist in his man-about-town columns. Walter mastered the art of commercializing art through the mass-production of prints before Thomas Kincaide even learned to hold a brush. “[Walter] had a tremendous talent and personality that could sell anybody anything,” Margaret says. “He promoted those paintings. He got himself in to see all those movie stars. They agreed to buy paintings and to be painted all because of his personality.”

That allure is what my family remembers most vividly. Some describe him as flamboyant and charming. Others found him overbearing and narcissistic. (All are likely accurate.) None of my relatives is willing to defend Walter, who passed away in 2000 at 85, but no one is ready to denounce him either. Recently, when I told my mom I was about to see Big Eyes, she warned me, “Remember, that’s a one-sided story.”

For the Keane nieces and nephews I’m still in contact with, the reports of my great uncle’s deceit were always regarded as just another tall tale in the daring adventures of Walter Keane. Given that the courtroom paint-off happened in the pre-Internet age, long before our current media-saturated culture, the details of the trial were not widely disseminated. And because Walter never admitted to being an impostor, it was more fun for us to revel in his outlandish mythology. We can’t do that anymore.

Margaret wasn’t surprised to hear that Walter maintained his innocence. “I think he had convinced himself. It must have been a total shock to find out he couldn’t paint,” she says with a laugh. “It was a shock to everyone.”

Except her, of course. Watching Burton tell her side of the story has been cathartic. “Seeing it on the big screen was overwhelming,” she says. “Christoph looked and acted just like Walter. And Amy portrayed just how I felt.”

That Big Eyes attempts to right how wronged she was is gratifying, to be sure, but Margaret, who reads the Bible daily, has bigger dreams for what the film might accomplish. “I hope it helps people to never tell a lie. Never,” she says. “One tiny lie can turn into horrendous, terrible things.” Not to mention what a damper it can put on your famous-uncle stories.

This article appears in Entertainment Weekly‘s December 19 issue.