Who needs interview to capture Wyeth essence?

Posted Jan. 23, 2009, at 7:13 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 10:42 a.m.

Naturally, everyone in the midcoast area knew that Andrew Wyeth was the most popular artist on the planet. But Wyeth, who passed away recently at 91, was such a familiar sight at the store, on the street or at the museum, that he was almost taken for granted, like the Rockland Lighthouse or Mount Battie.

In a rare moment of enterprise as a reporter for the Bangor Daily News, I decided to do a feature on Wyeth. In those days, his number was in the phone book. I called the Cushing house to try to arrange an interview, expecting to speak to his “people.” Wyeth answered the phone. In my best humuna-humana-humana, I asked when he might have some time for me. He brushed me off expertly and suggested I call some other time.

I did, but never got the interview.

The closest I ever got to him was in 1973 or 1974 after film impresario (think gladiator movies) Joseph E. Levine bought the Olson House in Cushing, immortalized in Wyeth’s iconic “Christina’s World.”

It seems that a feuding neighbor put up a snow fence in front of the famous property. Levine made the trip to Cushing to lash the offending fence with his cane while he unloaded his impressive, obscene vocabulary. At the press conference, the contrast between the fiery Levine and the quiet, introspective Wyeth was startling. Wyeth made a few quiet comments to the press and drove off in what appeared to be a Stutz Bearcat.

Levine gave me several interviews, even if Wyeth did not.

When I couldn’t get the Wyeth interview, I settled for stories on his subjects, such as Ralph Cline. Cline was a World War I veteran who led the annual Thomaston Fourth of July parade in his original uniform, which still fit. Wyeth saw him in the parade and immortalized the soldier, in uniform, in “The Patriot.”

I interviewed Cline in his Clark Island sawmill, while a nurse tended to his ailing wife. At the end of the interview, I asked Cline, naturally, what the Wyeths were really like. The nurse was making a cup of tea and remarked that Andrew Wyeth was a prince but his wife, Betsy, was a known, well, you know the word. The nurse finished her tea and left, and Cline started laughing.

“You know who that was?’ he asked.

I did not.

“Betsy Wyeth,” he said with a roar.

The locals took the famous artist for granted, but visitors always insisted on seeing the Olson House. When the lovely Mary McGonigle visited, we went to Our Place, a perfect little restaurant (now closed) on the dock on Hathorn Point, just beyond the famous house.

After we finished dinner, we drove slowly up the hill. The Olson House was bathed in the brightest moonlight I have ever seen. The surrounding fields were inhabited by several hundred (it seemed) blinking fireflies. I told Mary we arranged it all, including the fireflies, just for her.

Paul Harrigan is a pest from Rhode island, who keeps visiting despite my best efforts at discouraging him. He is another Wyeth fan and during one visit, we launched into a discussion about the “Helga Series” nudes which had just been “discovered.”

We were sitting at the counter at the semifamous farmers market in Tenants Harbor when Helga (honest to God) walked out of the dining room. I scratched a message on a napkin to Harrigan, identifying the customer. Before I could finish, Jamie Wyeth joined her. I started a second message when Andrew Wyeth came out. I started the third napkin when Harrigan said, “Relax. I got it.”

He tried to be blase about the whole thing, but you know he later told everyone in Warwick, R.I., that he had lunch with the Wyeths during his Maine visit.

In another charming restaurant in Port Clyde (the name now escapes me), I walked in one night to see a painting hanging on the wall of official town character “Crow” Morris, decked out in an outrageous swordfishing cap. The waitress claimed it was an original Wyeth.

Right. A Wyeth hanging in a fish joint in Port Clyde.

She said that “Crow” agreed to sit for the portrait on the condition that the painting would hang for one night in his son’s restaurant. I laughed out loud. She said to go look in the kitchen, if I didn’t believe her. There was an armed guard keeping an eye on the priceless work.

Well, I never did get that Wyeth interview. But he did leave me with a few good stories.

Send complaints and compliments to Emmet Meara at emmetmeara@msn.com.

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