Walter Keane: the saucer eye orphans have lost their father

A painful paternity suit

Margaret and Walter Keane, c. 1963. “I envisioned myself as a sort of Henry Higgins with Margaret as a modern-day version of Eliza Doolittle.”
  • Margaret and Walter Keane, c. 1963. “I envisioned myself as a sort of Henry Higgins with Margaret as a modern-day version of Eliza Doolittle.”

Today Walter Keane lives alone in a rented La Jolla cottage, a rheumy-eyed and arthritic 76 years old.

Today Walter Keane lives alone in a rented La Jolla cottage, a rheumy-eyed and arthritic 76 years old.

Eyes. Enormous eyes, the size of headlights. They belong to a waif, a very waiflike waif, barefoot, button-nosed, a large tear spilling down her cheek. The waif has evidently wandered into an archetypal waifish haunt, here, a claustrophobic alley; she looks at the viewer with a presentiment of abuse.

Little Miss Goggle Eyes is not a teratological specimen that escaped from a pathologist’s pickle jar. She is Keane’s Runaway, and like the other big-eye Keane oils that achieved such monumental popularity from the 1950s to the early 1970s, the style is thrift-store expressionism. As for the content...well, according to art critic Kenneth Baker, “Keane paintings are just as manipulative and just as formulaic, and also as impervious to irony as most pornography is.”

Keane's hands poised at painting. Margaret: "That was all a pose."

Keane's hands poised at painting. Margaret: "That was all a pose."

But as cultural archeologist Jim Morton points out in Pop Void, Keane kids were the true pop art, much more a mass phenomenon than Warhol’s Brillo boxes or Lichtenstein’s exploded comics. Keane waifs appeared on collectible plates, were re-created as “Little Miss No Name” dolls, sold by the million as greeting cards, and hung inside the United Nations as well as the salmon-colored bathroom walk of the booboisie. Spurious big-eye prints sprouted like toadstools. A hack named Gig specialized in moony-eyed mongrel and alley cats; Eve transformed big-eye kids into precocious go-go dancers.

Now the saucer-eye orphans have lost their paternity. For more than 30 years, ex-realtor Walter Keane sold himself as the progenitor of the Keane kid. But as a result of several acrimonious trials, Walter’s ex-wife Margaret has been judged the true and lawful originator of the kitsch creations. If Margaret Keane and the judicial system are right, Walter Keane has perpetrated a humbug of monumental proportion. The legally disgraced Walter Keane vows that he is the victim of an international ring of art forgers, a devious religious organization, and a crooked and spiteful ex-wife.

In 1964, when Walter Keane hired Tom Wolfe to write the introduction to his vanity art book project, Wolfe wasn’t yet the white-suited avatar of New Journalism. His first book was not yet published.

In 1964, when Walter Keane hired Tom Wolfe to write the introduction to his vanity art book project, Wolfe wasn’t yet the white-suited avatar of New Journalism. His first book was not yet published.

Throughout the 1960s, Walter Keane was wealthy and famous, the toast of entertainers and politicos with sublime aesthetic aspirations. Hardly a week passed by without Walter Keane devising a way to get his name and photograph in the news. An old “school chum” from United Press International would hurry by Keane’s home to pose Walter, five brushes in hand, in front of a half-completed big-eye canvas or play paparazzo as Walter hobnobbed with Joan Crawford, Dinah Shore, the Beach Boys, Dean Martin, Eve Arden, Jerry Lewis, Kim Novak, Natalie Wood David Rose, Don Defore, Wayne Newton, Red Skelton, and Nelson Rockefeller — all proud owners of Keane kids.

Today Walter Keane lives alone in a rented La Jolla cottage, a rheumy-eyed and arthritic 76 years old (a self-published art book erroneously puts his age five years younger). He intersperses winking remembrances of “painting, drinking, and loving” with vitriolic accusations against ex-wife and nemesis Margaret Keane.

Walter and Margaret Keane sketch young actress Natalie Wood, c. 1961. Margaret: "I painted Kim Novak from a photograph and did Natalie Wood as a big-eye kid myself."

Walter and Margaret Keane sketch young actress Natalie Wood, c. 1961. Margaret: "I painted Kim Novak from a photograph and did Natalie Wood as a big-eye kid myself."

“I knew all the big shots, Dali, 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 dollar bills. I said, ‘Master, that’s for you and your girlfriends. All I want you to do is put X, Y, 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 [California] home, it came around the horn; Red Skelton tried to buy it for 4000 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!”

Shortly after the San Diego court hearing, Wayne Newton flies to North Dakota to perform. He takes a jet to Honolulu several months later in order to apologize personally to Margaret Keane

Shortly after the San Diego court hearing, Wayne Newton flies to North Dakota to perform. He takes a jet to Honolulu several months later in order to apologize personally to Margaret Keane

Although he claims a nagging shoulder injury prevents him from painting, Mr. Keane has spent the last decade writing and rewriting a yet-to-be-published memoir he has titled The Real Love of Walter Keane. The manuscript is an extraordinary mixture of sexual braggadocio, mystical communications with the dead, monumental self-pity about the torments of the artist, and astonishingly delusional patches of self-inflation, culminating in Michelangelo’s necromantic election of Walter Keane to the Elysian Gallery of Artistic Immortals.

The Keanes in their San Francisco studio, c. 1961. Throughout the weeks he was interviewed for this story, Mr. Keane’s moods fluctuated from friendly to suspicious to hostile to friendly again, sometimes within the same minute.

The Keanes in their San Francisco studio, c. 1961. Throughout the weeks he was interviewed for this story, Mr. Keane’s moods fluctuated from friendly to suspicious to hostile to friendly again, sometimes within the same minute.

Autohagiography of a Defeated Man

The following summary of the manuscript The Real Love of Walter Keane reflects only Walter Keane’s version of his life story, a version that contains plagiarism, bizarre supernatural episodes, faulty chronology, and certain claims that have been successfully challenged in court.

The Real Love of Walter Keane begins in rural Nebraska during Walter’s childhood, as he vies for parental attention among 14 siblings. He fondly remembers his grandmother, who instructs Walter at the age of five in how to paint a rose. The autobiography suddenly skips 30 years — barely a mention of Walter’s schooling or ten-year career in real estate speculation, except for his epiphany away from the world of business signaled by the onset of crippling stomach pain.

As I listened to the birds sing, staring fixed-eyed and watching them fly freely away, I lifted my arms toward them and cried out, “Please wait; I am one of you!” I closed my eyes. Then came the spark. My dazed, feverish request was answered. I realized that my innate artistic talent had been locked in my brain and my body for all these years. Feeling a sudden strength and conviction, I knew that a new life had begun.

Walter flees like a bird to Paris in 1946 with his first wife Barbara, who soon returns to the familiar comforts of California, leaving Walter to pursue a bohemian life of drinking, loving, and painting. On a significant side trip to Berlin, Walter discovers the sight of “frightened, neglected, and often abused children.”

Nothing in my life until then, or since, has ever made such an impact as the sight of those children fighting over garbage. As if goaded by a kind of frantic despair, I sketched these dirty, ragged little victims of war with their bruised, lacerated minds and bodies, their matted hair and runny noses. Here my life as a painter began in earnest; Paris had been only a lighthearted apprenticeship. The insane, inhuman cruelty inflicted upon these children cut deeply into my being. From that moment on, I painted the lost children with the eyes that forever retained their haunting and haunted quality.

Walter returns to Paris with “single-minded” resolve to alert the world to the plight of his starving children. Distraction comes in the form of a prostitute with a heart of gold named Colette and her gamine daughter Renee. Colette (“a perfect part for Cher,” says Keane) lives an idyllic life with Walter, procuring little-girl models for him in her spare time. On a trip back to California in the summer of 1947, Walter is chagrined to find that his cheated-upon wife does not welcome him with ardor, and so he repairs to a houseboat in Sausalito to do the bohemian rhapsody: wine, women, and song. In a moment of unguarded self-reflection, Walter reveals, “I am probably the only man alive who washes his hands before unzipping his pants and then washes them again after zipping up.”

While perfecting his trademark waifs, he has a child, Susan Hale, by the ordinarily unresponsive Barbara in December 1948. The family sails to Paris, and Walter sets up a studio in Montmartre. As his marriage begins to unravel, Walter sojourns in Hong Kong, taking up with yet another prostitute with a heart of gold, this one named Mai Ling, whom he sets up in business. The rambling man sails once again and is saved in a shipwreck by a lithe young thing named Dana. Walter savors the delights of postwar Japan and from there flies to Tahiti, where he spends his time painting waifs and comparing himself to Gauguin.

Back with his Colette in Paris, Walter decides to keep her occupied as his art dealer. Accompanying Walter on a business trip to Tokyo, Colette hears that her young daughter Renee was run over by a car while fleeing a rapist. Walter flies back to Paris with the traumatized Colette and discovers Renee’s diary. Three pages of Walter’s autobiography are taken up with gruesome details of remembered entries, though Keane admits that his knowledge of French is sketchy at best.

Wednesday Jacques picked me up at school a few minutes early. As soon as we walked into the apartment, he removed all his clothes. He drew a hot bath for the two of us and asked me to wash his back. I laughed and told him Mama did Walter’s. When we got out of the tub, Jacques asked me if I would kiss his hard penis. I said, “No.” He took my hand and with violence in his voice demanded I hold it and kiss it or he would hit me across the face. I was, and still am, terrified. I told him “No" and begged him to go away. All the time his fingers were tickling me between my thighs.

Overcome by rage and despair, Colette drops out of sight. Distraught and lonely, Keane returns to Barbara, who at last asks her philandering husband for a divorce. On his Sausalito barge he produces Alone, a painting of a waif sitting on a vast cosmic stairway. Walter Keane describes it thus:

Here is my symbol of humanity “Alone" with infinity but in the company of the always here and the constantly now. The child represents the isolation and stresses of humankind as she perches precariously on the vast stairs of life. The distant side of the stairs is the brink of the universe; the near side, in muddy reflection, is the edge of the abyss of human degradation. The spheres in the beyond draw us irresistibly by gravitational forces, pulling us back through the eyes of the child which are but sights into the blue-black of space and time.

He asks himself, “Was my eternal romance to be with a palette and a brush? Would art forever be my only real love?”

Walter spends the next few years basking in the light of success, living it up in the jazz clubs of New York and in North Beach hangouts such as Vesuvio’s, where he drinks until the wee hours with the likes of Jack Kerouac and Kim Novak. One day in the summer of 1955, during the annual outdoor exhibition of the Society for Western Artists near Fisherman’s Wharf, Walter meets a “slender, young blonde woman” named Margaret, the soon-to-be Mrs. Keane. On a whirlwind first date, she surprises Walter by emerging naked from his bathroom. He admonishes her, “I like to unwrap my women.” In the midst of their lovemaking, Margaret hurries out of Walter’s apartment to return home to husband and daughter.

Two weeks later, Margaret shows up at Walter’s door, suitcase in hand, begging to become his disciple. Almost against his will, Walter offers to buy insecure Margaret orthodontia and plastic surgery. Stymied by the lack of visitation rights with his daughter Susan, Walter is advised by an attorney to remarry in order to convince the court of his family-like lifestyle. Walter sets a marriage date with Margaret and throws himself into the task of “improving” her.

The transformation of Margaret into a complete person whom she herself could live with and like seemed a monumental task. There was, however, something enticing about the challenge. “I envisioned myself as a sort of Henry Higgins with Margaret as a modern-day version of Eliza Doolittle.” Walter’s instructions include the social graces:

To accompany Margaret’s new wardrobe, I suggested a list of greetings and topics for conversation on specific social occasions. I encouraged her to practice them with certain graceful gestures in front of a mirror.

Then came painting:

To give Margaret instruction at the most basic level, I bought her a projector, then you place a photo or a page out of the artist’s book in the projector and project it onto a canvas. Trace it on the canvas. Next step, fill in the colors much like a numbered painting designed for a child. This was her beginning of copying other artists’ work. She worked at this method steadily, copying great works of Modigliani and El Greco.

On their wedding day, Walter discovers Margaret in flagrante delicto with several parking lot attendants. Walter consults his attorney, who cautions that an annulment will endanger visitation rights with Susan. Walter reluctantly decides to follow through on his marriage to Margaret and simulate the appearance of a happy marriage.

Walter sets up a gallery in the Hungry I nightclub, where he is the subject of a scandal when the jealous owner Enrico Banducci sees Walter having a drink with Banducci’s girlfriend. Banducci takes a swing at Walter. He ducks, and Banducci knocks his girlfriend cold. Headlines in the daily papers read “Artist Beats Up Girl in Bar.” Though Banducci and henchmen finger Walter for the crime, the court exonerates him.

Walter sets up other galleries in New York and San Francisco, and the Keane kids meanwhile win over the world. Married in name only, Walter and Margaret make the divorce official. Afterward, he romances a pretty stewardess, Joan Marie, in grand style, kissing her for minutes in a revolving door during a busy shopping day on New York’s Fifth Avenue. Autograph-seeking fans shout, “That’s Walter Keane, I saw him on the Jack Paar Show,” “I saw you on the Today show,” “And in the Sunday Parade section.”

Walter finishes work on Tomorrow Forever, the most ambitious big-eye painting yet. Like the Ripley illustration of the marching Chinamen, Tomorrow Forever delineates a horizon of endless big-eye waifs. After completing Tomorrow Forever, Walter’s deceased grandmother “appears” to him and speaks.

My Little Walter, we have seen your masterwork. Please tell us in your own words what was in your mind and in your heart when you created "Tomorrow Forever.”

“I will try, Grandmother." My mind reaching back into many yesteryears, I began.

Walter’s memoir suddenly takes flight with a mythopoetic sermon on the painting’s evolution, from initial sketches to the completed “masterwork.”

Over the horizon of the infinite past — out of the ages lost even to the pin-pointers of time — they come, as they must have been coming in my unconscious ever since that deeply etched day in Berlin.

They come in multiplying numbers from the first moment of creation, down to the moment that is now — a moment that is a restless fraction of eternity — a moment that must move on into tomorrow, on into tomorrow’s tomorrow, and the tomorrow of that morrow, on into tomorrows forever.

But they are only children! No, not children: mankind. For the child, in the words of Wordsworth, is the father of the man. Somewhere in unrecorded time, eons before the earliest civilization, a man planted a seed that became one of these children, and that man owed his being to a seed planted eons before him. The timeless river of Life; or, in Kahlil Gibran’s phrase, Life’s longing for itself.

They stand witness that this longing will not be denied, for they journeyed down to the moment that is now through a glacial waste and deluge, through plagues on end; yea, through the most devastating of all malevolent forces, man’s own evil.

Blessed with a fiber so sturdy — and midway in the passage toward another tomorrow — they should be full of scamper and laughter, as were those children who were their ancestors.

Yet their eyes — eyes that reflect the ecumenical soul — hold an arresting gravity: a wonder but an ominous wonder; not the innocent, enviable wonder that is the heritage of childhood. Their eyes, so somber and unblinking, may seem to accuse; but no, the case penetrates deeper. Their eyes speak a query — a query all the more unmistakable for its weighty silence: What are the bequeathers of their tomorrow up to?

Studying the faces of these children — that one on the right, has he not the features of tomorrow’s Gandhi? And this one, the look of Moses? Over there, another Socrates? And here, Maimonides? Those others — a Galileo? a Linnaeus? a Pasteur?

Who is that? Caesar? No, the shadow passes; an illusion only. For these children — the children of today’s universe — given the right response to their mute query, will reclaim their heritage and start scampering toward TOMORROW FOREVER.

Walter’s ectoplasmic grandma rejoices at the lofty description of Tomorrow Forever and crows:

At our last meeting of the artists’, writers’, painters’ and poets’ group, Michelangelo put your name up for nomination as a member of our inner circle, saying that your masterwork Tomorrow Forever will live in the hearts and minds of men as has his work on the Sistine Chapel. You were honored by the unanimous vote of all our members, and you will officially join us in the year 2007.

Accolades continue to pour in from the angelic afterlife. A spirit named Bernard compares Walter to Leonardo, Raphael, Tiepolo, and Veronese: “With Tomorrow Forever Keane reaches such an extraordinary level of achievement that the mind boggles at the thought that this still-young artist has within him the potential to achieve even greater levels.”

None other than Michelangelo appears, likening the act of creating Tomorrow Forever with that of the Sistine Chapel. But validation from the greater world beyond is shattered by John Canaday’s article in the New York Times ridiculing the selection of Tomorrow Forever as a theme painting for the Pavilion of the Hall of Education at the 1964 New York World’s Fair:

Keane is the painter who enjoys international celebration for grinding out formula pictures of wide-eyed children of such appalling sentimentality that his product has become synonymous among critics with the very definition of tasteless hack work. Tomorrow Forever, as the painting is called, contains about 100 children and hence is about 100 times as bad as the average Keane.

Without regard to such stifling literary conventions as chronology, Keane’s autobiography continues with bucolic idylls with Joan Marie and tortured moments with Margaret. Walter attempts to convince her to destroy her forged copies of Modigliani. Walter is soon robbed by gunmen in his Woodside home, and he blames the heist on Margaret: “Only Margaret and the Swedish installer of the safe knew where I kept my money. When questioned by the FBI, Margaret admitted that she might have told someone about my safe while she was drinking.”

Walter marries for the third time, exhausting Joan Marie with a bon vivant lifestyle. They see the Pope, the governor of California, Liz and Dick, and Madame Chaing Kai-Shek. After daughter Chantal is born, the loving couple fly to Martinique, where Walter charms the pants off the native girls, and from there to Paris, where Walter sets up a beautiful young girl in law school. A son, Sascha Michael, is born in June 1973. Then tragedy strikes. “The twenty-two oil paintings I had done in Martinique plus the eleven oils from my California studio had been lost at sea.” (It should be pointed out that all of Walter Keane’s art production since his divorce from Margaret has been “lost at sea” or salted away with “private collectors.”) Although he claims a happy marriage, Walter drowns his physical and mental pain in pills and ever-increasing amounts of Chivas Regal scotch.

Fast forward eight or ten years. Walter blacks out on his way home from the Whaling Bar of the fancy La Valencia hotel in La Jolla.

I was sinking down fast, sinking down, down, down. Head bashed in, blood dripping on my body. Soon, I lay in my own splattered blood, having fallen in the turning circle. I was dazed, lost, confused, with my bloated and throbbing nose, a complete mess in the solitary darkness. I had drunk away my family, my health, my wealth, and now I was drinking away what little remained of my life. Then a sound like angels’ wings fluttered above me.

From out of nowhere, two strong arms wrapped around my tired, limp, and almost lifeless body, lifting me to my feet. A familiar voice, becoming more and more clear, embraced me with loving words: “My little Walter, you can now walk through the wall and continue your drinking until death. Or you can steady yourself in the turning circle, turn around, and walk to freedom."

The concluding chapters of The Real Love of Walter Keane are outraged descriptions of the libel, slander, copyright infringement, bankruptcy, and other suits that occupied him in the 1980s. He ends with a voice from beyond, the cry of the wide-eyed waifs. Today, my mind is like a parachute; it works only when it’s open. Now I hear again, I see again, I feel again, I touch again. Now I love the rain, the breeze, and the calm. At close of day, I sing again, strolling one step at a time along my path at the water’s edge. As the sunset colors flashed in my eyes, came a whisper, “Walter, the Sunrise and Sunset are REAL. You can trust us.”

Margaret’s Version

Margaret Keane has not written an autobiography to exonerate herself. She hasn’t the need. Since her Keane Eyes gallery opened on San Francisco’s Market Street in fall 1991, in which originals sell for as much as $185,000, major articles in the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times have played up Margaret’s status as the fountainhead of big-eye art. It wasn’t always that way.

During and even some years after the dissolution of her marriage to Walter Keane, Margaret was the big-eye artist’s shadow woman, a mere portraitist. Near the end of their marriage, Walter produced a two-volume vanity monograph under the imprint “Tomorrow Masters Series.” Printed in Japan, editions were published simultaneously in English, French, Spanish, and Japanese. One of the two volumes is devoted to Walter’s waifs, complete with posed shots of Walter holding five paintbrushes as he daubs a reflective highlight on a saucer eye. “The child seems so real that one wonders why she does not blink at the approach of the brush,” reads the caption. Margaret’s companion edition is devoted solely to her mysterious, long-necked, almond-eyed women, painted in a style that might best be described as thrift-store Modigliani with occasional Magritte-like effects (Torn — three-dimensional woman’s face on a piece of tom paper; The Puzzle — slender woman as jigsaw puzzle).

Today Margaret Keane lives in Sonoma County with her 42-year-old daughter Jane. Her version of events contradicts almost every part of the legend that Walter Keane so aggressively sought for himself. In a phone interview, Margaret recalls her life with Walter in a soft, dreamy voice:

Walter Keane didn’t paint any of the paintings of the children. I did them, all of them. When he was out drinking and promoting, I was home painting.

How did you come across the style of the big-eye art?

I always enjoyed doing faces. I used to scribble and doodle in my textbooks in the margins. Scribbling and drawing all the time. Used to always draw faces. When my daughter was a baby, I started doing her portrait, and then my neighbors wanted me to do their children’s portraits, and I did them with larger eyes than normal. Eyes were always large.

Are there any paintings still existing from that period that you know of?

Yes, a few. When there was the trial in federal court in Honolulu, two or three of the people that I had painted their children back then had lent me the portraits for the trial.

When did you meet Walter Keane?

In 1954, I guess.

He impressed upon you as being an artist?

He still had his real estate business. But when I first met him, I thought he was an artist. I met him at a San Francisco Art Festival, a yearly thing. I was there doing portraits, and he was showing these Paris street scenes. By the way, the Paris street scenes did not have any faces in them. Done with a lot of palette knife, thick paint, entirely different from the way I paint.

Some of the big-eye paintings have that thick paint kind of background in them. Did Walter contribute any kind of artistic input?

He did try, and sometimes put a little paint on the backgrounds when it was like a stucco wall or something like that. He also had a good color sense, helping me pick out colors one time.

In a photograph taken by UPI, you were painting graceful, long-necked women and he was doing the sad-eye waifs. He claimed he taught you how to paint by teaching you how to use a tracing machine.

Well, I did go through a period where I did elongated ones after he was claiming that he did the children with the large eyes, and I finally gave in and let him claim them. So I tried to develop another style so I could at least be known as some kind of a painter. I can show you an earlier picture taken by the Berkeley Gazette when we lived in Berkeley, where I was sitting in front of an easel painting a large-eye painting and he was painting the background of a clown painting. This was an earlier one, before he took over and insisted that he was the one doing the children. In the beginning I had hoped that he’d learn how to paint. He kept saying he was going to try and if I would help him, he would do it. I just finally gave in and let him — it was a very bad thing to do.

Seeing as how Keane is Walter's name, why do you still use it?

I wish I didn’t, but the paintings are known by that name.

The big-eye children have an abused quality to them.

I was reflecting my own deepest feelings in the paintings of the children. I was really putting myself, my feelings, into the child. I was bewildered and hurt and searching for answers, really deep questions, why we’re here, why God allows wickedness, why there’s so much injustice in the world. All of these things. I was very unhappy at the time. I was putting all my feelings into them.

It was pretty much the high life for you and Walter for a while.

He was a tremendous promoter, and he had a marvelous personality. He could sell anybody anything, and he could really turn on the charm. And he was a businessman. For years he was very, very charming and he just swept me off my feet, and I thought he was an artist who painted these street scenes, and I was totally captivated by him.

But you say he wasn’t really who he said he was.

A couple of years after we were married, I really found out the truth. I was beginning to suspect it after a year of marriage, I guess. He kept saying he was rusty, he hadn’t painted in a long time. So I thought he was just rusty and he would soon get back into painting to the level of the street scenes. We were married about two years, and I came across this big box in the back of the closet one night when he was at the Hungry I selling paintings, and I opened it up and there were all these street scenes, about ten of them, just like the ones he’d been selling. Only these were signed S-E-N-I-C. As soon as I saw these, I knew he hadn’t done the other ones.

When he came home, I confronted him with them, and he said that those were the teacher’s paintings; he had done the ones with Walter Keane signed on them. But I know he didn’t. From then on I knew the truth, but he’d kept saying he’d learn to paint if I could help him, teach him. And when he couldn’t paint, he’d say it was my fault, practically had me convinced it was my fault he couldn’t paint. If you can believe that! He just drilled it in me constantly, it was my fault he couldn't paint.

I finally got up the courage to leave Walter after ten years. I got a separation to begin with and went to Honolulu to get as far away as I could. When I got more courage, I came back and filed for the divorce. I was just happy to get out alive.

Get out alive?

Uh-huh. He was threatening to kill me and my daughter. One thing I stood up for he hit me once or twice, and I made such a to-do about it that he didn’t do that again. That’s the one thing I stood up for, but it was certainly emotional and psychological abuse. I was really very much afraid of him. [Walter has denied these accusations.]

When you got out to Honolulu, what then?

I put my daughter in summer school there, and I tried to rest, get my thoughts together, and decide if I was going to stay there or not. And by the end of summer, I decided I was going to stay. I didn’t paint much that summer, I was so shook up. After I filed for divorce, I painted a few paintings and mailed them to Walter. I was so afraid of him I thought if I kept mailing paintings to him then he wouldn’t have me killed. That’s how mixed up I was.

The big-eye kids you now paint are smiling. They don’t have that haunted look.

That’s due to my conversion.

When did you find your new faith?

I was baptized as Jehovah’s Witness in August 1972. About six months before that, somebody knocked on my door, and I usually shoo them away, but this time I asked them a couple of questions. She opened up her Bible and answered questions, and I was amazed that the questions were right in the Bible, and she knew where to find the answers. And she left me a little book, “The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life.” She came back in about three days, and for every question I asked her, she showed me the answer in the Bible. I was totally amazed.

How did your baptism affect your art?

It took a little while, but the paintings gradually started not being so sad. They started getting happier and happier and the colors started getting lighter and brighter, and now I paint many happy paintings. Even laughing. My inner feelings come out in the paintings, and I’m so much happier. I found the answers I was looking for. I think many people are very upset and very disturbed by the things that are going on. The Bible shows in the Book of Revelation that God is going to bring ruin to those ruining the earth. It promises all through the Bible that the earth will be restored to paradise conditions. There will be a time when we’ll be able to live eternally on paradise earth, which was God’s purpose for earth. We’re living in what the Bible calls the Last Days. It’s the Last Days of this wicked system, of Satan’s system of things, where we’re under the condemnation of death. The people who are living now are living in the Last Days when God steps in and cleanses the earth.

Soon after our conversation, Margaret Keane sent me a Watchtower book, You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, with their kitschy tracts promising a multicultural K-mart utopia, seems a wholly appropriate aesthetic environment for the latter-day big-eye waifs, their tearful countenances now turned into smiles.

A few days later, Margaret was anxious to learn if I had read the JW book. She was alternately bemused and exasperated by Walter’s continuing accusations.

Walter says that you copied Modiglianis for an art forgery ring. He says you’re so good at copying by now that you could forge a Rembrandt.

Well, I don’t know what to say about that. It’s just so ridiculous.

What about the Jehovah's Witnesses bribing witnesses at the trial?

The staff of the Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t even make a salary. It’s against the tenets of the religion. That’s just the most preposterous thing. It’s sad, really.

Did you hear about what he said about your wedding night, about you and the parking...

He tried that in court, and the judge threatened him over that one.

Can you explain all the photographs that have Walter at the easel painting the big-eye children. And the ones with him painting Kim Novak and Natalie Wood?

That was all a pose. I painted Kim Novak from a photograph and did Natalie Wood as a big-eye kid myself.

Walter claims that he can no longer paint due to a bad shoulder.

Sad, isn’t it?

By the way, who is this Eric Schneider, who wrote the introduction to Walter's self-published book? Walter first claimed that it was his own writing, then he called me back to say that Schneider was a Swiss art critic.

It wasn’t like that. Walter hired a writer to do it.


He’s pretty famous now. I’m sure he wouldn’t want people to know.

From the style of it, it sure sounds like Tom Wolfe.

How did you know?

Bonfire of Walter’s Vanity

In 1964, when Walter Keane hired Tom Wolfe to write the introduction to his vanity art book project, Wolfe wasn’t yet the white-suited avatar of New Journalism. His first book was not yet published, and he was still drawing a stipend from the New York Herald Tribune. Wolfe’s pseudonymous blow job may be the loopiest bit of mercenary rhetoric ever placed between the covers of an art book. He mocks the pedantry of art criticism and the infinite pretension and pomposity of his subject by elevating Keane kids into visual expressions worthy only of the great masters:

Indeed, in retrospect, Keane's short Business Period appears almost as a fortuitous ritual of purification. So complete was Keane’s isolation, in terms of the world of art, during those crucial years that his own art and his own artistic instincts were able to develop on their own terms. Thus, whereas the average American art student of that period, or for that matter, of our own times, went to Paris already a somewhat slavish devotee and cult worshipper of French Modernism, Keane was able to examine it as a possibly useful tool and then discard it when he saw the very specific limitations it would impose upon an artist of his own limitless ambition.

Keane paints the eyes with the same full-faced perspective of the primitives but with complex, mysterious, almost oracular combinations of thick and thin pigments and highlights that seem to come, as it were, from an unseen world beyond the immediate image, so that the eye as a thing of depth, of penetration, of admission to the secret self, attains a power that not even the primitives, in simple acts of faith in the eye symbol, could feel.

The end result, of course, is the Keane vision, seen by the viewer as the subjective content that gives Keane’s work an emotive fission that explodes, continually, almost in the manner of an infrared flash, from the very firmness of line and contour that give that work, as form, an unparalleled sense of formal structure. Alternately pouring forth from, and seen within, these eyes are consummate summation of the anguish, the fear, the despair, and yet the flame-like hope, of a world wracked not only by momentous political cataclysms but assaults on former seemingly immovable investments of simple religious and intellectual faiths, buttressed, at the time, by cultural frameworks that seemed then so unflinchingly embedded and now merely terrifyingly evanescent.

With Tomorrow Forever, Keane reaches such an extraordinary level of achievement that the mind boggles at the thought that this still-young artist has within him the potential to achieve even greater levels.

Wait a minute! Isn’t this the angel Bernard’s spiel from Walter’s autobiography? Seems so, word for word. Walter borrows many other purple effusions of “Erie Schneider” and jarringly inserts them among his stuttering prose as if they are his own. Sometimes, he has trouble even copying. A Wolfeian coinage, “cenophobiac moon,” becomes in Walter’s book a Malapropish “xenophobic moon.”

Waifs on Trial

During a contempt of court proceeding in his bankruptcy trial, two San Diego-based psychiatrists examined Walter Keane to assess his mental health. They reported that Mr. Keane suffered from bladder incontinence and a paranoid delusional disorder consistent with heavy, long-term alcohol intake. Throughout the weeks he was interviewed for this story, Mr. Keane’s moods fluctuated from friendly to suspicious to hostile to friendly again, sometimes within the same minute. Recollections rambled in the dusty caverns of his memory, changing content in their disjointed retelling:

I shouldn’t be talking to you. They’ve gotten to you already.


The Jehovah’s Witnesses. They no doubt bribed you with $100,000. That’s nothing, that’s a drop in the bucket to them. They can get to anyone. Anyone.

Why would they want to bribe me?

The Jehovah’s Witnesses make a million dollars a month selling prints of my paintings and ones that Margaret copied and still copies. It’s big business. That’s why they bought all those rent-a-mouths at the trials.

Margaret Keane hadn’t yet joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses when she first came out of the closet to claim the big-eye waifs as her own. In a 1970 Life magazine interview, she challenges Walter Keane to a “paint off.”

“I never heard of the article,” says Walter. “I was overseas and nobody knew where I was. I didn’t read anything.” Walter points to a property-settlement agreement that Margaret signed at the time of their divorce as proof of his authorship of the big-eye paintings. Paragraph C of that agreement clearly states:

The parties hereby agree that the fair-market value of all the statutory and common-law copyrights to Margaret’s paintings is equal to the fair-market value of all the statutory and common-law copyrights to Walter’s paintings, and that each hereby exchanges their respective community property interests in all copyrights to the paintings of the other, and each further waives and relinquishes to the other any and all right, title, or interest he or she may have in the copyrights to the paintings of the other.

Exhibit A-2 of the document lists paintings by Walter Keane, including Alone and Tomorrow Forever; Exhibit A-l lists Margaret’s paintings, all of the long-necked variety, and none of the so-called big-eye kids.

I ask Walter if the property-settlement agreement entered as evidence in his court battle.

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” he mutters. “I was living on caffeine and adrenaline. The judge didn’t allow me to enter a lot of pertinent evidence. And I don’t remember.”

Walter and Margaret’s eight-year litigation began on April 16, 1982, when Walter filed a $1.5 million copyright-infringement suit in Santa Clara County over a July 11, 1981 article in the Peninsula Times Tribune in which Margaret claims authorship of the big-eye waifs. The suit is dismissed with prejudice in February 1984- Walter blames the dismissal on his attorney, who he claims forgot to file proper paperwork.

Next it’s Margaret’s turn. A 1985 article on Walter Keane in USA Today states, “Thinking he was dead, the second of his three ex-wives (also a painter) claimed to have done some of the Keane paintings. The claim, vehemently refuted by a very much alive Keane, is in litigation.” Margaret files a libel suit in Hawaii against Gannett, owners of the newspaper, and against Walter Keane for slander and malicious prosecution due to lack of merit in Walter’s earlier case against her. Walter counter-sues Margaret for copyright infringement once again.

Walter’s attorney, Seymour Ellison, soon drops out of the case. Now retired, Ellison characterizes Walter Keane as “not the best-liked man. He was very contentious.” He adds, “I never received a cent from Walter Keane.” Walter is forced to use Gannett’s attorneys. A lengthy presentation by Margaret and her attorneys includes her now-famous 53-minute painting of a big-eye kid executed in the courtroom. Walter begs off from the painting competition complaining of a sore arm, remarking bitterly, “Margaret can copy anything, even a Rembrandt.”

Thirteen days into the trial, Gannett asks for a directed verdict, which District Court Judge King grants. The Gannett attorneys flee, leaving Walter to fend for himself as his own attorney in a “bifurcation of trial.” Judge King often lectures Walter on proper courtroom conduct, labeling him “vitriolic.” Walter calls a longtime friend, John May, to testify under oath that he’d seen Walter’s big-eye kids long before Margaret became acquainted with him. Under cross-examination, May admits that he had never actually seen Walter paint. The court awards Margaret Keane a staggering $4 million in damages.

Fearing that the huge judgment will remove all possible financial avenues for appeal, Walter files for bankruptcy on May 29,1987, in the United States Bankruptcy Court in San Diego. Former millionaire Walter Keane shows assets of only $5702.50.

Finally, in January 1989, the United States Appellate Court in the Ninth District of San Francisco cancels the $4 million judgment against Walter Keane as excessive, though they uphold the original verdict. Margaret Keane must initiate another trial in order to collect any damages. She declines to do so.

Meanwhile, in bankruptcy court in San Diego, Walter’s legal wrangle continues. An exasperated Judge John J. Hargrove finds Walter Keane in contempt of court on November 3, 1988, for concealing his assets. Walter blames the contempt ruling on his attorney; Walter is convinced that he is “a plant.”

Judge Hargrove’s contempt ruling is based largely on a deposition by one Janice Adams, a woman who came to the aid of Walter Keane after hearing of the $4 million judgment against him. Walter claims Adams was yet another plant, a mouth hired by the Jehovah’s Witnesses to do him in: “Jan Adams gave me three blow jobs a day. Morning, noon, and night. I couldn’t fuck her, you see, she didn’t want to be touched. She thought I was rich, tried to open her own whorehouse in Reno. She was a woman of the night, if you get my meaning.” Counters Margaret Keane, “Janice Adams is a very nice, respectable woman whose father bought a Keane painting. She thought Walter was in distress and lent him money. Ultimately she discovered the truth about him.”

Contempt hearings finally come to a head on June 4, 1990, when Judge John Rhoades lectures Walter, “Mr. Keane, if you refuse to answer any question, you will be incarcerated in the future. I will not hear any further argument as to whether you can or cannot answer the questions. I think the only way we are going to get your attention and to refresh your memory is to put you in prison.”

Fearing a prison term, Walter calls in his entertainer friend and avid Keane collector Wayne Newton to testify on his behalf. Aptly enough, Keane has often been characterized as the Wayne Newton of the art world. Newton flies in from South Dakota to deliver an impassioned defense of Walter Keane:

I became acquainted with Walter Keane some years ago upon viewing some of his paintings in Hawaii. Those paintings inspired me. They inspired me in such a way that I then became interested in working for children’s causes throughout the country and throughout the world. The “Keane Eyes," if you will, became kind of a standard phrase that I used in describing my own daughter.

I had the pleasure of introducing Walter Keane to an audience in Las Vegas. That audience stood up with a standing ovation for him. So the effect that he has had on people throughout the world, regardless of the fact that maybe he is a little eccentric, which at times has certainly been significant. One must only look into Walter “Keane’s eyes" to understand Walter Keane, and to look into those eyes is seeing the same eyes that he paints on his children.

And at a time in this country when we are dealing with four-letter words on television on a regular basis and movies full of rape and dope and child molestation and every other crime against mankind, his subjects remain exactly the same, Your Honor. They remain innocent and bewildered children. Is it possible that this day has been brought about by the wrath of an ex-wife, which for eternity some of us might be a part of, from myself all the way up to the great former president of the United States?

What you see before you, Your Honor, is not an arrogant man, as he has been portrayed and maybe come off that way in prior hearings. He is a giver. He has given his entire lifetime. He is financially broke. He is scared. He is vulnerable, and most of his friends have passed away. The rest of us who are his friends are here today. He is not beaten because he still has his dignity and his honor. I would beg Your Honor to not incarcerate Walter Keane, but that would be demeaning to His Honor and to Walter Keane. So I ask Your Honor, in the name of human justice and human compassion, don’t incarcerate Walter Keane.

Give him back to his children.

In response, Margaret Keane’s attorney, Nancy Perham, goes on the offensive:

Margaret Keane was the artist. She is the one who suffered with the children. She is the one who painted the children. While Walter Keane was out meeting all the Hollywood stars in San Francisco, Margaret Keane was spending 16 hours a day painting all those children.... And so you talk about a spirit of the law and the spirit of justice. Mr. Newton cares for Walter Keane because of the big-eyed children. Margaret Keane painted those big-eyed children, and this man, who is supposed to be so warm and compassionate, stole that from her.

I have known Walter Keane since 1982, and when I look into his eyes, I see the eyes of someone who is a liar, a fraud, and someone who is trying to hurt a person who is a wonderful person, Margaret Keane, who is being vilified here today.

Shortly after the San Diego court hearing on the morning of June 4,1990, Wayne Newton flies to North Dakota to perform. Troubled by the evidence he heard in the courtroom that day, Newton takes a jet to Honolulu several months later in order to apologize personally to Margaret Keane for his “uninformed testimony.” “He didn’t have to do that,” says Margaret. “He’s just one of the nicest and most honorable men I ever met.”

Despite the best efforts of Ms. Perham, Walter Keane escapes a prison sentence at his contempt hearing. Wayne Newton’s attorney takes up Walter’s case, urging him to sign an agreement releasing both Walter and Margaret from pursuing further litigation against one another. Walter signs the agreement under protest. The legal show grinds to its conclusion in September 1991, when the bankruptcy court vacates all claims by and against Walter Keane.

Though Walter claims the private support of two of his ex-wives and his three children, none was willing to testify in court. “My daughter didn’t want to get involved in that,” he says. “For seven generations they’ve never done anything public. Not to go out to a bar, never to a public restaurant, never to a public anything. My daughter’s mother is worth eight to ten million bucks. She doesn’t want to get involved.” Neither does Kim Novak, though she sent Walter Keane the following handwritten testimonial early in the court battle:

Artist Walter Keane and I have been friends for over 20 years. This note is to inform you that Walter painted two pictures of me — one as a child and one of me from my Hollywood years. I also did a portrait of him which I believe he still has and enjoys. I do not wish to get into any lawsuits or publicity but wanted you to know this fact. I’d appreciate your not involving me in this as I will not he available.

Sincerely, Kim Novak Molloy

Your Big Eyes Make Me Feel So Small

Along with platform shoes, smiley faces, and the indomitable Peter Max, Keane paintings are making a comeback. So sentimental and deficient in irony, they become ripe targets of contemporary satirists. Paul Mavrides, of the Church of the Subgenius, executes a big-eye Mao portrait. Rolling Stone magazine publishes a big-eye Nancy Reagan. The Keanes rate a full entry in Jane and Michael Stem’s book The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste. The Franklin Mint is currently producing big-eye kids collectors’ plates. And Margaret’s Keane Eyes gallery is the subject of an avalanche of publicity.

Walter Keane, meanwhile, is trying to salvage a career upon the ruins of his reputation. He peppers the press with strange, disjointed letters, such as his 14-page epic to Jane and Michael Stem admonishing them for taking part in the “LIE OF THE CENTURY — your connecting me and my life’s work with one of the MAJOR ART FORGERS and fabricators of our time, a woman called Margaret.” He concludes on a menacing note, “If your LIES were told in China in the late forties, when Chiang Kai-Shek fled to Taiwan in December 1949, You two STERNS would be cut in half, or They would cut your heart and eat it, their way to demonstrate Revenge. Your unzipped lips went too far. Why did you do it? WHY?????.’”

Come July, Walter will be forced out of his rented La Jolla cottage to make room for the landlord’s vacationing children. “I don’t know where I’m going to move,” he frets. “Maybe to Paris. They appreciate me in Paris.”

“Walter is truly a remarkable man,” admits Margaret Keane. “But I think he missed his calling. He should have been an actor.”

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