NAPA, Calif. – Margaret Keane still feels guilty.
Never mind that it was Walter, her husband at the time, who launched the art world lie that seduced the media and movie stars and landed him on “The Tonight Show.” As he charmed the public, she remained locked in a smoky studio, pumping out the portraits of doe-eyed children that became a profitable fad in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Decades after the deceit, Margaret, a whisper of a woman with gray hair, still quivers as she recounts her role in Walter’s scam.
“I had to lie to my daughter every day,” she says, sitting in her living room, surrounded by her paintings. “It went against everything I knew was right. It was just terrible.”
In our culture of reality TV and Facebook confessionals, the story of Margaret and Walter Keane almost sounds too absurd to be true. A divorced painter with a young daughter falls for a real estate broker longing to be an artist. He tells people that her work is his, and when the oil paintings take off like an art world equivalent of the hula hoop, the artist goes along.
On Dec. 25, the story will go wide with the release of Tim Burton’s “Big Eyes,” a film starring Amy Adams as Margaret and Christoph Waltz as the charmingly chilling Walter.
For Margaret, who still paints daily, the movie is a chance to firmly establish who created the sad-eyed portraits that became a phenomenon.
“A lot of people still think he was the artist,” says Jane Keane Swigert, her daughter. “Walter talked to so many people, he did so much publicity, and when people read something over and over, they think it’s true.”
Margaret, now 87, lives in a neat, modest home in suburban Napa with her daughter and son-in-law. The house is filled with her works, most of them hung, some leaning against a wall near the front door. Those are set to go out to her gallery an hour away in downtown San Francisco.
Margaret’s studio is off-limits to strangers. A sign on the closed door reads, “PLEASE: DO NOT ENTER.”
Otherwise, she’s an open book. On this day, Margaret sits across from Robert Brown, her art representative for years. He runs Keane Eyes Gallery in the tourist-packed Fisherman’s Wharf. Margaret’s original pieces now sell for $5,000 to $200,000, Brown says.
It was in the gallery that Adams and Margaret met earlier this year. The artist showed the actress how she held a paintbrush. The actress said she was struck by how little bitterness Margaret expressed toward her ex-husband, who died in 2000.
“She never said, ‘Now, finally, people will give me the credit I deserve,’” Adams said. “She only said, ‘Hopefully we won’t have to answer so many questions.’ I, of course, as a less gracious person as Margaret, am really happy that hopefully people will understand she’s the one who did all the painting.”
In the film and in life, the climactic scene comes in a courtroom.
The Keanes, by then divorced, are testifying about who did the work. The judge, frustrated by the debate, calls for two easels. They are placed in the courtroom. Paint, the judge demands.
Margaret, in less than an hour, produces a sad boy with swollen eyes. Walter, after staring at the canvas, moans in agony. His shoulder is acting up. He can’t lift a brush.
In “Big Eyes,” Adams, as Margaret, emerges triumphantly from the courtroom, clutching her work.
That painting still exists. “Exhibit 224” is not for sale. During her interview, it hung nearby, a reminder of that 1986 court date. Margaret said she began to cry as she watched an early screening of Burton’s film.
“I was in total shock,” she says. “It was so real and very emotional. Christoph looks and acts exactly like Walter. Amy portrayed exactly what I was thinking and feeling. They made it so alive.”
Kim Novak, the actress, remembers the Keanes.
During the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Walter was a fixture, buzzing around beat cafes, scoring features in the local media, mingling with movie stars.
Novak, famous for her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and an artist herself, had no idea Walter couldn’t paint. She did wonder about the couple, with whom she hung out for a time.
Walter, she remembers as over-the-top funny and always drunk. Margaret kept quiet, off to his side.
“It was a wonderful stage show, going to San Francisco and going to the theater,” says Novak, 81. “He was the whole show, the comedian who was onstage, and she was backstage, handing him his hat to go on.”
The “show” began in 1955. Walter and Margaret, both divorced, met at an outdoor art market. Walter claimed to have learned to paint in Paris and had framed street scenes to show for it. Only later did Margaret discover they were the work of another artist. Walter’s only contribution: his signature.
Margaret had been painting since she was a girl growing up in Tennessee. Even her earliest scribbles, on school notebooks, showed faces with large, out-of-proportion eyes. Those eyes, she thought, were the most expressive part of the face.
Now, as Margaret looks at the pieces, she views them through the prism of her own search.
“You know what they’re saying?” Margaret says. “They’re saying, ‘Where is God, why are we here, what is the purpose of life? Why are we suffering?’ “
Walter and Margaret fell in love, were quickly married and he decided to place their paintings on sale. The street scenes were largely ignored. Margaret’s children became a phenomenon.
Because her pieces were marked solely by her married last name, Keane, people didn’t know they were hers. Walter’s deception, Margaret believes, began as a simple misunderstanding. But as word spread that he was the artist of these popular paintings, and as the money poured in, he wouldn’t set the record straight.
“It was very difficult,” Margaret says. “I got myself into this terrible trap, and I didn’t know how to get out. I think it turned when I lost respect for him. I lost respect for myself, too. I went from really loving him to not liking him at all.”
The drinking got worse, for both of them, and then a final blow to their decaying marriage. The Keanes had never been the darlings of art critics, who mocked the portraits as kitsch in comparison to the pop art, minimalism and abstract expressionism bursting out of the hippest galleries.
In 1964, John Canaday, a New York Times critic, went so far as to call the paintings “tasteless hack work” after Walter scored a key commission at the World’s Fair. Humiliated, he grew angry when organizers had the piece taken down. Soon after, Margaret, fed up, fled with Jane to Hawaii.
But even now, Margaret refuses to dismiss Walter.
“He could have been anything,” she says. “He should have been a comic or had his own talk show. He could have been anything, but he wanted to be an artist more than anything. That was the dominating thing.”
That sympathetic view struck Adams when she met Margaret.
“She didn’t come across as a victim,” the actress says. “She never said, ‘This happened to me.’ She always said, ‘I can’t believe that I did this, that I lied for so long.’ She even said: ‘I feel so guilty about how Walter turned out. If I had not lied, maybe he would have been a different person.’ “
For much of their marriage, Margaret hid from the public, painting in isolation, as Walter crafted a false history of how he had birthed the “waifs.” He did agree to introduce her as an artist, but that required her to paint in a different style.
Those works, more seductive and influenced by her love for the Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani, were modeled next to the big-eyes portraits presented as his. The couple was featured in Life magazine and in a photograph poolside as actress Natalie Wood posed in a bathing suit.
The 1986 court decision helped set the record straight, but in the pre-Internet age, not everybody got word.
Walter didn’t help.
“I painted the waifs of the world,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1991, a claim he would continue to make until his death nine years later.