The famous scene is the scruffy restaurant in the train station of Troy, N. Y. It is Thanksgiving 1951. The old lady with her head bowed was a neighbor of Artist Norman Rockwell's. Sadly, she died before the painting appeared on the Saturday Evening Post cover of Nov. 24, 1951.
Rockwell's eldest son, Jarvis, is pictured in the scene with his back to the dingy window. All around are other Rockwell touches: the sad-eyed but deeply moved traveler in the top left corner, the man of affairs with his cigar and the New York Times in the lower left. And in the center of the painting is the little boy with his floppy ears, sheared neck and Sunday best, edged off-center on his chair to get away from the slightly menacing young men with their cigarettes and to be nearer his only earthly security of the moment, his grandmother.
Already an American classic, the painting Saying Grace is destined for even more fame. Last week Ronald Reagan, part of whose appeal lies in his ability to look around him and view the world in a Rockwell sort of way, proclaimed this picture his favorite one by the artist. The President also has a special fondness for a portrait Rockwell did in 1968 for Look magazine in a series on presidential possibilities: Ronald Reagan.
"I have always been a fan of Norman Rockwell's," Reagan said last week when asked about his affection for the artist and his vision of the world. "I was very proud when he asked to do my portrait and was walking on air when I was given the finished portrait. He did it in a suite in the Madison Hotel in Washington. He stood me in the light he wanted from a window, then engaged me in conversation and now and then asked me to turn my head. This is the only Rockwell I have."
The reason all this comes up now is that the President broke his White House rule and agreed to serve as honorary chairman of a $5 million fund drive for a new Rockwell museum being built just outside the artist's beloved Stockbridge, Mass. This was too close to Reagan's heart. White House Counsel Fred Fielding said he would take the heat for turning down the request, which came from Massachusetts Congressman Silvio Conte. But Reagan insisted: "I want to do it. Norman Rockwell was wonderful."
The fund-drive board includes the town's fire chief, town clerk, librarian and a few other regular folks. Republican Conte was a friend of Rockwell's and helped get a stop sign put up so cars would not screech out into the street in front of Rockwell's place, causing the artist to fear that an auto might crash into his studio. Rockwell wanted to paint Conte, but the Congressman never found time, and the artist died in 1978.
Now, because more than 100,000 people visited a tiny museum last year where only a few of its 400 paintings and illustrations can be hung, more than a stop sign is needed. The folks expect to build the new museum on a 40-acre tract near the Housatonic River on the outskirts of the village. They plan to ask the President to come up and start their campaign this spring. The betting is he'll show up.