The Food Behind Norman Rockwell’s 1958 The Runaway


The original photo taken in 1958 by Rockwell that was the basis for his Saturday Evening Post Cover, The Runaway.


July marked the 100th anniversary of Norman Rockwell’s first Saturday Evening Post cover. To celebrate, the Norman Rockwell Museum, hosted a Model’s Reunion day, on July 16, where models discussed their experiences with the artist in panels, discussions, and print signings.


One of the models present was Eddie Locke, now 66, who appeared in one of Rockwell’s most iconic paintings – The Runaway – which was the September 1958, Saturday Evening Post cover.   It depicts a state trooper seated at a diner lunch counter, bending over in counsel to a young boy, presumably intent on running away from home.     At the boy’s feet is a knapsack filled with his earthly possessions – maybe a toy gun, a pack of bubble gum, and a box of cracker jack.   You can almost hear the officer saying, “Awe, your parents can’t be that bad!”


Eddie Locke, the model for the runaway boy.


What setting could be more American than a diner counter?     Well, that’s if you were white. Segregation prevented most African-Americans in 1958 from eating at most lunch counters, which was the protest setting that started the Civil Rights movement.


The painting captures the highest ideal of police work: helping someone in need at a vulnerable moment.     This is an ideal that especially resonates today, with all the police shootings rocking our country. Rockwell’s painting harkens back to an idyllic time and a comforting setting, defined by good old American comfort food.


The models for the painting were Rockwell’s Stockbridge, Massacheusetts neighbors, then 8 year old Eddie Locke, and 30 year old state trooper Richard Clemens.   In April of 1958, they posed for an hour for the artist, at the Howard Johnson’s Restaurant in Pittsfield, Massacheusetts, on Lennox Road.   At that time there were about 400 HoJo restaurants in the U.S.     They were one of the first national restaurant chains, and popularized fried clam strips in American food.


But when The Runaway appeared on the cover of the September 20, 1958, Saturday Evening Post, all references to Howard Johnson’s had disappeared.  The restaurant’s celebrated 28 flavors of ice cream shown on the mirror in the reference photo, had been replaced with a blackboard list of daily specials. Rockwell claimed his reason for the switcheroo was that he “wanted a more rural look, to suggest the kid had gotten a little further out of town.”

The model for the trooper, Clemens, says his police supervisors were “very pleased a Massachusetts trooper had been chosen for a magazine cover.”  Posters of the painting were soon hanging in police stations all over the country.  To show his appreciation of the force, Rockwell painted a portrait of Clemens in his winter trooper’s cap and gave it to the state police, who reproduced it as a Christmas card in 1961.


Rockwell state trooper model Clemens in 1961 (left) and recently (right).

That was the same year that Johnson hired famed New York chef Jacques Pepin to oversee food development at the company’s main commissary in Brockton, Massacheusetts, where he developed recipes for the company’s signature dishes that could be flash frozen and delivered across the country, guaranteeing a consistent product.

So what were the comfort foods on the daily special in 1958?   We can decipher four of the daily specials on the blackboard in the painting.   The board showed Spaghetti & Meatballs, Grilled Cheese, Liver and Onions, and Cubed Steak – all very iconic American dishes.   A pie rack with three whole pies was added to the far left, with presumably an apple and a cherry.

What would be the food setting behind the counter today, if Rockwell’s The Runaway were re-imagined with an 8 year old runaway African-American boy and a white police officer?

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