"The Saturday Evening Post," August 24, 1940. "Home from Camp," Norman Rockwell. ©1940 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN

You’ve got your mother in a whirl, she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl…” Rock musician David Bowie, who turns 63 today (Happy Birthday, David!), first sang these lines in 1974 at the height of the glam rock craze; fitting lyrics indeed, from a man who pioneered androgyny in popular culture with his flamboyant Ziggy Stardust character. But one could argue that another world-renowned artist beat Bowie to the task, with a much-debated magazine cover which appeared thirty years earlier…

Norman Rockwell (yes, Norman Rockwell) had many readers of The Saturday Evening Post “in a whirl” after his illustration for the magazine’s August 24, 1940 cover was published. The oil on canvas painting (later titled Home From Camp) featured a young child in proper dress sitting amidst a collection of items rough and worn from the outdoors, including an old trunk, axe, backpack, flowers, and even live snake and turtle. However, this assortment of lively souvenirs is not what got most readers talking… it was whether the child pictured on the cover was a actually a “he” or a “she!”

Rockwell’s illustration elicited the most fan letters the artist ever received for a Saturday Evening Post cover (even more than 1951’s popular Saying Grace); according to Norman Rockwell Museum Archivist Jessika Drmacich, “letters implored Rockwell to settle workplace bets, family wagers, or just plain confusion regarding the gender of the cover’s central character.” In a fan letter dated August 27, 1940, reader Ruth Beriwick from Cleveland, Ohio, wrote, “All the men in our department say it is a ‘he’, but I swear it is a ‘she’ and can hardly wait to get your reply confirmation;” similarly, Berle Adams from St. Louis, Michigan pleaded to Rockwell, “will you settle an argument for us? My husband and my best friend insist your child… is a boy (who has been camping and been without benefit of a barber) and I hold that it is a nature loving little girl, who will grow up to be a decided old maid, teaching botany and zoology in some college.” Adams included a card in the letter for the artist to reply ASAP— surely David Bowie would have appreciated the controversy…

These correspondences and many more from the personal collection of Norman Rockwell will be featured in the exhibition To Rockwell, With Love: Fan Mail and The Saturday Evening Post, opening on January 16 at Norman Rockwell Museum. Fan correspondence, archival photographs, and the original Saturday Evening Post tearsheets that inspired such lively public response will be on view, including a series of letters and photographs from celebrities who were also in contact with Rockwell through the years.

Coincidentally, London’s Daily Mail reported today about the discovery of David Bowie’s first ever U.S. fan letter in 1967, and the then-fledgling musician’s typewritten reply; read the story and view Bowie’s actual correspondence here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1241563/David-Bowies-1967-letter-U-S-fan-unearthed.html

UPDATE: According to the July 2010 issue of the UK music magazine Uncut, there IS a connection between David Bowie and Norman Rockwell. Back in 1975, the musician apparently tried contacting Rockwell about painting the cover to his Young Americans album. Due to deadlines, nothing materialized. Rockwell did however paint one rock album cover during his career: The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield & Al Kooper (1969).