The Keane Mutiny

"Keane paintings are my friends," gushed actress Joan Crawford.
An art critic from the New York Times checked in with a far different opinion, characterizing the couple's work as "the very definition of tasteless hack work."

Eye or nay, there was no denying that artists Walter and Margaret Keane had their brushes on the pulse of popular taste in the early Sixties. Falling into a chronological niche somewhere between Norman Rockwell and the smiley face, the duo raked in beaucoup bucks with their haunting portraits of denizens of some multinational day-care center of the damned.

Perhaps fittingly, there was more to the couple's work than met the eye. In a 1970 radio interview, five years after their 10-year marriage ended in divorce, Margaret revealed that it was she--and not her publicity-happy hubby--who'd actually painted all the faces that had made them famous. Tossing down the gauntlet, she challenged her ex to a public paint-off in a San Francisco park.

Although Walter was a no-show, the pair finally squared off over dueling canvases in a courtroom some 16 years later. Outraged after reading a newspaper interview in which Walter claimed she was taking credit for the painting because she believed he was dead, Margaret Keane sued her former husband for slander in 1986.

During the course of the monthlong trial, the judge ordered the pair to demonstrate their talents to the jury. Margaret won in a wink, whipping out one of her trademark faces in less than an hour. Walter claimed he had a sore shoulder and couldn't paint.

Although the court awarded her $4 million (an amount later reduced on appeal), the distaff Keane never saw a penny; her once high-living husband claimed he was destitute.

Now in his 80s, Walter lives in the San Diego area, and, when not peddling his rambling memoirs by mail order, fires off lengthy conspiracy-driven tirades to anyone who dares publicly repeat his wife's "LIE OF THE CENTURY."

After spending much of her post-Walter life in Hawaii, the now seventysomething Margaret moved to Sonoma County in 1991 and continues to sell original painting through her Keane Eye Gallery in San Francisco. Margaret's been a Jehovah's Witness since 1972, and her current crop of waifs (limited-edition prints begin in the four-figure range) appear considerably happier than their angst-ridden predecessors.

"People who come in here are still captivated by them," reports Robert Brown, Keane's business manager. As for those who aren't, well, Margaret Keane isn't wringing her hanky.

"In the beginning, yes, but she's way past that," says Brown. "She could care less what some critic might say.

--Dewey Webb

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Dewey Webb