Dear Miss O’Keefe [sic]—
I have wanted to tell you how much enjoyment I have gotten from a magazine reproduction of your painting “Bindweed” which appeared in a womans [sic] publication some time in the 1930’s. I framed it and hung it at the foot of my bed, so that it is the first thing I see when I open my eyes every morning. . . . I have been half-blind since the age of 10, and can’t even find my glasses without my glasses, but your lovely flower, so full of faith and tenacity and hope and courage—this I can see.(July 1968)1
In the introduction to a 1992 collection of essays about Georgia O’Keeffe as an icon, Christopher Merrill claims that as “one of the most photographed figures of our time,” O’Keeffe is “an intellectual pinup girl of sorts.”2 By modifying pinup with the adjective intellectual, Merrill makes O’Keeffe exceptional: she is an enigmatic figure whom many long to know and understand, and her pinup keeps her hidden and elusive. For her female fans, such as the one I quote above, O’Keeffe’s pinup is her art, not her body, and she is knowable because she and her work are familiar and full of hope. Although O’Keeffe was a painter, not a movie star, she was a celebrity to the fans who wrote to her. [End Page 24]
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This study focuses on fan mail sent to O’Keeffe between the 1950s and 1980s, a span of years in which women grappled with social conditions that led to the reemergence of feminism as a public discourse and political movement. During these decades, female fans saw in O’Keeffe and her paintings life-guiding values [End Page 25] and inspiration. “I never write to strangers,” one admirer tells O’Keeffe in a birthday greeting, “but you are no stranger to me. From the time I was a little girl going to the New York Galleries with my mother I have been friends with your work. . . . You showed me that a woman could do this work, and, do it so well!” (November 5, 1968).
O’Keeffe was indeed “no stranger” to fans who revered her as a phenomenal example of female achievement in a competitive, male-dominated professional world.3 Many of the women who flocked to O’Keeffe wanted to be like her, even as some beckoned her to become like them and affirm their female condition. Members of women’s clubs, students, and housewives invited O’Keeffe into their communities and lives. Women of all ages wrote to O’Keeffe, perceiving her variously as female, feminine, or feminist, sometimes blending all three in a contradictory combination that reflected conflicting conceptions of womanhood in the larger culture. During this period, challenges to gender discrimination, including the detailing of gender inequity in the 1963 report by the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, coalesced into the second iteration of a feminist movement in the late 1960s and 1970s.4 In a number of ways, women who wrote fan letters to O’Keeffe made meaning of conditions and experiences that impelled, and shaped, feminism in these decades.5 How the writers imagine O’Keeffe, respond to her paintings, and create an epistolary relationship reveals a great deal about how they negotiate being female. Although men also wrote fan letters to O’Keeffe, I study women’s letters to show how O’Keeffe appeals especially to white women as model, validation, and imaginative possibility.6 “Are there any biographies of your life? Have you written your own story?” one woman asks. “[W]omen today need to know the kind of woman who has been able to break through the barriers to realize herself” (February 29, 1969...