Margaret Keane's Artful Case Proves That She—and Not Her Ex-Husband—made Waifs

One critic called them “the very definition of tasteless hack work,” but they were perhaps the best-selling art in the Western world in the early ’60s. They’re the saucer-eyed Keane kids, and, love them or leave them, there is no questioning their status in American pop culture. Who created them, however—Walter Keane or Margaret Keane—has been very much in question, a $4 million question that landed in federal court.

Margaret, Walter’s ex-wife, has been living with the unresolved dispute for years. Walter has always claimed that he was the artist in the family, and his boasts didn’t stop when their 10-year marriage ended in 1965. After years of silence, Margaret finally told a radio audience in 1970 that she, in fact, had painted all those wide-eyed waifs. She publicly challenged Walter to a painting contest. Walter didn’t show. The dispute continued to simmer, and two years ago Walter suggested to USA Today that Margaret was claiming credit for his pictures because she thought he was dead. She slapped him with a slander suit.

Margaret, 58, and Walter, 70, hadn’t laid eyes on each other for nearly 20 years when they walked into federal court in Honolulu last month. They proceeded to have at it in an often heated 3½-week trial. Margaret acknowledged that she had gone along with Walter’s claims during their marriage, but only because he threatened to kill her and her daughter by a prior marriage if she revealed the truth. At the behest of her attorney, Margaret sat before the jurors and in 53 minutes painted a small boy’s face with those unmistakable outsize orbs. The painting, Exhibit 224 of the trial, may be her greatest artistic triumph.

Challenged by Margaret’s attorneys to show the jury his stuff, Walter, who acted as his own lawyer, pleaded that he was taking medication for a painfully injured shoulder and declined to put brush to canvas.

Margaret brought in examples of her work beginning with a large-eyed child she had painted when she was a child herself, at age 11. She got into really big eyes while painting her brown-eyed infant daughter, Jane (now 36), and developed the sad-eyed genre as she herself grew more and more miserable in her marriage to Walter. She and the jurors saw the case eye-to-eye. They awarded her $4 million for the emotional distress and damaged reputation she had suffered because of Walter’s false statements.

“I really feel that justice has triumphed,” she said after the verdict. “It’s been worth it, even if I don’t see any of that four million dollars.”

She may well not. Walter, who still maintains he did the paintings and vows to appeal, claims to be penniless. Though the trial judge dismissed Margaret’s case against USA Today, she will probably appeal that ruling.

Margaret, since remarried and widowed, continues to paint at her home overlooking Wakiki Beach in Honolulu. The big eyes have been getting happier, a change that Margaret says reflects her peace and contentment since becoming a Jehovah’s Witness 12 years ago.

“I love to do eyes,” she says, “so I think I’ll always do eyes.” Just ask the jury. The ayes have it.

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