All right. You’ve read them. You should have. There are plenty of interviews when Margaret Keane admits she wouldn’t have had a career in art unless I’d virtually swept her off the streets and romanced and married her while teaching her to paint and permitting her to accompany me to exhibitions and benefit from the publicity and money I generated painting the most wonderful eyes since El Greco and becoming the best-selling artist in the world.
Gradually I sensed that Margaret, already overshadowed by my charm and salesmanship, was becoming ever more jealous of my stunning big-eyed children and teenage girls, and betrayed me by announcing she’d painted all of my works and that I was a con man par excellence but not an artist. In the mid-1960s she convinced friends in the San Francisco art community to challenge me to compete against her in a public painting faceoff. How undignified. Would Picasso or Dalí have engaged in such a spectacle? Absolutely not. And neither would their successor, Walter Keane. I avoided this tawdry scene and instead drank champagne at the apartment of one of many ladies who adored me. I assure you, I left Margaret. This shy and mousy woman still craved being with the handsomest artist she’d ever met.
Scorned, she counterattacked through the press and paraded on TV many times: Mike Douglas and Shirley Temple fawned over her and her work – yes, she did some – and celebrities like Jerry Lewis, Joan Crawford, and Natalie Wood commissioned portraits. Eventually, Margaret ruined my reputation and destroyed my financial empire built on original works and various kinds of reproductions and posters. I don’t know why people believed her. Right after World War II in Europe, I had seen the big sad eyes of “frightened, waif-like children who looked like rats and acted like it.” I’d entered their souls and painted them. This was my artistic vision, and I shared it with my wife. Now she was making money while I struggled. We jousted legally, and in 1987 I yearned to prove my authenticity in a one-hour paint-off, each of us poised before a canvas right there in court before a judge ready to serve as aesthetic arbiter. I’d have beaten her, too, but shoulder tendonitis, the result of years of labor at the easel, prevented me from raising my arm.
In recent years, I’ve endured insults anew following release of the libelous Tim Burton film Big Eyes. It’s no coincidence the cowards waited until I was fourteen years dead before filming it in 2014. I’d have sued their asses and won. How dare they portray me as a drunken manipulator who locked his wife in a dungeon, demanding she paint and threatening to kill her if she stopped. That’s cheap fiction. I was a dedicated artist but somehow everything I verifiably painted has disappeared.