Crime and Scandal

Monhegan Murder Mystery: What Did the Artist Know?

In 2013, artist Jamie Wyeth painted a portrait of Rockwell Kent on Monhegan Island with his paintbrush and palette in hand. In the background a body was falling off a cliff.

The body belonged to Sally Maynard Moran, a former mistress of Kent.

Wyeth, long fascinated by Kent, denied he was suggesting Kent killed Moran in an unsolved Monhegan murder. He explained it was simply part of his series about ‘untoward events that have occurred on Monhegan over the years and this, of course, is one of them.’

The Red House, watercolor by Jamie Wyeth

The Red House, watercolor by Jamie Wyeth

Rockwell Kent

Rockwell Kent was born 1882 in Tarrytown, N.Y. He studied at Columbia University and the Art Student’s League. In 1905 he moved to Monhegan Island off the Maine coast, where he built several cottages and a large house at the water’s edge, known today as the Red House.

Rockwell Kent

Rockwell Kent

His paintings of the island won critical acclaim. He moved on to paint other landscapes that inspired him: in Minnesota, Newfoundland, Alaska, Vermont, Tierra del Fuego, Ireland and Greenland. He illustrated an edition of Moby Dick that sold out immediately. He was in demand as a magazine illustrator.

But Rockwell Kent became increasingly radical and outspoken during World War II. After the war he advocated friendship and peace with the Soviet Union. U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy targeted him during the red-baiting era, and his reputation suffered. Once one of the most famous, well-paid artists of his day, he was no longer in demand as an artist or illustrator.

In the summer of 1953, Sally Maynard Moran visited Monhegan. She stayed at one of the cottages the artist still owned, joined by his daughter, Mrs. Kathleen Finney, and her children. One day she announced she was going to take a walk. She was never seen again alive.

Three weeks after she disappeared, her body was discovered floating in the ocean off Portland Light.

“Mrs. Sally Maynard Moran, 49, New York society figure whose disappearance from the artists’ colony was a sensation last July, was murdered and thrown into the sea on the Maine coast, officials announced today,” reported the Chicago Tribune on Oct. 4, 1953.

Monhegan Murder

Pathologists had determined she died of blunt force trauma to the head. They said she couldn’t have fallen from Monhegan’s 100-foot cliffs, because her body would have had multiple bruises and fractures. The only other injury Sally Moran suffered was a broken arm.

Investigators learned two strange men were seen walking near the Kent cottage on the night of her death. An islander heard a voice shout, “Get your hands off me.”

Did Rockwell Kent have something to do with the murder of Sally Maynard?

That was the rumor that dogged him for years. Wyeth, son of Andrew, collected Kent’s work and even bought a house owned by Kent on Monhegan.

Monhegan's rocky shore

Monhegan’s rocky shore

There were several problems with the theory. One was that Kent was in New York at the time of Sally Maynard’s death.

Another was that she wasn’t murdered – at least according to her grandniece, Martha Wolfe of Winchester, Va.  The Kennebec County attorney general gave Wolfe copies of the cold case file in 2006. Wolfe pored over the files and concluded her great-aunt’s death was an accident.

Kent and his wife believed she committed suicide because she couldn’t face leaving the island. They had gotten her a job as a secretary because her ex-husband’s business reverses lowered her alimony. Sally Maynard Moran had been despondent and uncertain of herself, her psychiatrist told the Kents.

Rockwell Kent sold the Monhegan cottage after Sally Moran died. He never returned to the island and died of a heart attack in 1971.

This story was updated in 2017.




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