Crime and Scandal

Monhegan Murder Mystery: What Did Rockwell Kent Know?

In 2013, Jamie Wyeth’s new portrait of Rockwell Kent on Monhegan Island, paintbrush and palette in hand, was exhibited at the Brandywine River Museum of American Art. (See it here.) In the background a body was falling off a cliff. The body belonged to Sally Maynard Moran, a former mistress of Kent. Wyeth 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, 1972

Rockwell Kent

Rockwell Kent was born 1882 in Tarrytown, N.Y., to a relatively affluent family. He studied at Columbia University and at the Art Student’s League. In 1903, he also had an apprenticeship with Monadnock painter Abbott Handerson Thayer.

Rockwell Kent

Rockwell Kent around 1920

Kent found inspiration in nature, and read deeply in the works of Transcendentalist philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

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.

Success

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.

In 1926, publisher R.R. Donnelley asked Kent to illustrate Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. Kent, who loved maritime adventure, suggested Moby Dick instead. The publisher agreed, and Kent set about studying whaling lore and history. His illustrated an edition of Moby Dick, released in 1930, that sold out immediately.

He was also in demand as a magazine illustrator. Under the name Hogarth, Jr., he created whimsical pen-and-ink drawings for Vanity FairNew York TribuneHarper’s Weekly and Life.

Red Baiting

But Rockwell Kent became increasingly radical and outspoken during World War II. He took an increasingly active role in progressive politics, and he remained patriotic toward the United States.

Island Village by Rockwell Kent, courtesy Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

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.

Brewing Storm by Rockwell Kent. Courtesy Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

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? The rumor dogged him for years.

Monhegan's rocky shore

Monhegan’s rocky shore

The theory about the Monhegan murder had several flaws. 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 then 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 allen into despair and uncertainty, her psychiatrist told the Kents.

Kent and Wyeth

Rockwell Kent sold the Monhegan cottage after Sally Moran died. He never returned to the island. From his 40s on he lived and painted at the Adirondack farm he called Asgaard. He died of a heart attack in 1971.

Jamie Wyeth long found Kent fascinating. He collected Kent’s work and even bought a house owned by Kent on Monhegan. In 1972, he painted The Red House.

Then in 2013, the Brandywine River Museum of American Art in Chadds Ford, Pa., held the exhibit featuring Wyeth’s portrait of Kent, titled, Jamie Wyeth, Rockwell Kent and Monhegan.

This story about the Monhegan murder mystery was updated in 2021.

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