They are both artists, both Indiana natives who met in New York city although today Norma and Norman Bridwell are more closely associated with Edgartown and their home on High street with the red shutters where they have lived since 1969.
They have two grown children. Oh, and don’t forget Clifford. He’s the big red dog that Norman Bridwell created 45 years ago in what would become his award-winning children’s book series. The Bridwells celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary on Friday, June 13. They call it their lucky day.
Interviews by Mark Alan Lovewell
Norman: I remember when we met. We both worked in New York city, working as freelance artists. We were in Manhattan on 39th street. There was a lettering man who came in all the time.
He said to me, “You are from Indiana. I work at this place where there is this wonderful girl, a beautiful girl. You are from Indiana. She is from Indiana. Her name is Norma. Your name is Norman. You should meet her.”
I tried to ignore him for a while. Then he would go back to where she worked and say: “Oh yeah, there is this guy from Indiana.”
Finally just to shut him up, I said, “Okay, I will call her.”
And I called her up. I asked her if we could go to a movie or have a dinner. She was a very beautiful girl. We were interested in the same things. We were both artists. We started going together. For three years we dated. Then finally I proposed to her and she accepted. That is how it all began.
She was smart, she was intelligent. She laughed at my jokes. We were both more or less agreed on politics and religion, all the things that we dealt with. We got along on those subjects. I was not expecting to get married, I didn’t make that much money. It was not a high-paying job. Just trying to make it through the week was difficult.
So we came here to the Vineyard for our honeymoon. We came here because we couldn’t afford to go to San Francisco.
Norma saw an ad in The New York Times that said, “Storybook Isle of Martha’s Vineyard,” and she and I had never heard of it. It sounded interesting. She went to a travel bureau and made arrangements. We flew up and flew back.
We first had a little girl named Emily Elizabeth, and about three years later we had a boy named Timothy.
We were parents in New York. We realized we were all together in a little New York apartment. We did everything we could to master that space. It wasn’t big enough. We couldn’t afford a larger apartment.
Later, we had a terrible trip back to Indiana. Hot summer. It wasn’t a pleasant trip.
Norma said after we got back, “We ought to reward ourselves with a trip up to Martha’s Vineyard and show the children the Island.”
We came up and we saw a sign in a vacant lot, land for sale. We came back later in the fall and looked at a couple houses and we couldn’t afford them, and then went through the winter, came back in the spring and we looked again at houses and saw this place. We originally wanted a house on Water street. It simply was too far out of our reach. The real estate agent showed us this place.
At that time Norma was a full-time mother. She was committed to the family. She gave up her desire to be an artist. She did fine art: oils, watercolor. Now she spends one day a week up in Boston in the Museum art school. She gave it all up to raise the children. She was always very talented that way.
My editor used our house one time. He came back to New York, he said, “I saw some of your art work on the walls of your house. It is not like what you put in the books. This is very beautiful art work.”
I told him: “That art work is done by my wife.”
She is very organized. I can’t balance the checkbook. I can’t keep track of things. She is very efficient that way. If I lose track of something, I am sure I can go to her find out where it is.
She really does beautiful artwork. She is too shy, I think she is afraid of rejection, though we all are. She does lovely things.
How has our marriage gone on for 50 years?
It is our Indiana stubbornness. We try to adapt to each other’s little foibles and failings, not that she has any. But I certainly have. She has learned to live with them.
Behind a successful man, I jokingly say there is always a woman with a sharp stick. No — she has always encouraged me.
In 1962, when we had a bad year in the commercial art business, she was the one who encouraged me. She said to me, “You always talk about how you’d like to illustrate children’s books. Why don’t you do that now that you are not working? Why don’t you make some samples and try illustrate and try and get work as an illustrator?”
I did eight or 10 paintings of various things, and one was of this little girl with a big red dog. And I just happened to have a jar of red paint sitting on the desk that day. I was just painting a picture. She urged me to do that. So I did that and that is how we wound up where we are.
She has always been a great believer of flying into the face of adversity. She just said: “Friday the 13th should be a lucky day for me.”
She is a very generous person. When we came here, she was the one who went out and made contact with all the charitable organizations, and wanted to be a part of the community, wanted to give to this and join that. She is a very people sort of person. She was very interested in the community. I am less likely to do that.
Norma: We met because we were both commercial artists. He was a designer and I was just paste-up and a mechanical artist starting out. We worked at different studios and the lettering man that worked at many different studios said to me, “The two of you have so much in common. Norma and Norman. You are both from Indiana, you are both artists, you have got to meet each other.”
He made Norman call me. We would talk a little bit on the phone.
So we had coffee together at a studio delicatessen. It was after my art class in the evening.
He was shy, he was very witty. I liked his sense of humor. The most valuable thing we share is that sense of humor. We saw each other and had a courtship for three years.
I don’t think I realized how much I cared about him. I was working down in the evening in Greenwich Village. I did a little bit of walking. I walked past Sheridan Square, and passed a restaurant that Norman and I had gone to a few times. I looked up. Sitting in our booth, Norman was with some other woman.
And I got hot and bothered about it. And I must have walked an hour, stomping around, I was talking to myself. I had these voices: “Why am I getting so upset? We don’t have an exclusive or anything.” That is when I realized, well, he means a lot more to me than I realized.
I think we still respect each other. When we got married, I was 25 and he was 30.
I remember how Clifford the Big Red Dog began.
He was unemployed at the time. He had been out of work for six weeks. We were running out of money; freelancers have a little pile of money to fall back on when the work dries up. The baby was a year old,
So he was home. He liked the idea of putting together a children’s book of illustrations.
He met with an editor. The editor said to him that his artwork wasn’t very distinctive.
He came home later. He made a sample illustration of a little girl, with a great big bloodhound. The very large dog was twice as high as the little girl. So he wrote a story about her.
That weekend he wrote Clifford the Big Red Dog. He made a little cover and submitted it to a publisher.
Eventually he got a call, but not from the same publisher. It seemed the freelance editor worked at two places. This wasn’t a book for the one place, but maybe it was good for the other. Sept. 5, 1962, that was the day the phone call came in.
Norman started out in a humble situation. We both had fathers who worked in factories. He was in Kokomo. Both of us had mothers that were stay-at-home mothers, in those days that is what she did. They were on the poor side. They didn’t have any extras, but they had good solid relationships. They were married forever. He had an older brother. He had a good background but he never had quite that much as the other kids in his class. I think maybe they kind of looked down on him. Also he was very skinny. He was not athletic and not into conflict.
I knew he was a very talented man. He was usually sidelined. The art directors would throw something at him and say, do this. Other people that were in the office, those that designed film and slide shows, they were treated like visiting magistrates.
Norman was easy to get along with. I suppose he was easy to push around.
Before he met me, he was always witty in school, and his mouth was the only thing that ever got him in to trouble. He got in trouble again and again.
In those early years, the mouth was going before his brain said, “Don’t say that.”
When he said he wanted to dedicate his second book to me, I told him, “I want you to dedicate your first adult humor book to me.” I am still waiting.
A few years ago, Norman was honored by Indiana University with a doctorate. They have a Kokomo campus. At the same time there was one of those high school reunions. A lot of the people that he went to high school were there. They were old friends, the very same guys that used to beat him up.
He is very good-natured. He has always avoided arguments. That is one thing we lack: arguments.
You don’t get a good argument with him that will clear the air. He won’t argue. He won’t have one. Over the years I have learned to confine my arguments with my son and my daughter and anybody else. But I can’t argue with Norman. He will just go along with me, rather than argue.
The Vineyard is home. It was a peaceful place, as opposed to New York city and we loved New York city.
The second time we came to the Vineyard was a very trying summer. We went to Indiana that summer. It was very hard. There was an airline strike, so we were just exhausted. It wasn’t yet time for school to start, we decided to come here.
One of us said, “Let us take a week off and go to the Vineyard.” So all four of us came up. So often one of us gets an idea and the other one says: great. And then we run with it. Very seldom do we have different ideas. That was useful, because we had the same value system, we had the same background growing up.
In Boston we go to the ballet, we go to the Museum of Art, I take my art lessons at the museum and the Huntington Theatre. He likes to travel by way of travel books and maps. Now he can go on the Internet and get a virtual tour of places.
He is one in a million. When our children were young, I kind I resented it a bit. He was definitely the parent of choice. Because he was the fun one. Kids like playing with him, and now the grandchildren are the same way. Grandpa has a special quality.
I was born on Friday the 13th and married on Friday the 13th. Friday the 13th is an easy date to remember. Thirteen has become a lucky number for our children.