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Her Mystique

A portrait of the feminist as an unhappy portrait subject.

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Even feminist icons are vain about their appearance. In 1999, Betty Friedan, who died on February 4, ran into Byron Dobell, a portrait artist and editor who’d known Friedan for more than twenty years. She asked him to paint her portrait. “It would be something she said she could give to her kids, and I said, ‘Betty, you would hate it!’ ” says Dobell. But Friedan insisted. Over two months they met at his apartment for five two-hour sittings. “I couldn’t make her a beautiful woman—she was not beautiful by Hollywood standards—but I made her a strong woman.” Friedan hated it. She insisted that Dobell charge her a refusal fee, which he did, reluctantly. Then came a note from Friedan’s secretary saying he’d be paid if he agreed to hide it forever or destroy it. He didn’t reply. A director of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery spotted the painting on exhibit at the Century Association and asked Dobell to donate the work to its permanent collection. “The irony,” says Dobell, “is that the one thing Friedan was trying to escape from has given her entrée into one of the most important galleries in the world.”


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