Sixty years ago, Mike Nugent appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, where his expressive face and redheaded charm were captured forever in the classic illustration, “In the Dentist’s Chair.” The fear on his face as he eyes the drill is very real, as he later learned that Novocain doesn’t work its painkilling magic on those with red hair.
“I was scared to death,” he recalled, explaining that while no real dental work was performed that day, previous pain was much on his mind. Nugent was the “inspiration shot” for the eventual drawing by Kurt Ard, presumably using photographs taken by the famous New York photographer Angela Calomiris.
Nugent has been strolling down memory lane lately, combing through old photographs and doing some research about his ancestors online. He had completely forgotten about the dental chair photo shoot until he came across a thick packet of memorabilia his mother had brought him when she visited years ago. There he found the Calomiris contact sheet with two dozen images of Nugent at the dentist’s office. A computer search of the photographer brought her photo to his screen and the memories flooded back. “That’s her,” said Nugent. “I remember her perfectly.”
“I do remember being told as a child that I was in the Saturday Evening Post,” he said, although he does not recall having ever seen the actual Oct. 19, 1957, issue of the magazine where he graces the cover. He assumes there was a long lag time between the photo session and the illustration appearing. “You have to remember there were 11 kids in our family,” he said, explaining that he doesn’t recall there being any sort of celebration of his fame in his busy childhood household.
“It’s been fun to pull the strings,” he said, as he tries to discover how it came to be that he was chosen as a model. It is remotely possible that it is not even him, but given the contact sheet images that seems unlikely. “Look at the ears,” he laughed, saying he’s pretty positive.
Philip Carey, a Jesuit priest who was known for helping to drive corruption out of New York City labor unions, was a close friend of the Nugent family. Nugent guesses that Father Carey knew the photographer Calomiris, who happened to also be an FBI spy, and that may be how Nugent was introduced to the photographer and eventually appeared on the cover.
“In the Dentist’s Chair” is one of the more famous Saturday Evening Post covers, and reproductions of the image can even be purchased on online art websites. Old issues of the actual magazine can be found as well. The Ard illustration is done in the style of Norman Rockwell, who drew more than 300 covers for the magazine, many of them very famous. An article on the magazine’s website, “Classic Covers: Can You Tell a Rockwell?” cites the cover with Nugent as the one most frequently thought to be a Rockwell. “It has the attention to detail, humor and pathos of a Rockwell, but no,” it says.
In addition to his newly realized magazine fame, Nugent is also a well-known face around town. He previously served for almost 20 years as an elected director on the Sonoma Valley Health Care District board and has been actively involved in numerous nonprofit events during his 30-plus years in Sonoma. He and his wife Therese, who is also very involved in the Valley as a realtor, chef and writer, raised their three children here.