Just Plain Bill

The Lives of William Benton

by Sidney Hyman
Chicago, 626 pp., $10.00

William Benton
William Benton; drawing by David Levine

The life of William Benton, former United States Senator from Connecticut, American Ambassador to UNESCO, and the first man to receive the University of Chicago’s William Benton Distinguished Service Medal, has one main point of interest: that in America there still isn’t much that money can’t buy. Among other things, Benton’s money has helped bring him political office as well as the services of politicians as distinguished as Adlai Stevenson and Hubert Humphrey—both of whom (Humphrey currently) have taken ample pay for modest work from the Encyclopaedia Britannica Corporation, which Benton owns. It has also paid for the services of intellectuals of every stamp and discipline, as well as educators of the stature of Robert Hutchins, a once impressive man who today languishes in his Santa Barbara Valhalla, in endless dialogue with a tape recorder. Yet money has not been able to buy Benton the one thing he has all his life craved more than anything else—distinction for himself.

Sidney Hyman’s The Lives of William Benton is a book that neatly reflects its subject. Like Benton’s own image of himself, it is somewhat bloated. Yet it is also a book that has considerable interest, though that of an entirely technical kind. Mr. Hyman has chosen to make William Benton seem attractive, an undertaking that presents problems of no small dimension. Take, for example, Mr. Hyman’s title, with its reverberations of Renaissance Man. What lives can he possibly have in mind? William Benton’s life has been remarkably of a piece: he made a bundle early in advertising; through a combination of cunning, industry, and luck increased it manyfold over the years; and has spent an inordinate share of the dividends on self-promotion.

But behind it all has been the thirst, unslaked, for distinction. This desire does not emerge as clearly as it might from Hyman’s book, which is oddly lacking in Statements by Benton himself. It is better to listen to him when his talk is not edited, for example on the Martha Deane Show last May, after he had returned from a trip to Israel with Hubert Humphrey:

Deane: Senator Benton, I have a couple of things I want to do for a couple of sponsors, and when I finish I want to give you a chance to talk about the honorary degrees that both you and Hubert Humphrey got in Israel.

Benton: Yes.

Deane: And then I want to return to—

Benton: Honorary fellowships, but they regard them as much higher than an honorary degree.

Deane: Oh, that’s right. I forgot—

Benton: Oh, Yes. Like the fellow—

Deane:…that they are higher.

Benton: …being a Fellow of All Souls at Oxford. It’s the highest award they know how to give to foreigners, make him a fellow of the [Weizmann] Institute.

Deane: We’ll talk about that in a minute. Let me do a…

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