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Just Plain Bill

The Lives of William Benton

by Sidney Hyman
Chicago, 626 pp., $10.00

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 little work for a couple of sponsors.

* *

Deane: Our guest this morning is Senator William Benton. He was the senator from Connecticut, and once a senator, always a senator. You just keep right on calling a man a senator. I remember after President Truman was President, he once said to an old friend, “Oh, just call me Senator when you’re in here.”

Benton: Well, you know, it’s more than a courtesy. We used to call Governor Stevenson Governor, which was a courtesy after he was through being governor. But the Senate—two-thirds are lawyers, and they look forward to the possibility of defeat, and it’s a great value to a lawyer to have been a senator. So they vote themselves life tenure as senators. You can go into the Senate cloakrooms, eat in the Senate dining room. Get a free haircut. You have every privilege of being a senator for life except you can’t get up and make a speech, and you can’t vote.

So it is not merely a courtesy, like calling a man Judge who was once a judge. It’s a right that the lawyers—unhappily it’s been of no value to me, because not being a lawyer, I can’t make any money out of it.

The qualities in his personality that make Benton talk in this way seem to have been implanted early in life by his mother. For all his enormous financial success, William Benton is not half the man his mother was—or wanted him to be. She was, we learn from Mr. Hyman, the daughter of a midwestern politician. Benton’s father, a softer man and a failed academic at the University of Minnesota, was the son of missionaries who for the better part of two generations did their damnedest to make it hot for the heathens of Syria. He died when Benton was thirteen. His mother then had young William to herself—and she never let go, as Benton himself makes clear.

Deane: You had a great mother, didn’t you?

Benton: A lot of the real stories—oh, we should get back to Israel. The prime minister, Golda Meir, so reminded me of my mother that I almost jumped across the desk and embraced her.

Deane: Really?

Benton: My mother was a tough, strong woman whose muscles stood out all over her. And this is perfectly clear in the opening chapters of the book, which are probably the best chapters, as they always are in auto biographies and tend, normally, to be in biographies, the opening chapters. Sidney Hyman had two million words of letters that I had written my mother, and he thought for a while of constituting his entire book around these letters, but she died when I was forty-two, before I went into public life in a major way in the State Department. So we abandoned this idea, but I’ve had two letters from Jewish friends that tell me that my Yankee background mother, who probably never saw a Jew until she was an adult, was like a Jewish mother. And she, I can tell you, is just like Prime Minister Golda Meir.

And Hubert and I went in to see this extraordinary woman in Israel. Our young people have a phrase about “playing it cool.” I don’t really know exactly what it means, but I think it means Mrs. Meir, because she sits there behind her big desk looking at Hubert Humphrey and me, playing it cool and with the muscles standing out all over her, just like my mother, and so I told her.

Benton’s mother was still correcting his grammar when he was forty. Earlier, when he decided to go into advertising, she let him know what she thought. “Dear Billie,” Hyman quotes her as writing, “I am sorry to hear that you are going into a business that says, ‘Palmolive soap is a good soap.”’ When Benton, under the influence of his friend Robert Hutchins, retained his membership in the isolationist America First Committee until an embarrassingly late point, she really let him have it:

I fear it is a case of Old Dog Tray getting into bad company. Your mother did not raise you that way.

Poor Benton, he may now be Mr. Hyman’s saintly Billie, but he was never his mother’s.

In severely straitened circumstances, Benton’s mother managed to send him to Shattuck, a rigorous military prep school in Minnesota. Rather against his will, she next steered him into Yale, where, because of his midwestern origin and lack of money, Benton felt socially an outsider. Spiritually, however, he appears to have been absolutely at home. This was the Yale about which Santayana, in his autobiography, wrote:

It seemed to me at Yale as if enthusiasm were cultivated for its own sake, as flow of life, no matter in what direction. It meant intoxication, not choice. You were not taught to attain anything capable of being kept, a treasure to be laid up in heaven. You were trained merely to succeed. And in order to be sure to succeed, it was safer to let the drift of the times dictate your purpose. Make a strong pull and a long pull and a pull all together for the sake of togetherness. Then you will win the race. A young morality, a morality of preparation, of limbering up. “Come on, fellows,” it cried, “lets see who gets there first. Rah, rah, rah! Onward, Christian Soldier!”

While at Yale Benton pushed onward by selling his classmates a college calendar supported by advertisements from New Haven merchants and, during his term as its chairman, by hustling the circulation of the Yale Record to the point where it showed a profit of $25,000. What he picked up at Yale was reinforced by two excellent teachers whom he met after graduation. These were John H. Patterson, of the National Cash Register Company and the father (as he liked to style himself) of “scientific selling,” and Albert D. Lasker, “the imperial genius,” as Mr. Hyman calls him, of the advertising world of the 1920s.

From both men Benton learned something of the delicate art of putting the squeeze on customers and clients, maintaining in the process a certain imperiousness of manner. But a greater asset in accruing his fortune than any teacher could possibly provide was Benton’s incapacity for introspection. He seems never to have experienced any doubts whatever, only, as he wrote to his mother during his first years of college, “indescribable longings.” In addition to wanting to pile up as much money as possible, he was haunted, it seems, by the idea of being “a leader in a political movement of new thought and new ideas.”

While working in various advertising agencies in his early twenties, Benton determined to open an agency of his own at the first opportunity. You don’t, after all, have to be Jewish to know that only a schmuck works for someone else. In choosing a partner Benton chose well in Chester Bowles. A Yalie a few years younger than himself, Bowles had greater urbanity and more social connections than Benton, and ambitions of equal ferocity. Advertising in America is essentially a piratical business which consists of two kinds of conquest: capturing accounts and capturing talent from other advertising agencies. Benton and Bowles were consummate at both kinds, and their agency, though founded at the beginning of the Depression, throve from the start and continued to do so throughout the roughest years of the Thirties. Culturally, its chief contribution came with its handling of the Colgate Ribbon Dental Cream account, through which it brought the country the concept of bad breath.

In 1935, at the age of thirty-five, Benton decided to leave Benton and Bowles under a lucrative agreement by which the firm would buy back his stock over a period of years. He left the advertising business, presumably, for those higher things for which he sorely yearned.

Benton: When I sold the firm in 1935, we had the biggest office in the world and the most profitable office in the world. The best clients in the world. And I got a million dollars, and nobody had a million dollars in 1935. It was the bottom of the Depression. I felt much richer than I feel today, Miss Deane, by far. By contrast I was much richer.

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