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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.

Shortly after the announcement of his retirement, as Mr. Hyman tells the story, his old classmate at Yale, Robert Hutchins, then president of the University of Chicago, convinced Benton to join him at the University as a vice president. Benton evidently thought of himself as joining the University as an educational theorist of sorts, but Hutchins never used him in any serious capacity save that of a high-level public relations man. Indeed, fifty years of the Hutchins-Benton relationship appear to have come to little more than a particularly profitable instance of mutual exploitation.

While working six months of the year for the University of Chicago, Benton spent the remainder of his time working for himself. During this period he arranged to be in on the founding of, and soon came completely to control, the Muzak Corporation. Thus the man who helped to usher in bad breath also brought America Muzak—the musical equivalent of bad breath, one might say. He also saw the opportunities available to universities for latching on to government funds; and though his efforts here did not have spectacular results, they are worth remembering as representative of the mentality that later brought the government into the universities in a big way.

Benton’s biggest financial stroke came directly through the University of Chicago: It was under its auspices that he was able to acquire the Encyclopaedia Britannica for himself. General Robert E. Wood of Sears, which then owned Britannica, wanted to unload it, since Sears was not in a position to run it profitably. Hyman reports that Benton, as a vice president of the University of Chicago, suggested to Wood that he make a gift of Britannica to the University. When Wood acted on this advice, the University properly found the gift unacceptable—accepting it would among other things have made it the only university in the world with an installment collections department.

When the transaction appeared to be bogged down, Benton stepped in with an offer of $100,000 to swing the deal, in exchange for which he would take two-thirds of the Britannica stock, the other third to go to the University of Chicago. The offer was then accepted, and it worked out tidily for all concerned: Sears unloaded its unwanted company and got its tax write-off, the University made out handsomely without having to sully itself by going into a grubby business, and Benton, who had initiated it all, walked off with what eventually became a multimillion-dollar business.

Reaching once again for a higher plane, Benton in 1945 left the University of Chicago to accept James Byrnes’s offer to become Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs. This was Archibald MacLeish’s old job and essentially involved what the Russians, who tend to be more direct in such matters, call agitprop. This was a glorious opportunity for an old advertising hand like Benton—in effect, the whole nation was his account!

Still, it took a certain effrontery to come from Madison Avenue, as Benton did, and accuse the Russians of “bastardizing” words. His main achievement was in popularizing the phrase “Voice of America” for all US world broadcasting efforts; and in his own small way, he thus contributed to the stink of international propaganda.

Benton’s next move was to the United States Senate. This came about in a curious way. In the summer of 1949, in the middle of his term, Raymond Baldwin, the Republican senator from Connecticut, decided to relinquish his Senate seat for the comforts and tenure of a state supreme court judgeship. It fell to Benton’s old partner Chester Bowles, then governor of Connecticut, to appoint someone to serve out Baldwin’s term.

Brien McMahon, the state’s Democratic senator, was opposed to Abe Ribicoff, then a promising young congressman, and came out instead in favor of Benton. Benton admirably met the negative qualifications McMahon saw as requisite for the job: he wasn’t a Catholic, as McMahon was, and he could afford to finance his own election campaign in 1950 for the two unexpired years of Baldwin’s term and thus did not need to tap McMahon’s own campaign funds. Mr. Hyman makes much of Benton’s hesitancy in accepting the offer, but more convincing is the remark of a man sent down from Washington to persuade Benton to accept. “Bill,” this man said, “just imagine being called ‘Senator’ for the rest of your life.”

Benton’s brief career in the Senate was less than dazzling. In his maiden speech, drawing on his years as agitprop man for the State Department, he called for a “Marshall Plan of Ideas” with which to combat the influence of communism in Europe—an advertising package sent up the flagpole but not saluted by his fellow senators. The Senate must have seemed a confusing place to Benton, as it would to anyone without politics. Benton had none: he had no view of how society is organized and even less concern about how it ought to be organized.

Search Benton’s political statements and writings, including the various remarks Mr. Hyman has chosen to quote, and you will find nothing more than banalities linked with contrarieties. He is for international cooperation. He is against totalitarian governments. He is for the peaceful development of developing countries. He is for free enterprise. He is not necessarily against socialism. He is for the dissemination of knowledge and modern technology. He is for efficiency in government, he is for the United Nations, he is for (one imagines) world health, and so on, including all the bland para-liberal attitudes and clichés that certain rich men hold without in any way endangering their own fortunes or comfortable positions in the world. Mr. Hyman lists Benton’s personal campaign contributions for 1948, and they defy political alignment. Liberal Democrats, Dixiecrats, conservative Republicans, all shared in his largesse; these were not, strictly speaking, political campaign contributions at all, but simply donations to further the careers of men he liked.

Such political contributions can usually be cashed in when needed. But it is more likely that political favors are less important to Benton than the pleasure he derives from hobnobbing with politically powerful men. On the Martha Deane Show, for example, he spoke out in his characteristically apolitical way about the Goldberg-Rockefeller gubernatorial race:

I think Nelson Rockefeller is one of the great public servants of our time. I feel the same way about Arthur Goldberg, and I regret the fact that these two outstanding men, one or the other, will seemingly have to knock the other one off because I would like to see each one of them governor of New York, and I am sorry that the newspapers report that this seems to be a good possibility, that Arthur Goldberg may dislodge Nelson after his twelve great years as governor. I must say, if he’s going to be dislodged, I don’t know a better man in all New York to do the job than Arthur Goldberg.

Benton does not seem to consider these men as politicians at all but essentially as neighbors: when he went to the State Department, Benton took over the house Rockefeller had rented in Washington along with the five servants, car, and chauffeur that went with it; and as ambassador to the UN Goldberg had an apartment in the Waldorf Towers next to the one Benton keeps permanently in New York.

All of which makes puzzling an extraordinary act of Benton’s on August 6, 1951, when he rose to the floor of the Senate to propose the expulsion of Senator Joseph McCarthy. What could have caused him to do such a thing? Not long before he had voted for the McCarran Act, which cruelly limited immigration to this country, largely on grounds of internal security. Was it, as his mother might have put it, a case of Old Dog Tray getting into good company? In other words, did Robert Hutchins, Norman Cousins, and other liberal and libertarian-minded friends make him feel it was the thing to do? Whatever his motivation, stand up Benton did, at a time when few people were doing so. The incident remains a puzzle in a life that is otherwise all too transparent.

After not being invited by the people of Connecticut to rejoin the Senate in 1952, Benton returned to cultivating his own garden, which by now had begun to grow into a very rich vineyard. Encyclopaedia Britannica bred the Encyclopaedia Britannica Junior; Great Books of the Western World was packaged for the market, as well as the Syntopican to explain them; Barsa, an encyclopedia in Spanish and in Portuguese, was acquired, as were Compton’s Picture Encyclopaedia and the Merriam-Webster Company; contacts were established in France and the Far East; an Encyclopaedia Britannica Educational Corporation was formed, manufacturing and distributing films, teaching machines, pre-readers, and every other possible bit of detritus of the world of modern education. Muzak, which Mr. Hyman maintains is the only business Benton ever went into just for the money (what, one wonders, did he go into the others for?), was sold at an enormous profit. “A truly rich man,” Benton has said, “is someone who doesn’t know within $50 or $100 million what he is really worth.” Mr. Hyman estimates Benton’s own worth at somewhere between $400 and $500 million.

A fortune of this size tends to look after itself, and consequently Benton has been able to put increasing amounts of time in recent years into his other love—self-promotion. “Specifically,” as Mr. Hyman gleefully reports, “as of 1968, he served on twenty-six boards and twenty-eight committees devoted to various public interests.” (These have included the Adlai Stevenson Memorial Fund and a trusteeship at the University of Chicago. Mr. Hyman is currently a Senior Fellow at the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs and his book is published by the University of Chicago Press.)

But despite the honors and awards Benton’s money has brought him, the prize he would like best, to return to the Senate, that best of all possible American clubs, has eluded him. He tried in 1958, but could not win his party’s nomination; his hopes may have risen when the Thomas Dodd scandal occurred—would he, Benton, get the call?—but the Connecticut Democrats did not turn to him.

Meanwhile Benton has managed to live as well as he can off the political cachet of other, more successful, politicians. He has done this by following a simple logic. Certain politicians need money and he has money. He wants prestige, and certain politicians have the kind of prestige he needs. It is an arrangement which worked out particularly well for Benton in the case of Adlai Stevenson. For a salary some Britannica employees estimate to have been around $50,000 a year, Stevenson, who was a man harried by money worries all his life, became a member of various of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.’s boards and even posed for a Great Books advertisement. His main function before he went to the UN, from all appearances, was to be known as William Benton’s friend and associate. He traveled with Benton, wrote an introduction to Benton’s superfluous book on Latin America, and allowed his name to be linked with Benton’s. When Stevenson was considering leaving the UN to join a law firm, Benton, apparently sensing that the connection with him might break, concocted a new plan while driving Stevenson to Oxford. Here Hyman’s account is unintentionally revealing. Presumably he was not present at the meeting between Benton and Stevenson and what he gives us is Benton’s reconstruction of what he said:

You’re too old to fuss with clients and their minor problems [Benton said]. I’ll give you $100,000 a year and a $100,000 a year expense account if you will work for Britannica.”

Well,” said Stevenson, “what would I do?”

You would be the greatest ‘working ornament’ Britannica ever had,” Benton answered. “You could contribute greatly to our developing educational programs, and help expand our film company into a broad-based educational company. You could inspire our young executives and salesmen. You could help us expand into a world-wide publishing and educational force. You could help push us all over the world. Your association with the company could arouse the interest of all countries in the new educational technologies—teaching machines, the new mathematics, the use of films and audiovisual materials. And you’d still have time to play your key role as a world figure—because I wouldn’t dare hope to take even 40 percent of your time.” [italics added]

Since Stevenson’s death, Benton has entered into an arrangement with Hubert Humphrey. For responsibilities similar to Stevenson’s—was accompanying Benton on his trip to receive Israel’s “highest award” among them?—Humphrey is paid an annual salary of $75,000.

In the concluding section of his biography, Mr. Hyman attempts to make a case for Benton as a potent educational influence, and indeed something on the order of a great educator. But the only real sense in which William Benton might be said to exert any educational influence is through Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.’s sinewy staff of salesmen, who have over the years educated thousands of lower-middle-class families around the world in the hazards of installment buying. For Benton’s publishing empire is built upon, is in fact no steadier than, the foot of any of his salesmen in your neighbor’s door. Even the permissive F.T.C. has ordered the Britannica to “cease and desist” from deceptive selling methods and promotion practices,1 a fact which Mr. Hyman simply ignores.

This sales staff has long been the main organ of Benton’s publishing organization, and the one on which he has lavished the most attention and money. The extraordinarily talented salesmen for Encyclopaedia Britannica could probably sell the set if there were nothing but toilet paper between its covers; and one suspects that the editors, in their hearts, have come to believe that the contents don’t matter all that much. As publisher, Benton has lent this belief the greatest credence of all. In the twenty-five years during which he has had control over the set, Britannica has slid into deeper and deeper mediocrity. While the pretension rate remains high—Benton, in a phrase perhaps borrowed from his friend Hutchins, has called it “a congress of teachers”—Britannica‘s intellectual authority has drained away under Benton’s stewardship.

Mr. Hyman, of course, shows no interest in such matters; he doesn’t even bother to mention Harvey Einbinder’s The Myth of The Britannica (1964), a detailed analysis of the Britannica‘s serious decline in scholarly quality. A few years ago a ten-year revision program was completed, but this was done by a small, underpaid staff which, given the resources Benton allowed them, could do no more than bring facts and statistics roughly up to date, add a limited number of new articles, and delete the embarrassingly antiquated ones. The effect of this revision was like putting a band-aid on a case of lung cancer.

All the while, however, portentous talk was going on about a really grand revision of Britannica that would bring glory to its publisher. Scholars convened in foreign capitals, in Britannica’s Chicago offices, aboard Benton’s summer yacht, to consider what constituted a truly international, a truly twentieth-century encyclopedia. Dr. Mortimer Adler, of Syntopicon fame, was let loose to plan a new edition, a Benton edition, of Britannica. A staff of new senior and associate editors was hired. While the former chief editors of Britannica under Benton had been men of no great intellectual distinction, now Sir William Haley was brought from England as editor-in-chief. Haley had been director-general of the BBC and editor of the London Times, and had served admirably in both posts. He cared about good writing, knew personally many of the men who could deliver it for Britannica, and seemed likely to make some real improvement in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

The more cynical of Benton’s employees, who were also those who had been working for him the longest, said that Haley had been hired as window dressing for Britannica‘s 200th anniversary, which was celebrated in 1968, and that any other connection between Benton’s hiring a man of Haley’s sensibility and intellectual standards was purely accidental. Were they right? It is difficult to say. Mr. Hyman flatly reports that Haley, “after little more than a year as editor-in-chief found himself in opposition to certain fundamental policies of the board of editors….” And indeed, not long after the celebration of the anniversary, corporate forces began to align themselves against Haley. The salesmen said he was oblivious to their needs; nor was he mindful of Drs. Hutchins’s and Adler’s notions of a twentieth-century encyclopedia; all he seemed to want was a magnificent set of books. Somebody had to go. Haley did not plan to engage in Britannica corporate politics; he resigned. The irony of course is that Benton, who all his life has yearned for distinction, met it at last in the person of Sir William Haley, who might have brought it to him. Faced with the prospect, Benton turned away.

As Britannica’s salesmen scour the countryside, the publisher coolly sits back to act the part of the philosophe. His various pronouncements are duly recorded in memoranda to employees or are published in his own publications. Annals of America, a recent Britannica product that purports to be a collection of great documents in American history, carries two Benton pieces, and in the Encyclopaedia Britannica the biography of William Benton, written by his friend Hutchins, rambles on well past the space allotted to George Orwell, E. M. Forster, and Alexander Herzen, stopping a mere nine lines short of that allotted to Mao Tse-tung.

Although he is seventy, Benton’s pursuit of distinction has shown no signs of letting up in recent years. In 1968 there was an exhibit in celebration of Britannica’s 200th anniversary at the Smithsonian with Lyndon Johnson in attendance.2 A grim white-tie gala in celebration of the same occasion took place in London’s Guildhall, at which Prime Minister Harold Wilson paid tribute to Benton. Another celebration, this one black-tie, was held at the University of Chicago, which, after receiving more than $33 million in royalties and other payments from Encyclopaedia Britannica, gave Benton’s friends a free meal and awarded him a medal, the William Benton Distinguished Service Medal, proclaiming his many contributions to the free world.

Deane: I wish we had more time. I just have time to thank you for coming.

Benton: Well, thank you, Miss Deane. You put on a great show, and I congratulate you on your twenty-nine years of highly successful broadcasting. I shall send you a set of the Great Books of the Western World, which I also publish, as a memento of this occasion, to make you more of a reader.

Deane: I really love you. Our guest this morning has been Senator William Benton. His biography is The Lives of William Benton, by Sidney Hyman, and I recommend it to you.

  1. 1

    In the matter of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 59 F.T.C. 24 (1961).

  2. 2

    Hyman, after describing this event, records Benton’s reaction: ” ‘It’s coming too late,’ Benton was heard to murmur on the recognition he was receiving.”

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