I was born in 1939,when my father was 50 years old. That year John Ford’s movie Stagecoach opened at the fabulous Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles. I know my father attended the opening because it was mentioned in the memoirs of George Eastman, who was the head of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce at the time and the man who built the house where I live in Los Angeles.
Daddy had done some of the set drawings for that movie as well as drawings and the promo poster for Steinbeck-Ford’s Grapes of Wrath. By the time I reached memory age, daddy’s Hollywood years were behind him and I had only occasional glimpses of his old ties to that glittering world, usually told to me by other people or visiting actors. There was a kind of renewed interest in the 50’s to use my daddy’s work to promote movies, and hire his expertise of all the historical accoutrements that went along with period pieces of the old west.
He was to draw what was appropriate for the times. Make sketches of the clothes people would wear, utensils they would use, weapons, dogs, mules, horses, powder horns, saddles,trappings — everything a director would need to know and he could draw. He had a sharp eye for detail.
Years later, when I invited him to a house warming in Los Angeles, Burt Lancaster told me a wonderful story of when he was making the movie The Kentuckian, and they were about to shoot a whole scene and daddy came up to Burt and told him they should take a better look because “those telephone lines never existed yet.” Burt said sure enough within camera range there were the tell-tale lines that never would have been noticed. He said daddy had an eye that was uncanny. He could see the broken beer bottle in the blades of long grass in the middle of a field they were about to shoot.
When daddy was doing the promo poster for the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire, Marlon Brando came and stayed with us in Kansas City so that he could pose for daddy, as he wasn’t around when daddy was drawing the others. My mother and I about died when we saw him, the most beautiful young man. A “Greek god,” were my mother’s words. I was also suddenly extremely popular at school, and everyone wanted to come to my house. My father’s take was a good deal cooler, seeing Marlon as achingly self-involved. But Marlon told me that he was one of the actors who heartily approved of daddy doing the poster, while some others really were passionately against it. He even told me who, but he seemed to carry a lot of weight, along with director Elia Kazan. Daddy was hired. I stayed in love with Marlon Brando for the rest of my life. Who wouldn’t? He noticed me, and liked my father.
And we come to my memories of my father and my father as a public figure, maligned with such incredible vitriol by his enemies, and admired and loved by certainly a more quiet public. I knew from a very early age to distinguish between the public and the private persona. And there was a big difference. Publicly, he was an ornery, hard drinking Missouri boy who swore a lot and painted angry controversial paintings, and didn’t give a hoot for culture. This is not who he actually was. I knew that a great deal of the flamboyant, rascally personality was crafted by him on purpose, and all of what he called his “Big Talk” made for great copy in the press.
He liked to stir things up, and he enjoyed being controversial. I think he enjoyed shocking people.It was almost as if it was expected of him. His paintings, as fait accompli, were up for grabs for anyone. But where they came from , inside of him, was not. The ideas were public but not the Soul. That public person who was outspoken, volatile, colorful — much like his paintings — was not all in conflict with the deep, isolated, serenely thoughtful place I was raised from. What people saw as contradictions in him, seemed perfectly normal to me. I was used to the changing moods, the darks and lights of an incredibly energetic and intense mind and heart.
There was an inner world, in the studio,the silent sanctuary where no one was allowed. Growing up, I spent a lot of time there, posing for various portraits, and just being there, drawing on the floor. As a little girl, my own creations, I loved the feeling, the smells and my father’s constant dancing, back and forth, up to the canvas to apply the paint and then back to observe, a soothing rhythm punctuated only by the tinkling sound of the brush as he rinsed it out. We never spoke. It was a living silence. Except for his whistling without sound, just breaths of air coming from his lips making a song without a tune. His eyes would click into different focus, like a hawk’s eye, deliberate and fierce. I would never dare to interrupt, either the silence or the intimacy. I felt privileged to be around him, to be allowed where no one else was.
Every year he would give me a birthday painting. The first one is of me, one-year-old, surrounded by my kitty, wild roses and in the background our beloved Martha’s Vineyard, the sound and Elizabeth Islands. I was born in July, and all the paintings from then on were painted there. Generally, how many objects in the painting coincides with how many years I am. Daddy said I could never lie about my age, but I would have a hell of a collection of paintings. When I was eight, I asked for eight animals coming to my birthday party. I had visions of Walt Disney-like animals, like Bambi, and Thumper and little cute birds. When I saw the painting, I almost cried. The animals seemed frantic and rushing and unhappy, and there was even a mule. I never would have invited a mule to my birthday.
The Vineyard, New England, the East Coast was our happiest world. We didn’t wear shoes or bathing suits. It was a free world that was full of undulating landscapes covered in Queen Anne’s lace, wild roses, hot sand, the ocean, sailboats with red sails and lots of understanding adults, who encouraged individuality. Daddy was a part of our lives there. A more normal life of mowing lawns, picnics on the beach, clamming, fishing and still working in the sacred studio, but he was more available. He was happier there and among friends.
He taught me to tell the truth, never to let go of who you are, believe in socialism, be more than a democrat, play music whenever you can, not to care so much what people think and enjoy what you do.
I could write so much more……when they asked my beautiful late brother what his father had taught him, he said, “He taught me to say Goddammit and how to drink bourbon. He taught us both to love life.”
Jessie Benton was born in Kansas City, Missouri. She was raised on Greek myths and for years thought she might be Persephone. Her house was always full of music and she leaned to sing and play the guitar at an early age. Her first job was singing at the Ocean View Hotel on Martha’s Vineyard. She went to Radcliffe, and then to Italy. In 1966, she joined an extended family and helped put out a magazine called “Avatar.” She has three children, 11 grandchildren and one great grandchild, but feels a part of the lives of so many more. She is a great cook, has designed houses and lived in different parts of the world. She travels with two cats, a little dog and a very handsome and patient husband. She always returns to the Vineyard. She loves to dance.
Editor’s Note: American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood is at PEM through September 7, 2015.