Father figure


Thomas Hart Benton. Photo by Carl Van Vechten and courtesy of Wikipedia

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.


Thomas Hart Benton, Hollywood, 1937-38. Tempera with oil on canvas, mounted on board, 56 x 84 in. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Bequest of the artist. Photo by Jamison Miller. © Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

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.

Lewis and Clark at Eagle Creek

Thomas Hart Benton, Lewis and Clark at Eagle Creek, 1967. Polymer and tempera on Masonite panel, 30 1/2 x 38 in Courtesy of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indianapolis, Indiana. © Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

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.


Thomas Hart Benton, The Kentuckian, 1954. Oil on canvas, 76 1/8 x 60 3/8 in. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of Burt Lancaster. Photo courtesy f LACMA. © Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

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.

Thursday Night at the Cock and Bull

Thomas Hart Benton, Thursday Night at the Cock-and-Bull. It’s the Maid’s Night Out, 1937. Ink, watercolor, gouache, and graphite on paper, 12 5/8 x 16 3/4 in. Private collection. Photo by Larry Ferguson Studio. © Benton Testamentary Trusts/ UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

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.


Thomas Hart Benton, Self Portrait With Rita, about 1924. Oil on canvas, 49 x 39 3/8 in. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/Art Resource, NY. © Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

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.”


Courtesy photo

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.


  1. KAY says:

    So enjoyed seeing Benton through the eyes of his daughter. Being a Missouri girl I’ve always loved his work and vividly remember seeing his powerful mural in our state capitol for the first time when I was a child.

  2. susan saccoccia says:

    What a refreshing and delightful introduction to this artist as a person by his daughter,

  3. Christine Burke says:

    Love this. Such great memories. My father had gone to your home to drop something off and your father invited him in for tea. Unfortunately my father declined. I really enjoy your fathers art pieces. Wish I had a chance to meet him. Thanks for sharing your story

  4. JGarcia says:

    I am an art teacher, and take my students to the Benton home every year. I have come to know some of these stories, but it’s great to hear them directly. I loved reading this, and while doing so, kept thinking of the Baroque style window paintings at the front entry of the home which were created by Jessie when she was maybe 12? Thanks for sharing!

  5. Jesse, it was great to read this and to hear such touching reflectins. I do not think we have ever met. I grew up in Roanoke and like many admired and loved Tom and Rita as neighbors. I took out the trash, cleaned and helped around the house in their last years. From finding lost prints anongst the piles in his studio , to being admonished for rakeing the yard, to cleaning the basement with Rita and watching TV with her after Tom died they had effected me greatly. In ways your mother as much if not more than Tom.
    My parents purchased some of litho’s of Tom’s. When my parents died we received them. Now, and for the last 28 years, we have lived in Maine and raised a strong family. In away those prints have foretold our lives here. I would love to connect some time.

  6. Annie Nikbakht says:

    Asked by our Art of Poetry group in Hickory, NC to comment on certain paintings/lithos, etc
    I was so moved by your father’s lithograph entitled “Homeward Bound(The Race) 1942 – so glad to find a living relative with whom to share my poem. Thanks for sharing your comments about your childhood memories of your special Father. annie

    “Give me speed like a race horse to run life’s event
    With ears back and nose forward
    Let me take in all the sights and sounds
    Like a dark horse coming out of nowhere
    Let me win the well-deserved trophy
    Give me speed like a race horse to run life’s event
    Before I’m put out to pasture “

  7. Stephany Tiernan says:

    Dear Jesse,

    I spent many years accompanying your dear brother on piano and harpsichord and making weekly recordings in his basement studio. I heard weekly stories about his life and family and boat and much more. He was a dear friend. Do you know what became of all those recordings?

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