Solving The Benton Puzzle


Now Henry Adams has traced the roots of Benton’s homophobia—and of the crusty belligerence with which he often greeted his admirers—back to the troubled Missouri boyhood his paintings made appear idyllic.

His father, Maecenas Eason Benton—“M.E.” to his cronies- was a squat, combative, harddrinking populist lawyer who billed himself as the “Little Giant of the Ozarks” and served four noisy terms in Congress. To him, artists were “mincing, bootlicking” pantywaists. “That I should even think of becoming an artist gave him a sense of outrage,” his son remembered. “Such a thing was unthinkable. It would never do for a Benton to descend so low.” Young Tom was meant for politics and the law, like his father and Missouri’s first senator, the swaggering great-uncle after whom the boy was named.

His mother, Lizzie Wise Benton, was eighteen years younger than M.E., a pious, handsome, high-strung woman with lofty social and artistic ambitions who swooned when crossed and came both to loathe her husband’s touch and to scorn his countrified constituents. In Washington the Bentons were known as “Beauty and the Beast.”

Their marriage was soon a war, with young Tom as the prize. “The hopes of both parents,” Adams writes, “were centered on … Tom … Three [other] children were born to the couple … but for both Tom and his parents they were just afterthoughts.” M.E. found he could annoy his wife satisfactorily by taking the boy hunting and fishing and speechmaking among his backwoods friends; his mother got hers back by encouraging young Tom to draw and paint, nurturing the remarkable gift for sketching he first displayed at six.

As well known for his bombast as he was for his art, Thomas Hart Benton reveled in his fame and the headlines it engendered.

The boy came to see all the attention lavished upon him as somehow his due. “Tom was very sure that he was always right,” his sister remembered, “and he was very talkative. At meals, my father would sometimes send him away from the table because he insisted on ‘What I think,’ and ‘What I do,’ and ‘What I will do,’ and it was always, as my father said, ‘I,’ ‘I,’ ‘I.’ My father called him ‘Big I.’”

Torn between his parents, he fought to establish an identity of his own. Always small and slight for his age—as an adult he stood less than five feet three and still sometimes bought his clothes in the boys’ department—he was frequently forced to prove his toughness against small-town boys who ridiculed his girlish hobby and the sissified big-city clothes his mother insisted he wear. “It don’t pay me no mind,” he would say, no matter how hard he was hit.

Lizzie Benton eventually won the war for her son’s loyalty. Tom came to see himself as her protector within the household; he became an artist; and when his parents eventually separated, he sided with his mother. But the battle left lasting scars that dangerously distorted his perception of the world. The father’s contempt for art and artists as somehow unmanly remained stubbornly alive within the son and was further reinforced when Tom discovered that all three of the older men who did the most to encourage him to stick with art in the face of his father’s opposition had been homosexuals. (One of them made a drunken attempt to seduce him while he was still an art student—an event that Benton recounted in The Intimate Story , a fragmentary, unpublished autobiography upon which Adams draws for the first time. The offhand tone in which the artist describes this betrayal is belied by his compulsion to include every harrowing detail; clearly it deeply affected him.)

If M.E. Benton’s boy were ever to feel comfortable in the world his father despised, he had to prove himself utterly different from his fellow artists, to expunge every remotely feminine trait from his own makeup, and to deride anyone else who weakly let his softer side show. “He had a great persona of a hard-drinking tough guy who happened to be an artist…,” his friend the novelist Dan James remembered. “His pride was to be able to drink with anybody and fight with anybody … and so forth. A real he-man .”

There was a good deal that was desperate in that lifelong performance but, newly armed by Henry Adams with the sad facts of Benton’s youth, it is now possible for us to see in the leathery, boastful old man who inhabits our film something of the confused little boy who struggled to find his own way between the contrasting worlds of his mismatched parents.