Photograph by Dale Monaghen©
Thomas Hart Benton was both crusty and kind. When I photographed him in 1971 I saw both sides.
Writer Jim Lapham and I visited Tom and wife/business manager Rita at their home and Tom's studio in the Valentine neighborhood. It was one of those houses from Kansas City's earlier days, probably build around 1920. Big fireplaces, cozy surroundings. And paintings. Lots of paintings.
Our Star Magazine editor, Howard Turtle (when he introduced himself he always added "Just like the hard shell kind") loved to recreate stories he had done for the daily paper in the 1950's. Howard, God love 'em, was big on sure things. Thomas Hart Benton was a sure thing. But I looked forward to the assignment, since I always thought Benton's work was pretty cool, and I was always in awe of artists.
We went about shooting the conversational stuff, semi-posed (if there is such a thing) portraits, and before we knew it, noon was upon us and we hadn't yet made any trannys (That's film, 120 BTW) of the man working in his studio.
Rita offered to fix everyone sandwiches for lunch, thereby saving us time and allowing us to start right in again after we ate. Both she and Tom were getting up in years, as the saying goes, and I think they wanted to get us out of there so they could relax.
I followed Rita into the kitchen and asked for a glass of water. She pointed to the glasses cabinet and the sink.
Then she said it was kind of dark in the kitchen, pointing to the burnt-out florescent bulb overhead.
"I really don't like Tom climbing up on ladders" she said, and looked over at me.
Eager to help I blurted out, "I will happy to change the bulb for you," replying to her glance and implication. "Where are the bulbs?"
"Oh, we don't have any the right size. But there is a hardware store right down the street, and by the time you get back, your lunch will be ready."
I was getting the feeling that I had been set up, but didn't mind a bit. At that stage in my checkered career, I was quite capable of becoming star struck. And in my book, Benton was a big star.
Bought the bulb, got back, changed the bulb, had lunch and commenced the color shooting in the studio with Tom.
"OK if I shoot while you work?" I asked him. Some artists are touchy about being photographed while they work, so I always ask first.
"Sure, do anything you want. Just make me look young and handsome again." I babbled something about "character lines," but realized pretty quickly that I was on the wrong path there, so I dropped that subject in mid-sentence. In what I like to think of as my approaching golden (and wrinkled) years, I now understand more fully what he was talking about.
So I got a few images, and looking back at them, I wish I would have lit things differently. In those days we had to put light on just about everything we shot inside in color. But at least I had a record of the man himself at work.
Benton had visited the sideline of a Chief's game in November of 1969 and drew sketches of the players. The end result was a bronze sculpture and a 30"x 40" oil on canvas, both titled "The forward pass." He was making clay sculptures for those two projects when I photographed him that day.
Jim and I packed up and left around 5:00 PM. I carried a bunch more equipment than now, and, darn the luck, left an extension cord at the Benton's.
So that evening I had to return to pick up it up. Tom greeted me at the door, extension cord in hand. In the background I could hear the sounds of animated merrymaking of friends around the fire, glasses tinkling. It was an inviting atmosphere, but I was not asked to join.
Instead, he said "Rita told me you replaced the bulb in the kitchen, and thanks. She also told me you paid for it." And with that he thrust a couple of dollar bills my direction. I waved them off and said something like "Don't worry about it. Glad to be of help."
"I can't have you buying my goddamn lights!" he growled, and once again pushed the money my direction.
Realizing I was irritating him and that we were at a Mexican standoff of sorts, I finally was able to muster "Consider it a gift of appreciation from the Kansas City Star." Apparently that satisfied him, and he closed the door with a snort.
Some Kansas Citians, intimates of Thomas Hart Benton, proudly acclaim to the fact that they were models for some of his paintings and murals. Crosby Kemper, for example, was a favorite. As was Harry Truman and Lyman Field.
But how many, I ask you, can say that they changed the artist's kitchen light bulb so that wife Rita could fix his dinner?
I may be one of the few, the very few, who can lay stake to such a claim...
The Thomas Hart Benton Home is now a museum located at 3616 Belleview, KCMO, and is open to the public. There is a small admission fee. To check tour schedules, call 816-931-5722.
This photograph of the legendary Wes Lyle (more about him later!) photographing Tom Benton at a Kansas City Chiefs game in November, 1969, was created by Dale Monaghen ©, who graciously allowed me to present it here. Benton was doing research for his football mural.
The late Jim Lapham, writer, and Thomas Hart Benton in his studio 1971.
Thomas Hart Benton portrait, 1971. He died in 1975.
Benton at work in his studio on clay sculptures for his bronze "The forward pass." He also created an oil on canvas of the same scene and also titled it "The forward pass."
His studio as it is today.
Tom and Rita.
Tom in the living room.