Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Bennett’s Beauties: A Father’s Legacy

Murder’s Little Helper, by “George Bagby,” aka Aaron Marc Stein (Pocket Cardinal, 1964), with cover art by Harry Bennett.

Over the course of 43 posts, running from early December 2017 through the opening week of 2018, Killer Covers celebrated the remarkable career of American artist and illustrator Harry Bennett (May 15, 1919-November 29, 2012). I’d been thinking for some while before then of how best to honor Bennett, whose paintings for vintage paperback covers I have long admired, and decided that an ideal kickoff for such a tribute would be the fifth anniversary of his death at age 93. Yet as I promised on the concluding day of that series, my interest in Bennett was not yet exhausted.

Amid the month-long presentation of posts, I began an e-mail interview with Bennett’s youngest son, Tom—an artist himself—who I had found by way of his personal page on Flickr. Although I’d hoped our exchange could become part of the original Killer Covers salute to his father, it just wasn’t possible: Tom Bennett and I were still going back and forth with questions and responses weeks after the series finished. Only now am I able to present the results of our online conversation—the first of three Bennett posts I have planned for Killer Covers this week.

(Right) Harry Bennett, busy in his studio.

The youngest of Harry Bennett’s five children, at 58 years old, Thomas Bennett is a painter, printmaker, and illustrator currently living and working in Brooklyn, New York. “I always wanted to be an artist,” he has said, “my oldest recollections are of time spent in the studio painting alongside my dad. I wanted to be him and he taught me how to paint without imposing any style on me.” Tom went on to study art in college and then, after “a short stint as a cab driver,” he moved to Europe and settled into an apartment near the beaches in historic Barcelona, Spain. There he painted and was able to take part in group shows with fellow artists. Later in the 1980s he returned to the States, and married in the late ’90s. Albums of his beautifully expressive artistry—oils, monotypes, ink-and-pencil illustrations, and more—can be enjoyed here. He also maintains a blog, Tom Bennett Art, filled with his sketches, prints, and photographs.

Over the course of my interview, I asked Tom about Harry Bennett’s personal history and education, his move from commercial work to paperback illustrations, his preferred painting techniques, his favorite softcover book publishers, and his ultimate retirement and declining health in old age. I was also curious to know which of his father’s thousands of book covers Tom Bennett likes best.

J. Kingston Pierce: Your dad never knew his own father, who had passed away from the Spanish flu before he was even born. Was it in 1918 or ’19 that Harry Bennett Sr. died? And how did it affect your dad, growing up fatherless that way?

Tom Bennett: It was 1918, from the worldwide epidemic. He was raised by his mother, Anna Karlsson Bennett, who never married again. My father was the youngest of three children. He had two older sisters. He grew up looking for father figures in his extended family; his sister’s husband, Olinto Carboni, became that surrogate brother/father.

JKP: And your dad’s mother was a Swedish immigrant?

TB: She was born in Kalmar, Sweden, to a poor farming family and emigrated alone to New York City early in the 20th century.

JKP: What was your father like growing up in Ridgefield, Connecticut? Did he share any interesting childhood memories with you?

TB: His stories of his youth in Ridgefield and his subsequent experiences in the service during World War II were fascinating. He spent his early childhood kept from physical activity, because the family doctor told his mother his heart couldn’t take the stress (my dad had been born with a heart murmur). That all changed when, as a young adolescent, he discovered basketball and became a champion player in high school.

He joined the Army in 1940 to put in his required one year in the service, and was about to be discharged when [the December 1941 attack on] Pearl Harbor happened. He then went to officers’ training school and became an intelligence officer in the South Pacific for the next four years. He saw many horrible things.

(Left) Tom Bennett

JKP: It’s not clear from his obituary in Connecticut’s Ridgefield Press what exactly your dad did in the South Pacific. It says, “Bennett was a veteran of the Hollandia operation, in which Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s forces cut off the entire Japanese 18th Army, and in which Major Bennett himself won the Bronze Star." Do you know in what particular capacity your dad participated in that operation? Did he tell you specifically what act of bravery won him the decoration?

TB: All I know is his work as an intelligence officer helped gather the necessary intel/reconnaissance to thwart an attack, saving the lives of hundreds if not thousands of soldiers. Hence the Bronze Star.

JKP: Your father wed your mother in 1945, after he returned from the war. Had she also grown up in Ridgefield? What was your mother’s full maiden name? And do you know how she and your dad met, or the circumstances of their deciding to get married?

TB: My mother was born Margaret Mary Shean on January 12, 1921, in West Hartford, Connecticut, the second of eight children. My grandfather was a top executive at the Fuller Brush Company; they were very well off. The family moved to Woodbury, Connecticut, when my mom was in middle school. She was a senior at Woodbury High School when my grandparents moved the family to Ridgefield in 1939.

My father was working at a grocery store, when one day my mother walked in—and it was love at first sight for him. She was a very beautiful young woman. He finagled a way around all the other guys lining up to get a date with her, and the rest is history. Before the war, she and my father would borrow someone’s car and drive to Bridgeport, New Haven, New York state, and down to the Cotton Club in Harlem to dance the jitterbug. My dad was an excellent dancer. He asked her to marry him before he went off to war, but my grandfather refused to allow them to get married before he came back. He didn’t want his daughter to be a widow.

JKP: Is your mother still around?

TB: My mother passed away at the age of 96 on October 24, 2017.

JKP: Did your dad demonstrate an aptitude for art early on, or was that an interest that arose later in his life?

TB: My father started drawing at a young age and had an aptitude for comic and humorous styles. He even worked for a color-separation company in Stamford which was responsible for comic books at the time, in the late 1930s. He told me a story once that he was there when they brought in the original art for the very first Superman cover, dated 1939 or 1940. He was blown away by the art.

JKP: Is it true that your mother encouraged your dad to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the American Academy of Art in that same city? Does that mean he was away in Chicago by himself for two years, or did your mother go with him?

TB: Yes, she did [go with him]. She had initially encouraged him to go to Yale [to study] fine art on his G.I. Bill. My father was very practical, though, and chose to study illustration in Chicago in order to provide for a potential family. He attended the Art Institute to study painting as well.

JKP: What was your mother doing while your dad was studying?

TB: My parents had just gotten married and lived in Chicago in a one-room apartment, with a Murphy bed and his drawing table. My oldest sister, Debbie, was born in 1947 and my mother stayed home in that cramped apartment while my father was at school during the days.

JKP: After graduating, your father started working as a commercial artist, illustrating advertisements for companies such as Buick and Pepsi-Cola. Was he employed by an agency, or was he freelancing?

TB: He got a position in a commercial art studio in New York City called Berman Studio. He was there for a few years before he went freelance. One of the other artists with him in the stable was Al Hirschfeld.

JKP: So at what point did he begin freelancing out of his home on Main Street, in Ridgefield?

TB: We moved to the Main Street house in the early ’60s. My dad bought it from my grandfather, my mother’s father. Prior to that he was in Stamford, Connecticut, and at two other addresses in Ridgefield.

JKP: And when, exactly, did he start doing book-cover art? Was it at the same time he was working on ads?

TB: He was tiring of the ad business and its deadlines, so he took some advice and put together a portfolio of book-cover art and started that career in the mid-’50s, while he was still doing advertising and magazine story art. My mother was his first “rep,” so to speak, and brought his portfolio to publishing houses in New York and got him his first book covers.

JKP: When did he make book-cover art his main occupation?

TB: Around 1957 or so.

JKP: In what years were you and your siblings born?

TB: My sister Debbie was born in Chicago in 1947; next was my sister Pam and brother Harry Jr. in Stamford, in 1949 and 1950, respectively. My brother Mike was born in Ridgefield in 1954, and I came along finally in Ridgefield in 1959.

JKP: As a boy, did you spend much time watching your father work, or did he prefer to paint in solitude?

TB: He allowed me the privilege to hang out in his studio at times starting at age 2. I’d watch him work as I drew constantly. It was a great experience.

JKP: Did your dad encourage you and your siblings toward artistic pursuits? Am I correct that you aren’t the only artist in your immediate family nowadays?

TB: My oldest sister, Debbie, showed great talent and interest in art and he encouraged her as a child. She ended up studying in Florence, Italy.

JKP: You describe yourself, on Flickr, as a “painter, printmaker, and illustrator.” Can you sketch your career out a bit more fully?

TB: I received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in painting from the University of Connecticut and realized I wanted to try to support myself as an illustrator as well. I have had a career as a gallery artist, showing in one-man shows and group shows throughout the country and in Europe; I have supplemented my income [with work] as a commercial and film storyboard artist. My second major medium, next to painting, is the monotype.

JKP: Did your father paint in more than one medium, or did he particularly favor, say, oil paint over watercolors? And did his preferences change as his career evolved?

TB: My father had a great facility with mediums, and he experimented and adapted to new trends with different techniques. His favorite medium above all, in both his painting and illustration, was oil. He also worked extensively in egg tempera, inks, and various combinations of tempera and oil. In the 1950s and early ’60s he worked a great deal in water-based media like gouache. Later, he would occasionally work in acrylic. But late in his career, it was almost exclusively oil with a black oil medium.

JKP: Your dad applied a wide range of artistic styles to his book fronts. How would you characterize his efforts in that field?

TB: He had a wonderful facility and great design sense. His tendency was to throw a bit of expressionist power into his work, though often the publishers were much too conservative for that.

JKP: I understand your dad used his neighbors and friends as models for his art. Did he also employ professional models?

TB: He did employ professionals in the ’50s. One of his early models was Ellen Burstyn, who later became an Academy Award-winning actress.

JKP: Did he have favorite models, who appeared on multiple covers? And did your mother model for him often?

TB: He did have favorite models. My mother modeled for him in the early days; my brothers and sisters and I did, as well, in the ’60s and ’70s. I last modeled for a book cover for him in the early ’80’s.

JKP: Can you venture a guess as to how many book covers Harry Bennett painted? And were they all for paperback editions?

TB: He created possibly over 3,000 covers. He also did … a great [three-volume] edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy in 1966. That was his masterpiece at the time, a Washington Square Press edition translated by Louis Biancolli. [See the books and art here.]

JKP: Do you have favorites among your father’s book fronts?

TB: I have many [favorites]. Among them are Fertig [by Sol Yurick, Pocket, 1967], The Godfather [by Mario Puzo, Fawcett Crest, 1970], God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater [by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Dell, 1966], and many of his Gothics from the ’60s. But too many to really get into.

JKP: What were your father’s work habits?

TB: He had a strong work ethic and self-drive. His discipline was formidable and he always had a set routine. He spent hours and hours in his home studio, taking breaks for lunch and dinner, etc. But he always made time for his family.

JKP: Can I assume your dad did not read all of the books for which he created cover art, that he instead worked from plot and character descriptions supplied by the publishers?

TB: My mother, early on, would read the books and give him a synopsis. Later, the publishers would give him the synopsis. Many of the books were unreadable, in my opinion.

JKP: Did you father have favorite publishers for which he worked?

TB: His favorites were Pocket Books (with Simon & Schuster), Avon, and Fawcett Crest.

JKP: After he retired in 1986, your parents headed west to Oregon, finally taking up residence in Astoria, a town at the mouth of the Columbia River. Why did they go out there?

TB: My father sold the house in Ridgefield in ’86 and took off alone across the country in an old van he outfitted for living and painting from. He had waited for 40 years to just paint, so he did. He ended up in Oregon and loved it. Later on he invited my mother out to live. He painted and showed in Oregon, and I showed with him in several two-man shows and group shows in Astoria and Portland.

JKP: How did your dad’s painting style change in his retirement?

TB: He had to shake off the illustrative and realist habits at first,
but he ended up finding his expressionist voice. He discovered [Chaïm] Soutine, the French 19-century painter, whose work became a huge influence on his later painting.

Above and below are two of Harry Bennett’s post-retirement paintings. The one on top carries the name “Blue Shoes,” while the canvas below is titled simply “East Basin.”

JKP: Your parents moved back east again in 2008, to Maryland, to stay with daughter Pamela in Towson. What provoked that relocation? Had your father’s health declined?

TB: Both of my parents’ health had declined. They were in their late 80s and my father started to lose his memory. He quit painting in 2008. I would rouse him to paint with me on occasion, and he would draw as much as he could, but his drive to make art just dropped. He accepted that.

JKP: Looking back on your father now, what were the qualities you admire most about him as an artist and as a man?

TB: He was a very kind, yet strong, self-aware person. His determination to work and create was unparalleled. His innate and learned sense of design, drawing, color, and mastery of mediums was amazing. He would make his own paint, mediums, gesso, supports, etc. He had a great sense of love for individuals, and was the driving support and influence in my life as a man and as an artist. I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with him in his last few years, and I made sure he knew how much he was loved by me and his family and friends.

JKP: Finally, do you have any of your father’s art in your home?

TB: Yes, I have quite a few of his paintings and drawings. My siblings do as well. We also all share a number of [examples of] his book-cover art, many on canvas, mostly on gessoed board.

* * *

One thing I forgot to ask Tom Bennett was where his father’s grave might be found. However, he eventually volunteered that information, informing me after our official exchange was concluded that “My family will be holding a memorial service for my late mother and her ashes will be interred next to my father at the Fairlawn Cemetery in Ridgefield on Saturday, May 12, at noon.” It’s in that same historic burial ground, by the way, where the gravestone marking the last resting place Harry Bennett’s father and mother can be found.

UP NEXT: The first of two Bennett cover galleries.


Tom Bennett said...

Wonderfully created and edited interview. thank you.

Todd Bliss said...

Wonderful read, Tom. Even though we are family, this brings wonderful insight into Uncle Harry.

=jack said...

An amazing artist and a wonderful citizen of Ridgefield, Connecticut!

Evelyn Redmond said...

This is a wonderful read....I've had many questions about Mr. Bennett & his career since I have in my possession an oil painting he gifted to my dad, John Tulipani, who was his plumber in Ridgefield. Thank you for this interview, and thank you, Tom Bennett for such a wonderful history of your dad's life and career.

Evelyn Tulipani Redmond
Goffstown, New Hampshire