Tom Benton – an Aspen icon, a huge talent and a dear friend
Some people have bad luck thrust on them, and some seem to seek it out. In Tom Benton’s life, I think there may have been a little bit of both. To me he seemed to be so on top of things for so long that I could never imagine him otherwise. But when things started to come apart, it just seemed to snowball, until there were times when it felt like he almost reveled in it. Maybe that was the best response to the chaos of the universe.Tom was incredibly talented, bright and warm, the kind of person you counted on, or at least I did, to always be wise and just. And I think he always was with everyone, except himself. There were demons there of course. When aren’t there? I think he brought most of them with him to Aspen, from somewhere deep in his southern California childhood. They included liberal doses of Catholic guilt and some inevitable relationship psychoses, inflamed by substance issues. A modern diagnosis, in other words, the malady for our times, and it doesn’t sit well on most gentle souls. That was the case for Tom who, later in his life, seemed to believe he had let people down. Himself, mostly. And that’s not something you just shake off. It was a shame to me, because I always considered him one of the greatest people I ever knew – accomplished and compassionate and someone beyond the possibility of being less. I never knew anyone who thought otherwise about him and couldn’t understand why he did. It’s probably wrong to try to say where the apogee of any individual’s personal arc in life occurs. But for me, what Tom’s great friend Hunter Thompson called “the high-water mark” of Aspen’s recent history happened not long after I first moved here in 1967. So I tend to ascribe Benton’s own peak to that era, when he trod the terra in a major way. Tom’s art gallery in downtown Aspen was the center of everything then, the rallying point for a whole new world and the artistic salon for a town more cutting-edge, involved and radical than anywhere else in the country between Ann Arbor and Berkeley. Much of what Hunter Thompson would go on to achieve, believe and claim, originated there. It was a nexus of connections and interactions with far-reaching import and consequences, where the Alternative Aspen was constantly being discussed, remodeled and reborn, where the End of War gestated, where politics met art with a vengeance, where an important part of Aspen and this valley felt at home, free to create, debate and dream.The Bentons let anyone hang out, even naïve young kids, and you just knew that important things were going on before you ever went through the door. It wasn’t only politics, in a time when politics still mattered and we still thought we could change the world. It was art and humor and joy and a sense of life as a matter of infinite possibilities, most of them good. Betty and Tom and the kids made sure you knew you were part of the family, that the door was always open and you and your ideas were welcome and that what mattered to you mattered to them.I know that my life changed, powerfully and for the better, just by going in that door the first time. And of course that was significant to me, but what I think was most important was that it was the same for lots of people, whether they were just visitors walking into a strange gallery, or longtime friends in need of refuge, or politicians, looking not just for someone to create posters for their campaign, but for advice, support and a blessing from the only person in that realm who really mattered to many of us.The gallery itself was a surprise in an age when the few that existed here featured mostly photography of aspen leaves and the Maroon Bells, ski posters and pen-and-inks by local art students. The building alone, designed and built by Benton (an architect by training), was unique, a clean and sharp blend of wood and cinder block that really competed with his work for your attention. Tom was the kind of guy who would create everything he needed – not just a home but work tables, storage cupboards, hanging planters, benches, chairs, everything – and it would all be original, elegantly simple and beautiful. They were works of art themselves, that he always thought of as just necessities, whipped up at a moment’s notice and disposed of without ceremony when he was done with them. He could have gotten rich designing buildings, furniture, accessories, almost anything, probably, but he wanted to produce art and he did. Great art that far transcended his reputation as a political-poster maker, a kind of Peter Max with actual talent, meaning and a conscience. Whether working in very difficult, multiple-color serigraphs with a touch unequaled anywhere for its precision, form and complex renderings, or his exquisite free-form screen paintings that were unlike anything before or since, Tom poured heart and soul into everything he did. And he was so prodigiously productive as to be both scary and an inspiration to those of us sometimes too busy living to get much else done, let alone imagine how anyone with as full a life as Tom’s could ever find the time to do it all.It was a heady atmosphere and an example for someone like me, but the real importance was that it was the same for people who mattered. I saw the most brilliant minds of our valley come to Tom seeking the same things I did: ideas, feedback, interaction, fire and wisdom. And he never, ever let it go to his head or copped attitude or acted like you were out of your league, even though I always was.As our friend Monty Chitty remarked to me recently, “I never saw Tom trade on his friendship with Hunter. I always admired him because he never talked about him, never had to let you know how well he knew Hunter.” I will always believe in my heart that of everyone who knew Hunter, Tom was his closest friend for almost 40 years. I think that was because Tom didn’t need anything from Hunter, but Hunter always needed something from Tom. Not in a greedy way, but in the way of true friendship, where you look for knowledge, companionship and understanding. Not to mention that I think Hunter lifted some of his best ideas and his clearest thinking from his good friend, and freely admitted it. We all did.The hard part was not being able to give back on the same level when Tom could have used it the most. But Benton never complained, never asked for help, never blamed anyone else for anything and never let you know about his personal disappointments, his artistic frustrations, his deep longings. If he really was dogged by a persistent bad luck streak, I think he thought he brought it on himself.When he told the story of buying himself a Porsche tub, the James Dean car, after he got out of the Navy, and within days watching a sandstorm in Nevada strip its paint down to the metal and permanently pit all the glass, it was with a huge grin and nothing but laughter, even though he had spent all his money on it and had no insurance. When he made what turned out to be bad choices, if he discussed them at all, it was with a fatalistic smile and a calm that never betrayed the acute losses he carried in his core. When some slimeball money manager bilked Tom and his second wife Katy out of most of their money, Tom would have gleefully killed him. But not given that option, what he did was blame himself instead, taking it as his own karma and bad management.When Tom was offered the world (an international art poster company once wanted to market his work worldwide for big money), and turned it down to keep his integrity (they wanted him to go more pastel with his colors), he did it with the kind of shrug and chuckle that let you know he thought he was being stupid again. Not setting the stage for some point of strutting honor you’d get tired of hearing about, but just doing what he had to, letting it go and moving on.It was always amazingly classy and worthy of imitation, but almost impossible to pull off. If I could have lived my life like that, I would have taken great pride in it, but I was never up to the task. I’m not sure, in the end, that he was either, but it was a noble road to take. I called and talked to him at the hospital in Denver when I heard how sick he was. It turned out to be just a few days before he died. He was distressed, in his inimitable way, that they said he was getting better. He was on dialysis for failing kidneys and seemed to be recovering from that. But he said, “I think they’re forgetting about the lymphoma.” He told me that Marci was holding up pretty well. “She still wants me to live,” he laughed sadly. And when I said, lamely as always, that I wished there was something I could do, he said there was. “Pray for me to die, Jay.” He repeated it several more times during our conversation and it wasn’t just fatigue and painkillers talking.I knew he knew how sick he was, and that he wasn’t going to get better. And I’m not, alas, above being able to wish for the deaths of some people in this world. But he certainly wasn’t one of them. For my own selfish reasons I hoped he’d stage a miraculous recovery, so that I’d be able to see him again, to talk, to reminisce and make believe it was some alternate universe where no one dies, where the past, no matter how glorious, is always just a warm-up for the best that’s yet to come, where we can all be young and strong and lucky forever.I’m not that big on prayer anyway, so I let him down once again. All I could choke out was how much he meant to me, how he had two incredible kids and a woman who loved him. “And a lot of friends who do, too,” I added.”Ah, Jay, most of them are dead already,” he sighed. The best I could come up with was, “Christ, Tom, it’s getting lonely out here.” With so many good people leaving, it really is. And I wish him what he always wished the world: Peace, Now.Jay Cowan is editor of Aspen Sojourner magazine, author of “Best Of The Alps” and a longtime contributing editor at Ski magazine.
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