Jessie Benton, daughter of world-renowned artist Thomas Hart Benton, died surrounded by family in Los Angeles on Feb. 16, at the age of 83. She had been a seasonal resident of Chilmark every year of her life.
Born in Kansas City on July 10, 1939 to Tom and Rita Benton, Jessie was known and beloved by many. Her genius lay not only in music and artistic design, but in forging deep and lasting relationships with young and old alike.
“Her behavior was restless and bold, and her natural incandescence made others pale by comparison,” the actor Peter Coyote wrote of Jessie in his memoir. “There was no comparison to the purity of her voice and the spirit, the artistry, the magic that Jessie had,” according to the late playwright Arthur Kopit.
As a little girl, Jessie spent long hours in her father’s Chilmark studio, where she would curl up on the floor and draw and watch him paint. “I loved the enormous inner silence,” Jessie wrote, “the rhythm of my father moving forward to paint and backward to look, and his funny incessant whistling without whistling.”
Tom Benton created paintings for Jessie as gifts on her birthday. The first is of Jessie, One Year Old, surrounded by her kitty, wild roses, and in the background the Vineyard Sound and Elizabeth Islands. Painting her portrait, she later learned, was “a difficult job, because I never stood still. I had just learned to walk. I could say ‘pretty flower’ and I adored my cat. So he painted me with my favorite things.”
The number of objects in the painting were generally coordinated with Jessie’s birthday year as she grew older. “Daddy said I could never lie about my age, but I would have a helluva collection of paintings,” she would recall. In 1942 came Jessie and Jake, with the family dog. Seven animals came to her seventh birthday (however, she noted, “I would never have invited a mule to my birthday.”) For her tenth was one of Tom’s masterpieces, Butterfly Chaser. In 1957, the birthday painting was Jessie With Guitar.
Tom Benton once wrote: “It was in Martha’s Vineyard that I first really began my intimate study of the American environment and its people.” Jessie reflected years later that, after Tom and Rita came to Chilmark as two of the first residents in the early 1920s, there existed “suddenly the freedom of living in a place where there were no critics, no pressure, and it freed his heart.” When Jessie was a small child, the property remained a mostly treeless landscape of sheep and cow pastures and expansive views: “We could see water all the way to Quitsa.” However, “I was deathly afraid of cows. So I needed to piggyback to the beach every day” — often on the shoulders of family friend and renowned oceanographer Conrad Neumann.
Electricity and running water didn’t come to the neighborhood until well after the end of World War Two. Blackout curtains covered the windows by night, so light from the Benton family’s kerosene lanterns wouldn’t offer a target to offshore German forces.
Every weekend during the war years — “we called them sings” — many musicians would come together at the Chilmark house. Tom played the harmonica, Rita the guitar, and Jessie’s older brother T.P. the flute. In 1942 Decca released a 78-rpm record, “Saturday Night at Tom Benton’s”. Jessie would reflect about her father’s paintings: “The motion of them is musical. They are twisting always, moving, moving, moving. He made paintings that depict folk songs, for instance, that really do look like the song itself.”
She remembered: “Money was scarce during those days and while Daddy painted I fished and searched out berries and other fruit for our meals. There was a sense of belonging to everyone who lived here. I walked from house to house. It didn’t matter which mother would take care of us. We all took care of each other. This feeling of camaraderie did not have anything to do with background or money or who you were or how you were raised. It was as if the Vineyard itself was your calling card.
“My father and mother had so many friends, famous and not, and they stretched through time and interests and cultures. My father moved through the echelons of social worlds with great ease, brought them home and taught me that all men are created equal. Daddy and Jimmy Cagney used to fight about politics, but that did not mean they could not dance and drink and have dinner together. My mother was the kind of woman who gives femininity a good name. She was strong, beautiful, courageous and full of life. What was truly valuable to my mother were someone’s gifts, talents, and a sense of soul.”
So many remarkable people devoted special attention to little Jessie. The novelist Somerset Maugham read her bedtime stories at the age of three. Roger Baldwin, founder of the ACLU, taught her how to ride a bike. Musicologists George Seeger and Alan Lomax brought Jessie her first songbooks. She learned her first song (“She’ll be Comin’ Round the Mountain”) from Pete Seeger’s mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger. The poet Carl Sandburg suggested Jessie take up playing the guitar.
In 1955, Jessie would join Pete performing at the unveiling of Tom’s River Club mural in Kansas City. Two years later, enrolled at Radcliffe College, Jessie began giving concerts and singing on the Harvard radio station at the very beginning of the folk music revival. In January 1957, she appeared singing Elizabethan folk songs in a segment about her father on NBC’s Wide Wide World TV program. In 1959, she played guitar and sang on Edward R. Murrow’s Person to Person interview with her father.
After graduation from Radcliffe, Jessie lived and studied in Italy for a couple of years. Returning in 1962, she and her first husband David Gude gave memorable concerts together at the Mooncusser coffee house in Oak Bluffs. She turned down a lucrative contract to become a star folk singer. “I had grown up surrounded with the music and to me it was a conversation with other people, a sharing of expressions, not a single voice,” Jessie explained.
In 1966 Jessie, a group of musicians and kindred spirits began living together on Fort Hill in Roxbury, an experiment that continues to exist almost six decades later. Her parents supported the community wholeheartedly until their deaths in 1975. “My father 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, don’t care so much what people think, and enjoy what you do.”
With her extended family, Jessie, an avid fisherwoman, involved herself in environmental causes such as a successful effort to restore the striped bass population on the Vineyard and across the Atlantic seaboard. In recent years, she and her husband Richard Guerin designed a beautiful residence, now an eco-hotel called Villa del Faro, along the East Cape of the Baja Mexico peninsula, as well as homes in Boston, Kansas, and Los Angeles.
She is survived by two children with homes on the Island, Anthony Benton Gude and Cybele Benton McCormick, and another daughter Daria Lyman who lives on Cape Cod, as well as by 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Jessie will be irreplaceably missed by the 24 remaining original members of the extended family that her unifying presence held together for so many years. Their own children and grandchildren, and countless friends who came to treasure her hospitality (and marvelous cooking), laughter, and abiding spirit will surely miss her as well. “She felt immortal to me,” one friend wrote upon learning of Jessie’s passing. “I will never forget her infectious smile.”
A private burial ceremony for immediate family and close friends will take place on Martha’s Vineyard.