Benjamin Edward Bensinger, at 56, is kept very busy making millions and millions of dollars. He brought it on himself, having deliberately taken over the Brunswick Corporation and on purpose jumped its net worth from $22 million to more than $200 million, but the fact is, his career as a good old-fashioned sports nut is going to hell. A fine specimen of the breed is rare and to be cherished when come upon, even if he has strayed and taken to working too hard. So let us consider Mr. Bensinger.
He was born in Chicago in 1905, and he and his brother Bob were the fourth generation to enter the family billiard and bowling equipment business. (His own two younger boys, Roger and Peter, are the fifth generation with the company—his oldest boy, Ted, worked for Brunswick for a time, but is now in Beverly Hills, Calif., enigmatically engaged in "investments.") The business was begun unobtrusively by his great-grandfather, John Brunswick, a Swiss cabinetmaker, who obliged a customer by building him a billiard table in 1845. In 1961 his great-grandson is obliging his customers with baseball, softball, golf, tennis, basketball, football, boxing, badminton, track, wrestling, volleyball and soccer equipment, with every kind of hunting and fishing clothing, with ice skates and roller skates, bowling balls and automatic pin-setters, casting reels and spinning reels and runabouts and yachts. And school furniture and hospital equipment. The exact number of items produced by all of Brunswick's divisions has never been calculated, but guesses have ranged as high as 100,000.
The Bensinger family has been socially prominent and well-to-do for generations, but it has been only in the last seven years that the company has operated on any such scale. It had been producing primarily billiard and bowling equipment, and even there had been dragging its feet, until in 1954 B. E. took over from his elder brother Bob and whipped the placid company into a froth. He put MIT Engineer Saul Jacobson in charge of developing an automatic pinsetter in the shortest possible time; the pinsetter achieved and financed by a series of enormous and improbable loans, Brunswick got back into the bowling business in a big way. From there it expanded into other areas, buying up such thriving, sturdy companies as MacGregor Sport Products and Owens Yacht, and it now has arrived at a status more of empire than family business. The whole Brunswick complex as it exists at present is an extension of one man's astounding energy and drive; it is a monument to Bensinger and the American system of business management—and it is interfering with his duck calling.
December 25, 1961
Bensinger rides, hunts and fishes. He has fought bulls on Juan Belmonte's ranch and has run with them in Pamplona. He golfs and plays tennis and skis, shoots billiards, bowls, flies airplanes and, of course, calls ducks. In between, he goes to games to watch other people do things.
"I like things that are challenges," Bensinger said the other day, sitting quietly, as he rarely does, in the bullfight room of his North Shore apartment. "I spent hours and hours with phonograph records, learning how to blow that duck call. I got pretty good at it. I was invited to go to the Stuttgart duck-calling contest," he said, pleased. "About the airplanes," he went on, "during the war the factory in Muskegon, Mich. was doing a lot of defense work. We were building drone aircraft—plywood, twin-engine. We had to hire a lot of new people, and the foremen and superintendents had to know what was going on. So we arranged with the local high school to have classes a few nights a week—classes in fundamentals about planes, building planes, etc. I went originally just to set an example—if the boss doesn't put himself out, who the hell else is going to?—and I got interested and started taking flying lessons in off hours. It was still light at 6 o'clock, and I went after work if I didn't have classes or anything. I went from a single engine to a little more advanced, and a little more advanced, and when I got my license and read a lot of books I went for Link training. "This required getting to Grand Rapids and back in time to start work at 8 a.m. After the single-engine rating, he got his multi-engine rating and qualified for a seaplane rating, and then about 1947 he applied the same thoroughness to dropping the whole thing. "I figured that unless I could fly a couple of hundred hours a year I ought to quit," he said, and he quit.
"When they went fishing," says his boy Peter of B. E. and his friends, "these guys would show up, bank presidents and one thing and another, and Dad would give casting lessons on the lawn." This period is clearly recalled by Mrs. Bensinger as well—in terms of ladders and flies to be extracted from the neighbors' trees.
Linda Bensinger, the former Linda Galston of Woodmere, Long Island, N.Y., is a woman triumphantly more beautiful as a grandmother of six than her pictures show her to have been as a girl. For a woman who has said restrainedly, "I don't really have to sit for 99 years fishing in a boat," and who is inclined to look wistfully over her shoulder at a nightclub as she's being borne away into the Canadian wilds, she has held up splendidly under the 33 years of her marriage. She went skiing and caught cold on her honeymoon, and motherhood found her regularly in the stands at Wrigley Field next to B. E., the children on their laps, watching the Bears. "She was sort of a widow during certain seasons," as Roger puts it—certainly the duck-and goose-hunting seasons. B. E. has fished this hemisphere from the Chilean Andes to Alaska and spot-fished the rest of the world. Big game hunting has never been his passion; his particular fondness is for birds. "I love to shoot birds. I love to just see birds," he says, and with his cronies he used to disappear regularly into Canada for goose and duck.
"They were dirt-and-shovel, dig-your-own-pit trips," Roger recalls. "They would fill up the station wagon with stuff and go. They were very portable, and they moved. They would get in the car early in the morning and sight a flight of geese, and then they'd try to figure out where the geese would be the next day. They'd make their pits and camouflage them and hope the geese would be there in the morning. I remember one year they had a chauffeur and took a pneumatic drill to dig the pits."
"That was my father's chauffeur," B. E. explained. "He's retired now—he loved everything about hunting, so he used to go with us." As for the drill, that made its appearance fairly late in the game. "It's all right when you're young, you can knock yourself out digging through it, but that ground is frozen solid after you get down two or three feet. It never thaws. And the fun was fooling the geese and making a perfect pit. I used to really love it. I remember the first time I took Roger duck hunting—I wasn't sure he'd like it. I had a portable radio with me, to hear some football games. It happened to be a good day, and the ducks came in so beautifully that I got all excited and dropped the Zenith worldwide gadget off my lap and into the marsh. But Roger got some ducks, and he loved it."
B. E. introduced all the boys to sport early (if one may put it so passively). They were, Roger says, weaned on the Bears, and a Chicago pro basketball team called the Gears. When school was out, B. E. took them hunting and fishing—to Canada, to Acapulco, Miami and the Bahamas. When school was in, he was there, watching their football games, basketball games, track and tennis meets. "He was interested—and demanding," Roger says. "He wasn't overly complimentary about what I was doing, but he was always there, and that means a lot to a boy."
Bensinger's own father had traveled a great deal when B. E. was young, and took B. E. with him. "I can remember catching Forellen near Baden-Baden when I was 5," Bensinger said, lighting a cigarette, "and I used to go with my mother and listen to band concerts all over Germany. I did develop a fondness for music, although I'm tone-deaf. I try to play the piano, and I played the mandolin and the banjo—very badly." ("He knows opera," his wife says happily. "All the other wives have trouble getting their husbands to go to the opera. Not me, and he tells me all the stories and sounds like Damon Runyon.") Also, when he was a little boy he underwent six weeks of being taken every day for four or six hours to the Louvre. He claims to be unscarred by this cultural advantage, but Roger observes that on a family tour of Europe in 1950 his father got through the Louvre at a sort of dead run, "and I was right behind him."
In the days before Brunswick mushroomed, Bensinger had been free to take his own boys on a number of extended trips, and this European tour of 1950 is remembered as the best of them. Bensinger packed the family into a big Lincoln and drove them everywhere to do everything; no cathedral in Europe, Peter says, has gone unsightseen. Linda had done a massive job of organizing that held up until they got to Spain, where it, and Linda and Mr. Travelletti, the travel agent, underwent something of a strain. "When we got to Spain," Peter recalls, "Mr. Travelletti had to make so many changes in our hotel space he nearly went out of his mind. Dad would say there's a better bullfight here, or there, and we'd have to go." Before the boys' first bullfight B. E. had insisted that they know what they would be watching. They read and read—of course, Death in the Afternoon from cover to cover—with the result that both younger boys went berserk from the first. They went to the apartado at 12 and were late for lunch. They went to bullfights, they took movies, they met bullfighters and went up to their hotel rooms. "Belmonte's a quiet, courteous man," Roger says. "Charming. And Ordó√±ez is very quiet. But Dominguín! Flash! Really a flashy guy. I remember seeing him before he went out to fight a bull—he would straighten his jacket and his eyebrows." Roger pulled at his lapels and straightened his eyebrows, and there it was—a very flashy guy. "We spent the next whole summer doing nothing but going to bullfights. Peter was really crazy about it—we had to keep an eye on him or he would have been an espontàneo [i.e., a spontaneous or volunteer torero] and jumped into the ring. The Spanish newspapers mentioned him, the possible new North American torero, and all that. We used to practice. We bought capes and we bought banderillas, we looked in the mirror and studied angles, and every night we practiced passes. It was all a little hard on Mother," he added thoughtfully.
Linda just did what she always does about this sort of thing. She had a party. She loves to have parties. Her answer to B.E.'s hunting trips was, for example, to give the Duck Hunters' Ball, for which she decorated the Conrad Hilton in Chicago as a field. For the bullfight party she had an arena built on the lawn, got a band to play proper bullfight music and put a friend of Peter's into a bull costume. Bensinger, Roger and Peter got to be matadors, and a splendid picture of them in their suits of lights commemorates the occasion in the bullfight room. There were the Decoration Day parties, to which everyone brought something (Dr. Ralph Bettman once brought a cow, under the heading of beverages). There was the trout-fishing party, for which the swimming pool was filled with trout. No guest caught anything—Linda later decided the fish had been too recently fed—and the next morning, about 6, Peter and Roger sneaked out of the house and cleaned up.
The most marvelous party, however, was for Roger's sixth birthday. Evenings the boys used to gather around the radio and submerge themselves in the doings of The Lone Ranger. Just before the birthday Linda said to Roger, "Why don't you write to station WGN and send an invitation to your party to The Lone Ranger?" and Roger did, with what degree of confidence is not recorded. Came the birthday, the children were sitting in a circle in the yard, and with a thunder of hooves and cries of, "There's work to be done in the canyon!" who comes crashing through the bushes? B.E. Bensinger and Seymour Oppenheimer, that's who, though the boys actually did not know it until years later. "His suit was white suede, and he had guns and a mask and everything—it was gorgeous!" Linda says. Bensinger is tall and dark, an enormously handsome man; his white stallion reared and pranced and, as Peter recalls, "We were all petrified." Perhaps this prevented their observing critically that Tonto had a mustache. ("Tonto doesn't have a mustache," Linda had protested, but their friend Seymour Oppenheimer had said firmly that, well, this afternoon he would.) The Lone Ranger invited everyone to come up and ride with him, but the invitation was declined with terror by all but one little girl, and eventually Roger. It was a pretty dashing party, and one of the pleasantest recollections is probably Peter's, of his father's habit of coming home from work to listen to The Lone Ranger with them. Actually, he was boning up on his part—what caves The Lone Ranger and Tonto had been frequenting, and whom they were saving from what. It was in point of fact more a sort of homework for B.E. than the shared passion Peter recalls.
The Bensinger house in Highland Park where the boys grew up is described as Georgian, but it strikes one first as pure house. It is gracious and ample, ivy-covered and lived-in until furniture and carpets and wallpaper bespeak their quality by stoutly remaining this side of the shabbiness to which the Bensinger exuberance would have reduced anything but excellence. The upstairs sitting room seems filled with chintzes and curios, glass birds and antique dolls, an old writing desk and a modern telephone stand, a motley assortment of pictures and great warmth. Down the hall is the Bensingers' bedroom, overlooking the pool and the ravine, windows all the way around so that with the shades up it has the air of a sleeping porch. The boys' rooms have been done over. Teddy's is a nursery for the grandchildren, and the walls of what was Peter and Roger's have been painted white instead of the philosophical beige of the days when the boys bounced basketballs off them. The bookshelves remain intact: one finds Doctor Dolittle, the Oz books, Moby Dick and Arabian Nights. And Jules Verne, Robinson Crusoe, Andersen and Grimm, the Just So Stories and the Jungle Books. In the attic there are the built-in cedar closets full of hunting clothes and equipment. There are old ice skates hanging on nails, and boxes marked "Boxing Gloves" and several pairs of crutches. There are Lake Shore Country Club cups immortalizing swimming and tennis triumphs, and the magnificent Gin and Tennis Club Trophy. (The Gin and Tennis Club was begun by Linda and B.E., and involved gin and tennis. The trophy was contended for on the Bensinger court.) It is a steel mixing bowl, with the Gin and Tennis Club emblem, crossed racket and gin bottle, and the names of champions from 1938 to 1950 all emblazoned in red, green or white paint.
There are boxes of costumes, and boxes that say, "Red Christmas Smock," "Old Curtains," "Red, White and Blue Bunting and Silver Bell," "Mr. B. Old Fashion Bathing Suit" ("It's really his bathing suit," Roger's wife says), "Red Devil Hallowe'en Costume," "Royal Blue Feather Boa," "Red Cross Production Uniform," "Orange Goat—Maribou," and "Wedding Dress, Nightgown and Wedding Shoes." There are cribs and a dress form, and a closet with "Butler's Short Coats On This Side" and "All Ted's Summer Suits, October 1951." And an old steel Zeppelin two feet long and pictures of cowboys and cactus on the walls, proclaimed in a very youthful hand to be the work of "Peter B."
Outside, the tennis court lies along the cutting gardens, almost facing the kennels, where the retrievers, old Star and young Taffy and Amber, look out at even a stranger, hopeful of action. They haven't got a chance. B.E. isn't going to get in much hunting this year. He may get up to his lodge on his own seven miles of the Restigouche (to which Linda has enthusiastically relegated the deer heads, moose heads, birds and fish of 30 years) for salmon but, for the most part, he will just go on keeping too busy.
Bensinger claims he will retire at 60. If he doesn't, he will at 65, and by that time at least five grandsons will be ripe. The great outdoors would do well to be resting up.