Of the publishing of book sets—including that perennial money-maker, Eliot's Five-Foot Shelf—there was no end.
The Britannica, since Benton had taken it over from Sears right after Pearl Harbor, by the middle of 1943 was beginning to produce what would soon be fabulous profits. Benton was looking for new ventures, primarily in publishing, and picked up Compton's Picture Encyclopaedia and the dictionary-rich Merriam-Webster Company. But the publishing business wasn't big enough to hold him. He staked his friend Bill Joyce to five thousand dollars on the latter's bet that shoes could be made in Los Angeles, and wound up partners of the five-million-dollars-a-year Joyce Shoe Company. He had considerable taste in art and left a significant collection of American paintings, having launched Reginald Marsh. As a young ad man he invented one musical abomination, the singing commercial on radio; as a seasoned entrepreneur he got in (and out, at an immense profit) on the founding of the "musical wallpaper" of Muzak. (Introducing him on an informal occasion, Hutchins said that he ought to apologize for the things he'd invented.) He persuaded his boss at the Lord and Thomas advertising agency—the same Albert D. Lasker of the University of Chicago board—to propose to Pepsodent that they sponsor the local Amos 'n' Andy show on NBC. Ten years later he persuaded Alfred P. Sloan of General Motors to subsidize the University of Chicago Round-Table of the Air, and the two programs became the most widely heard of all radio shows in entertainment and in education.
Not everything was dross. As board chairman of Britannica he took the EB into the new field of educational films in the 1940s, buying Erpi Classroom Films from Western Electric and merging it with Eastman Kodak's Classroom Films Division (which Eastman gave him, just as Sears gave
him the Britannica, reaping a greater tax advantage by giving away rather than selling the operation). He expected to operate Encyclopaedia Britannica Films, Inc., in the red for several years, but the Benton touch betrayed him. Within a few years it was bringing $300,000 a year to the university and more than $100,000 to Benton.
As vice-president at Chicago he used his position to put himself on the Round-Table on such diverse subjects as censorship, cartels, aviation, American-British relations, the common man, and the conditions of peace, achieving an instant quasi mastery of all such grand subjects, and carrying that mastery into the Truman administration as assistant secretary of state, where he concocted the Voice of America propaganda broadcasts to Communist Europe. And he was statesman enough, on appointment by his old partner, Governor Chester Bowles, to serve two years in the U.S. Senate from Connecticut and there rise alone, in 1951, to propose the expulsion of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Like all senators he never quit being "Senator" though he was defeated, by the McCarthy forces in Connecticut, for election in 1952. A decade later he was the first American ambassador to UNESCO in Paris. He had been one of the largest contributors to John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign and had let it be known, unavailingly, that he was available for the plum appointment to the Court of St. James. (He was fond of saying that American foreign-service people should speak the language of the country in which they were stationed; and he spoke an overflowing brand of English.) The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization was not then (or thereafter) a very significant international agency, and the appointment to it was largely honorific, involving three or four brief transatlantic trips a year.
When he died, a friend of his was talking about him with Maude Hutchins. The friend said, "I hear that Bill died in his sleep." "If he'd been awake," said Mrs. Hutchins, "he wouldn't have died." He respected time more than he respected anything else (including persons), and his pursuit of it was relentless. He would say, "I think I'll sleep for twenty minutes"—and sleep for twenty minutes. Shortly after he joined Hutchins at Chicago, he heard of two time-savers and went after them pell-mell. Physiologist Nathaniel Kleitman was reported to be conducting experiments in the hope of cutting two hours out of the normal night's sleep. "Think of it," said Benton, hurrying over to Kleitman's laboratory, "two hours. Two hours that I'm throwing away."
One day Hutchins walked into Benton's office while he was dictating a letter to his mother, beginning, "Dear Mother. Colon. How are you. Question mark." Hutchins said, "How are you , question mark?" Benton
wanted to know all about everything, provided he could find out about it in a short memorandum right away. He never stirred, or sat, without his dictaphone, rarely turned it off, and still more rarely wrote anything. One of the first American businessmen to fly regularly between Chicago and New York, he was never quite able to make up his mind on the time-saving advantages of the plane trip. A classic picture had him seated in the barber's chair on the Twentieth Century Limited, with a drink and his dictaphone in one hand, a manicurist working on the other, and an assistant sitting on a stool next to him taking notes.
When Hutchins, hearing of his resignation from Benton and Bowles, offered him the Chicago vice-presidency to beef up the university's public relations, Benton dictated a whole book for thdelectation of the trustees, suggesting (among other things) that the university change its name so that it would not be taken for a public institution. Hutchins had the book distributed to the trustees, most of whom professed amazement at Benton's quick acquisition of knowledge about the institution. But one of them, the arch-conservative Sewell Avery, board chairman of Montgomery Ward and Company, "made a series of speeches of the usual type," as Hutchins wrote Benton, "from which I was able, by hard work, to gather that Mr. Avery thought the University was Red and that our public relations could not be improved by anybody until the administration had cleaned out the radicals. Mr. Swift"—the chairman of the board—"took a very strong line in reply to Mr. Avery with the result that Mr. Avery said that if the University was not Red your appointment was a fine idea." Benton spent six months a year at the university for ten years, eventually leaving for the State Department.
He was not a frenetic man externally. He simply kept going all the time and kept everyone else going, in a steady frenzy. He was not a commanding figure, but he spent his life commanding and getting away with it, crudely, even brutally, but not ruthlessly. He exploited everyone he dealt with, intellectually, physically, and emotionally, but not financially. Secretaries were kept on half the night transcribing Benton memoranda and letters from his dictaphone tapes. If it meant leaving their families or admirers in the lurch, they and their families and admirers were all so handsomely compensated for the overtime that they didn't complain. (His personal assistant, John Howe, a Chicago boy, was once asked, when the pressure was especially intense in the office, if his boss had thought of hiring an additional "girl" to help out. "Bill doesn't hire a girl," Howe explained, "he hires a girl to hire a girl.")
"Bill," a longtime colleague explained, "thinks he's got 'muscle.' What he's got is money." He was not an inherently powerful person, simply a
brazen and insistent one who was very rich and hired very bright people all over the world who could not resist his lavish offers. "Ideas," he was given to saying, "are a dime a dozen." The men who had the ideas, and whose ideas Benton bought, were more expensive. ("I'd be crazy if I let Bob Hutchins out of my sight for sixty days at a time. Every idea he's ever had has made me a fortune.") His biographer tells how he hired Governor Adlai Stevenson—who, after his unsuccessful presidential campaigns, was going to resign as US Ambassador to the United Nations—to return to the private practice of law to get rid of some of his debts. Benton's enthusiastic biographer offers what must have been Benton's reconstruction of his proposal to his distinguished friend and traveling companion:
"You're too old to fuss with clients and their minor problems," Benton is quoted as saying. "I'll give you $100,000 a year and a $100,000 a year expense account if you will work for Britannica."
"Well," said Stevenson, "what would I do?"
"You would be the greatest 'working ornament' Britannica ever had," said Benton. "You could contribute greatly to our developing educational programs, and help expand our film company into a broad-based educational company . . . inspire our young executives and salesmen . . . help us expand into a world-wide publishing and educational force. . . . Your association with the company could arouse the interest of all countries in the new educational technologies—teaching machines, the new mathematics, the use of films, and audio-visual materials. And you'd still have time to play your key role as a world figure—because I wouldn't dare hope to take even 40% of your time."
Benton, or his money, was in the habit of being irresistible to men like Stevenson. After Stevenson's death and Hubert Humphrey's unsuccessful run for the presidency, he hired the latter as a consultant at $75,000 a year. He contributed large sums to the Stevenson and Humphrey campaigns and in 1968 baldly asked each of his board members to contribute $10,000 to candidate Humphrey: all but two complied. Stevenson and Humphrey were dime-a-dozen idea men par excellence, and their ideas stemmed from their own and Benton's Middle West populist backgrounds. (He was on close terms with Senator Bob and Governor Phil La Follette of Wisconsin). Like Benton, these were all men who never surrendered their primitive prairie radicalism. They were New Dealers before the New Deal, during the New Deal, and after the New Deal. They were all more mannerly than he was and at most levels much more intelligent—and they all needed money all their lives. His relations with such men were always symbiotic. They didn't lose, and he won.
He was the ultimate salesman, and in the Britannica (and later in the
Britannica's Great Books set) he had the ultimate item. Britannica (and the Great Books) advertised extensively, primarily through direct mail. It had no sales offices and was not stocked by bookstores; nor was its purchase arrangement ever advertised or given over the phone. It had a dozen or more prices, depending on the binding and the installment agreement. Its sole sales object was to get its salesman into the prospective customer's living room and have him deliver his pitch.
The quality of the Britannica had never again reached the peak of its famous 1911 edition; and, declining after the First World War, it went into a still steeper, steady decline under Benton, whose view (of which he himself was perhaps only half-conscious) was that what was between the covers of anything wasn't as important as the technique of selling the covers. Slashing the cost of everything but sales promotion, the new publisher reduced editorial correction and updating from edition to edition to the point where the shoddiness of the product inspired a serious critic to publish a book-length chapter-and-verse indictment of the dreadful inadequacies of the new and improved Britannica. Benton ignored the attack and stepped up the sales tempo.
The heart of the whole worldwide enterprise was the collection office in Chicago. ("The Encyclopaedia Britannica lives off installment buying," said Benton. "This is our whole business.") Soon after becoming Britannica's publisher, he inaugurated an annual matching companion volume to the set at $12.50, called The Britannica Book of the Year . By the time the Great Books of the Western World was published, ten years later, that little $12.50 item had produced such an immense profit that he had Mortimer Adler devise another $12.50 companion item, called The Great Ideas Today , to be sold to the installment purchasers of Great Books —and this one was also a small gold mine. Benton's explanation for the two ventures was that people who are making installment payments will go on making them until somebody tells them to stop; they might as well have an additional $12.50 tacked on to their regular notice.
The Britannica's selling methods and promotional practices were sufficiently notorious to have played a role (according to Hutchins) in the refusal of the trustees to put up the working capital and accept the EB as a direct gift from Sears Roebuck to the university. Some fifteen years after Benton took over its publication, the Federal Trade Commission ordered it to cease and desist from "deceptive acts in recruiting sales personnel, in gaining entry to the consumer's home, in selling its encyclopaedias, other books and related services, and in collecting debts." (Benton's biographer doesn't mention this sensational fact of corporate life.) A professor at the University of Colorado was interested in buying the fifty-four-volume set
of the great books and wrote to the company to ask the price. The reply was a foot-in-the-door great books salesman who delivered an oration on the educational advantages of reading the books and the social advantages of merely owning them. The professor tried to interrupt and say that he was acquainted with the advantages of reading books and had written simply to ask the price of the set; to no avail. In a fury, after he got the man out of the house, and still had not learned the price of the set, he wrote Benton and got a polite reply from a Benton assistant to the effect that this sales method, including the oration, had proved to be effective and the company did not allow its salesmen to depart from it.
Benton's suggestion, that the problem of getting the great books for the Fat Men's class be solved by publication of a set of them, fell on deaf ears here and there; but there were two ears that weren't deaf to it: Mortimer Adler's. Benton and Adler were—as Hutchins said admiringly—made for each other. The two men were consummate promoters of hot products—Palmolive soap and Thomism respectively. Their association grew closer as the association of both of them with Hutchins grew gradually somewhat more distant, and when Hutchins retired as the highly paid chairman of the Britannica editorial board, Adler, who had meanwhile negotiated a lifetime contract with Benton, succeeded him.
In the spring of 1943 Benton and Adler came to Hutchins with their project for the Great Books of the Western World. Hutchins was a bit bearish. There was a war on, in 1943, and nobody knew when, or, indeed, how, it would end. There might not be a ready market available—among other things—or even paper for the printing of what Benton and Adler between them envisaged as a stupendous aggregation of the noblest of all the works of the Western intellect, in every field, from Homer to Freud. (Works of the Orient were arbitrarily excluded.)
Besides, Hutchins was, as usual, to be the front man for the venture, its editor-in-chief; and he didn't see how he could conscientiously commit any of his own time to an undertaking of the scope that Benton and Adler proposed. No problem; Adler would be associate editor and fill in for Bob where it was necessary. It turned out to be necessary everywhere. The advisory board, which selected the books for the set—ultimately 443 works of seventy-four authors—was chosen by Hutchins. It consisted of Barr, Buchanan, Erskine, Mark Van Doren, Alexander Meiklejohn, Dean Clarence H. Faust (Hutchins' dean of the college), and the biologist Joseph J. Schwab (one of the younger Chicago scientists who supported Hutchins). The selection of the works took a couple of dozen weekend meetings over a two-year period and no end of reading and correspondence by the advisers. Hutchins, missing most of the meetings, which
were then chaired by Adler, manfully tried to read (or read in, at his usual phenomenal speed) the most earnestly disputed works. One-fourth of the authors included were mathematicians or natural scientists, and almost another fourth social scientists (including the great historians). The remaining authors were divided among the writers of imaginative literature and philosophers and theologians. The last four centuries were represented by fewer than one-sixth of the authors, and only Melville, William James, and the authors of the Federalist Papers were Americans. (With the possible exception of St. Augustine, there was no non-Caucasian author, and the list was 100 percent male.)
Apart from the enormous ballyhoo that attended its publication in 1952, the set was attacked, with varying degrees of justification, by those modernists who believed that the world began last Thursday; by the cultural jingoists, who believed it began in America; by the small cliques (in those days) of admirers of oriental, female, and Negro writings; and by the partisans of those great writers who were excluded, such as Cicero, Calvin, Nietzsche, Leibniz, Mark Twain, and the Brontës.
It was a classic undertaking, nine years in publication, all told, and the triumph of a vision as immense in literary and educational as it was in commercial terms. Apart from the special-interest carping, it was met with approbation. Gilbert Highet in the New York Times hailed it as "a noble monument to the power of the human mind." It was, in addition, a monument to the powers of William Benton and Mortimer Adler as promoters, perhaps more especially of Benton, who recognized the genius of Adler in proposing, and concocting, the two-volume Syntopicon that went with the set.
At the outset of the giant venture Benton demanded something that would appear more readable to the prospective buyer. Adler went into intense meditation and came up with an idea index that would guide the reader to the most significant passages of all the authors on any one topic and thereby realize the buyer's fondest dream.
The Syntopicon—Adler coined the term, "a collection of topics"—was to cost $60,000 and take two years to complete. It cost $1 million and took eight years. (Wars—with Germany, Japan, Korea—came and went.) Renting a large greystone residence across the Midway from the campus, Adler assembled a staff of fifty very bright young men and women (including the then unknown Saul Bellow), plus seventy-five clerical helpers, with a monthly payroll of $26,000. They read through 443 great books—plus the Bible, which was not included in the set but which was indexed. Indexed was every substantial reference to Adler's list of 102 great ideas, beginning with Angel and ending with World, and the three thousand
topics under those 102 ideas; all in all, some 900,000 decisions to include or exclude passages were made, with Adler, who dropped most of his teaching and lecturing operations, whipping his small horde along in the bowels of Index House in much the same manner as Benton pep-talking his Britannica salesmen. ("Aristotle and Aquinas are doing fine, but Kant, Descartes, and Plotinus must catch up. . . . Under Topic 2b, I find only three references to Aristotle and three to Locke. This can not be at all. Something has got to be done about this. . . . We can not rest on such a random collection with such a major topic. I am sure I am right. Don't give in.")
The Syntopicon was not an easy compilation to fault; its two-volume massiveness was superficially awesome, and serious scholars were not likely to check the references. It gave the lie to the canard that Hutchins and Adler had long since decided that there were only one hundred great books, and there was no serious ground for arguing that great ideas had been ruthlessly excluded (or included) among the 102. There had ultimately to be a degree of arbitrariness in their selection, but each of them was preceded by a lengthy essay, ostensibly by Adler, which associated them with other ideas; and there was an additional "inventory" of some 1,800 terms, comprising all the ordinarily imaginable subjects of nontechnical discourse and relating each of them to the appropriate reference section under one or another of the 102 capital-I Ideas. However, there was much that was academically arguable about the Syntopicon enterprise. Its very grandiosity was comical, and it certainly would have been subject, had they looked into it, to the choleric contempt of the scholars on the other side of the Midway.
During the nine years' gestation of the project as a whole, Benton found himself occupied with no end of other large-scale operations. He served as vice-chairman—Paul Hoffman was chairman—of the wartime Committee for Economic Development organized by the Department of Commerce to propagandize the nation's postwar business needs and opportunities in the changeover period to civilian production and distribution; and he was on the road more than he was off it. He paid no attention to the progress of the Great Books undertaking. Hutchins, too, immersed in the university's war program, was largely inactive in the project, except for persuading Paul Mellon of the Pittsburg Mellons to have his Old Dominion Foundation make a $250,000 grant to buy sixteen hundred sets for public libraries. A begging letter written by Adler and signed by Hutchins and Adler produced five hundred subscriptions of $500 each for a special set of the fifty-four volumes in an expensive almost-leather binding.
The whole job, including the financing and the sales promotion, wound
up in Adler's hands. When Benton's Britannica executives balked at going on indefinitely with the $26,000 monthly payroll at Index House, Adler ripped around the country to raise the money, brazenly, and successfully, bearding such storied figures as William Paley, Marshall Field, Conrad Hilton, Chicago Board Chairman Harold H. Swift, and, less successfully, H.L. Hunt of Texas (who asked Board Chairman Wood of Sears if Adler was a Communist, since Marx was among the authors in the set).
The Syntopicon was finished at last, its staggering staff disbanded and Index House abandoned, and the Great Books of the Western World was unveiled at a Founders' Edition dinner—for the five hundred individuals who had put up $500 each for the special set—on April 15, 1952, at, of course, the Waldorf Astoria with, inter alia, a covey of Vanderbilts and Rockefellers in attendance.
In the quarter-century after its publication the Great Books set sold something like a million copies, hitting an early peak of 49,000 in a single year. For two or three years it actually outsold the Britannica itself. But costs skyrocketed in the 1970s, and the profit on the venture evaporated—but not before no end of people got rich.
As residual beneficiary of two-thirds of the Britannica, Inc., stock in shameless exchange for the use of its imprimatur, the University of Chicago got enormously rich. Between 1943 and 1980 it received almost $60 million in royalties; and William Benton, the first recipient of Chicago's William Benton Medal (which he inspired) became a bigger benefactor of the institution than the founding father, John D. Rockefeller (who was not so busy that he had to drop his middle initial). Enriched, too, if insufficiently, was the corporate philosopher and genius of the enterprise, Mortimer J. Adler, who spent a million of the EB's total investment of $2.5 million in the great books of the Western world. Adler afterward testified with a touch of melancholy to his own genuflective experience at the noble monument, or trough:
"At one point, it looked as if the work I did on the set and the Syntopicon might reap a reward that would take care of my family and me in the years ahead. Bill Benton, in a moment of enthusiasm and generosity, talked about a royalty payment, which, if it had been no more than 1% of sales price, might have added up to a small fortune in the last twenty-five years. I reminded him, on several occasions, of what he said, only to learn the difference between a passing remark and a serious promise. Nine years of work on the set and the Syntopicon turned out in the end to be what it was at the beginning—a labor of love."
Love's labor, of course, was lost on the editor-in-chief, Robert Maynard Hutchins (who always turned over all his outside earnings to the Univer-
sity of Chicago). His contributions to the enterprise were sporadic and incidental, Adler standing in for him at every point. As it was actually published, the fifty-four-volume set included a slim volume 1, entitled The Great Conversation , an introductory essay by Robert Maynard Hutchins. It included no end of cut-and-paste-up passages from Hutchins' earlier writings, but it was obviously the work of a much more prosaic hand than his, perhaps the only occasion in his prolific career in which his name was signed to another's work. He had no time. While his associates pondered the profitable publication of the wisdom of the ages, he was running a war plant. And there was a war on, which he did his level best to help prosecute in spite of the wisdom of the ages that suggested that war and wisdom were not won by the same sort of study. "It is not," he said at the outset of the war, "the responsibility of the armed forces to give a liberal education. The test of any training program operated by the Army and Navy is whether it fits a man to fight, not whether it fits him to be free."