Thomas Pierce Bentley Jr. '58 died January 8, 1997.
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TOM BENTLEY (1934-1997)
Tom Bentley entered Amherst with our class after serving in Europe with the United States Army. He was born in Panama City, Fla., in 1934 and grew up in Hapeville, Ga., where he graduated from the local high school. He spent his freshman year in Morrow, rooming next door to Peter Strauss during second semester. He pledged Phi Psi but left the college after freshman year, at which point the college lost touch with him.
Thomas Pierce Bentley Jr. died January 8, 1997.
Peter Strauss’s memories of Tom center around Kirby Theater, where Tom and he worked together on a few productions. “We appeared together in a one-act play by, I believe, Thornton Wilder, the name of which is lost in the mists of time,” says Peter, "and we were together again in a College Hall production of "Soldier of the King" (see below).
Peter adds, “Tom and I also shared a common background: he and I had both been in the Army Security Agency in Europe, albeit at different places, during the years just preceding our arrival in Amherst, and exchanged names and did-you-knows and tales frequently. He was a delightful conversationalist and a fine actor.”
(Ed. Note: Peter, with a little bit of help from Allen Clark, located Tom’s brother, Jim, who wrote the following.)
Tom rose quickly to the top of Amherst College society in his freshman year – he was chosen to play Lord Jeff himself in the
1955 campus production of "Soldier of the King." The king in the drama was George, portrayed by Tom's fellow Army intelligence analyst Peter Strauss.
Tom loved Amherst, but he returned home to the Atlanta area after his freshman year to earn money to supplement his GI Bill benefits. A year later, he entered Boston University in the class of 1959 and earned a degree in fine arts.
Tom was born Jan. 15, 1934, in Panama City, Fla., the first of seven children of Sarah Woodruff and Thomas Pierce Bentley Sr., who were from a small northeast Georgia town called Winder. His family lived in Florida during World War II, then moved back to Winder and in 1950 to Hapeville, a small suburb adjacent to – and eventually partially under – runways of Atlanta's international airport. Tom skipped a grade and graduated in 1951, after earning the title in the yearbook as “Most Intellectual” boy in his class.
Tom joined the Army for three years because he had a chance to serve in Germany and qualify for the GI Bill. In Nuremberg, he did Armed Forces radio news and a drama series. He was narrator for the Salzburg and Beyreuth opera festivals. At the American Embassy in Paris, his unit learned of the death of Stalin two weeks before the Kremlin announced it.
Tom learned the streets of Paris, which became his favorite city, by riding the Metro radials to their ends and then walking back. He was discharged Aug. 20, 1954, as a tech sergeant and headed to Amherst. Then, at Boston University two years later, he slipped across town to play the lead in a Harvard movie adapted from John P. Marquand's "To the Age That Is Waiting."
Tom did a lot of stage work during his Boston years, but one of his favorite personalities of that time was Sarah Caldwell, who began an eight-year tour in 1952 teaching opera at Boston University. Caldwell was the first woman to conduct the Metropolitan Opera's orchestra in New York. Tom ran errands for Caldwell – “anything to be near such a presence,” he said.
He moved to New York City after graduation. His resume soon included more than 50 roles in stock and an Off-Broadway role as Gaston in "Waltz of the Toreadors." Tom had talents as an actor, dancer and director and could coil electrical cable into figure eights like a seasoned gaffer. Competition was fierce, but Tom picked up jobs here and there. At one point, he was offered a job in a long-running musical. He turned it down. He thought it would close soon. It didn't. It was "The Fantasticks."
A major oil company advertised a job running the computer operation in its New York office. Tom got the job, thanks to his acting skills. He was fired after six months after it was found that he could act and he could dance – but he couldn't compute.
A fellow Georgian hired him to design and sell high-fashion hats for women. There was profit in that business in the 1960s, and Tom moved into an apartment on East 43rd Street near the United Nations Secretariat. There was even a doorman.
In 1970 he moved to Chicago as regional manager for Harry Camp Hats and Wigs with an office in Wieboldt's department store at State and Madison, the zero point in Chicago's grid. His fellow travelers were Gato, found in a Puerto Rico alley as a kitten and smuggled in Tom's jacket pocket back to New York, and Liebchen, a regal miniature Schnauzer. A year later, Tom bought his first of 23 years of season tickets to Chicago's Lyric Opera. His box, No. 21, was just right of center, had its own coatroom and a semi-private lobby view of the crowds below.
Tom lived well and enjoyed traveling abroad, but he wasn't wasteful. He had begun saving money for a new goal – Chicago's first wine bar. Space became available in 1979 at 1756 N. Halsted at Willow in the lower southwestern edge of Lincoln Park. Bentley's Wine Bar/Café opened in May 1980.
Bentley's became the wine center of Chicago for a while. Patrick Fegan, the Chicago Tribune wine columnist, taught his Chicago Wine School classes in the back dining room on Monday nights. Wine distributors had trade tastings for their products some afternoons. There were neighborhood tastings on Saturdays in hopes that some would stay for dinner and take home a few bottles.
Tom loved his work. He supervised the kitchen, ushered customers into the bar and dining rooms and helped them enjoy themselves. Bentley's served 24 wines by the glass and a few choice beers, but no liquor. It worked for a while, but the national economy was in tough shape during the early years of the Reagan administration. Interest on Small Business Administration loans passed 20 percent, and inflation in gasoline prices and home costs hurt many businesses.
Despite the gloom, Tom celebrated his 50th birthday Jan. 15, 1984, with friends at dinner in Chicago's Ritz, drinking a 1945 Chateau La Tour Bordeaux, the oldest bottle the sommelier could find in his cellar. Afterward, 50 friends celebrated with Tom in the Hilton Presidential Suite. Bentley's closed the next year. Tom got a job with a friend whose major business was selling carloads of beef to such restaurants as McDonalds and Burger King.
In 1987 Tom joined Claire's Stores, a chain of around 3,000 small shops worldwide, as visual merchandise director. He occasionally traveled for the company during the next 10 years, including two trips to Japan to set up stores for a Japanese partner.
Tom never lost his love of travel. Between 1974 and 1986 he visited Greece, Spain, Paris, Venice, Florence, Rome, Montserrat and other parts of France. Escaping Chicago's cold winters led him to Vera Cruz, Mexico and Isla Mujeres, off the coast of Cancun, and Jamaica.
In 1995 Tom visited Jekyll Island, Ga., the retirement home of his brother Jim and wife Pat, four blocks north of the Jekyll Island Club's compound in the Historic District. Members of the club that closed at the end of World War II were said to have controlled a sixth of the world's wealth. Tom was always attracted to bright lights, even long after they had dimmed. He decided that he wanted to retire in Georgia's Golden Isles and paint the ever-changing colors of the salt marshes.
His hopes faded during a trip the next year to England's Lake District. He was traveling with Bob Rohden, his best friend of the past 24 years, and other friends. It was a fine visit, but Tom started having trouble with his right leg after a hike. When their train stalled on the trip back to Manchester, Tom hurt his back while moving his luggage to another train.
Tom never cared for doctors, but he agreed to be examined once back in Chicago. A bone scan revealed a metastasized tumor entwined about his spinal cord low in his back and a crushed vertebrae just below his neck. Tom entered St. Francis Hospital in nearby Evanston December 10, 1996, where cancer also was found in his stomach and lungs.
Tom died a week before his 64th birthday. His friend Bob took his ashes to his favorite city and spread them among the roses, trees and statues in the gardens of the Rodin Museum at the Hotel Biron. Tom liked to sit in those Paris gardens and look at Rodin's bronze Gates of Hell. A few ashes also were scattered beside a lake behind the old stage of the Jekyll Island amphitheater. When the summer musical theater was performing there, white marsh birds would fly over the audience to roost around the lake about the time "Dites moi" and "Some Enchanted Evening" opened "South Pacific." Tom once walked across the old boards on that stage. He said it brought back good memories.
Jim Bentley (Tom’s brother)