A challenging assignment for Thomas Hart Benton

“Thomas Hart Benton… counterposed the truth of his art against the lies of advertising in an account of his dispute with the American Tobacco Company in 1943.

“The company, pioneering what has become a standard business practice, sought to counteract its federal conviction for price-fixing by hiring N.W. Ayer to surround it with ‘jes’ folks’ imagery. Benton was a natural choice for the assignment: His work was accessible but carried connotations of high-art legitimacy. Yet when Benton was sent to the hills of south Georgia, and painted what the saw — black people harvesting tobacco — the agency executives complained: ‘The Negro institutions would boycott our products and cost us thousands of dollars if we showed pictures of this sort. They want Negroes presented as well-dressed and respectable members of society. If we did this, of course, then the whole of the white South would boycott us. So the only thing to do is to avoid the representation of Negroes entirely in advertising.’

“So Benton went to North Carolina ‘where the hillbillies handle tobacco’ and produced a picture of an old man and his granddaughter; the agency thought it was fine but that the girl was too skinny. ‘ “Everything about tobacco must look healthy,” the advertising people declared….’ ”

— From “Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America” by Jackson Lears (1995)


A Great Pyramid scheme — but did it happen?

“CAIRO — What’s this? Egypt’s new Islamist leaders want to raze the Great Pyramids, scratch away the images on the death masks of the pharaohs, maybe even wipe the grin off what is left of the face of the Sphinx?
“Someone who reads a lot of right-wing blogs in the United States these days might be forgiven for thinking so, though there is no sign here that any such Islamist clamor to destroy the monuments of ancient Egypt has actually arisen.”

— From “Contrary to Gossip, Pyramids Have No Date With the Wrecking Ball” in the New York Times (July 23)

In 1982, the Times dispatch reminded me, I had a pyramid rumor of my own to chase: In “The Story of Durham” (1927) W.K. Boyd wrote, without details, that “The Bull was once to be seen on the pyramids of Egypt.”
Could that possibly have been true, I wondered, even given the omnipresence of Julian Shakespeare Carr’s unprecedented advertising campaign for Bull Durham? Did Jules Koerner (painting Bulls under the name of Reuben Rink) actually mount a scaffold and apply one to the Pyramid of Khufu?
A 1946 tribute to Carr cited Mark Twain as claiming “that the most conspicuous thing about the Egyptian Pyramids was the Durham Bull.” And in 1978 Thad Stem Jr., writing in the State magazine, mentioned the Bull’s having been painted on — and removed from! — a pyramid.
Alas, on further review — with Nannie May Tilley, author of “The Bright-Tobacco Industry, 1860-1929,” and with experts at Archives & History and the New York Public Library’s tobacco collection — I had to conclude the Bull never found its way to Giza…. But who knows what was on Carr’s to-do list in 1898 when he sold out to American Tobacco?