Quiet survivors from the 1960s
The Lyman Family sets own course on a Kansas farmby Brian Burnes, staff writer
Benton Farm, Kan. In the excruciatingly correct behavior of the 1980s, Jessie Benton Lyman is an undisputed champion.
The daughter of the late Rita and Thomas Hart Benton may be the only host in Marshall County, Kan., who receives guests and then sits down to hear questions about her property, the three different fathers of her three children, and the alleged drug habits of the extended family she has lived with for 20 years.
"We were all supposed to be loaded on acid and brainwashed," Mrs. Benton Lyman, class of 1957, the Sunset Hill School, says wearily, leaning forward suddenly from her couch.
"Brainwashed! You know, that still follows us around? That people come here and won't eat the food for fear we might brainwash them?"
If so, it's a shame.
Perhaps only on the 280 limestone-studded acres that is known in Marshall County as the Benton Farm will a visitor be led down a twisting dirt road to find neither the "acid fascism" described in two alarming articles in a national publication 15 years ago nor the supposed mind-control methods of a well-known 1960s commune.
What a visitor finds is eggs Benedict, served with hollandaise sauce made with the yolks of Muscovy duck egg.
Farmhouses, although perhaps weathered on the outside, open to reveal staircase bannisters carved into hourglass-figured women and flowers painted on the floors of sunny sitting rooms.
Bright walls are lined with books. Originals and prints of Thomas Hart Benton hang over a couch or near a fireplace.
Ultimately, to visit the Kansas property of Mrs. Benton Lyman's extended family is to drive 170 miles from Kansas City into the northeastern edge of the Flint Hills to dine in a well-lighted art gallery.
Breakfast not the bum's rush.
"It took several years for us to get up the courage to do this," Mrs. Benton Lyman says.
"We really don't like to draw attention to ourselves. We always did that and it never worked out well. We don't mind being a quiet, anonymous group, but now, having done this magazine, it's hard to avoid it."
Heard dimly, through the walls, is an occasional cock-a-doodle-doo. And caught somewhere between the urban and pastoral, yippie and yuppie, the '60s and the '80s, is the group often known as the Lyman Family.
They number 111 today. Seventy-two are adult family members, plus 39 children. (Twenty-one of these children range from 5 to 18 years old, and live and attend school in Kansas.)
They also live traveling back and forth among in Hollywood, Calif.; Boston; and New York.
They don't consider divorce as many might, they say. For instance, with three different men, Mrs. Benton Lyman, 46, has had three children. One of the children is Anthony Gude. The son of Jessie Benton Lyman and David Gude plays in what is called the U & I Band, the "musical arm" of U & I magazine, a new national publication produced by the family.
The young Mr. Gude, 22, also paints in a style that recalls his grandfather, favors him slightly in profile and this winter received his first commission a Kansas landscape for $400, from the Marysville Advocate.
Finally, the family members maintain that, while publishing this magazine and supporting this touring band, they are not proselytizing to swell their own numbers. Nevertheless, the Lyman Family has not only survived but also prospered when many communal groups from the 1960s long have dissolved.
What has been the difference?
"The main difference is that we are a family and not a community that insists on living a life for some kind of an idea," says Mrs. Benton Lyman, whose voice is not above the occasional sardonic emphasis.
"As a matter of fact, all of us despise communes. Have you ever been in a commune? Was it a fun place?
"The ones I've visited I'd die if I had to live in them."
One can't drive through Marshall and Pottawatomie counties in northeastern Kansas without seeing the historical markers.
The Oregon Trail. The Donner Party. The Kansas State Historical Society has punctuated state history with tall, elaborate plaques, and perhaps, in the far future, still another could be placed a few miles southeast of Blue Rapids.
It could read this way:
Benton Farm. Site of the late-20th century homestead of the Lyman Family, sometimes called the Hill People in Boston and once indirectly compared, in Rolling Stone magazine in the early 1970s, with the Charles Manson family.
Begun as a commune in the 1960s, this family would publish a newspaper, the Avatar, which temporarily would be banned in Boston. Jailed briefly, members of this family later would be released, thus helping to define First Amendment applications in Massachusetts.
In the early 1970s, members of the family stretched a string across a map of the United States. The middle of the string fell near Delphos, Kan.
Soon, the late Thomas Hart Benton painted a rendering of an old farmhouse and sold it for approximately $42,000. With the proceeds he bought 280 acres not far from Delphos.
The Lyman Family, including Mr. Benton's daughter, Jessie, would settle nearby, in Marshall County. It would serve as a haven from the fallout that followed, during the early 1970s, from a bank robbery by family members, the burning of neighboring property on Martha's Vineyard, and two consecutive cover stories in Rolling Stone magazine that described Mel Lyman, the group's charismatic leader, and his brand of "acid fascism. "
After 15 years of silence, the family's collective voice resurfaced in U & I, a slick and handsome magazine distributed nationally in 1986.
Jessie Benton Lyman, whose Kansas City girlhood home is a state historic site, is scheduled to appear in Kansas City next month.
Mrs. Benton Lyman is expected to return with the U & I Band, which will perform at the annual Thomas Hart Benton Birthday Bourbon & Branch Bash on April 13 at Kelly's Westport Inn.
"U & I" is an abbreviation of United Illuminating, a term borrowed two decades ago from an electric company in Bridgeport, Conn., and applied by the Lyman Family to its various enterprises. They renovated homes in the Fort Hill area of Roxbury in Boston "the Hill people," they were called — and gained a reputation for drug abuse that is undeserved, Mrs. Benton Lyman says.
"Acid fascists," she says. "Isn't that great? If we were acid fascists, I don't think we'd still be around. We would have blown our minds on drugs.
"We never approved of drugs. That's why we got a bad reputation in the '60s. We wouldn't let anybody smoke any dope."
Just as some American communal groups were known for their commercial products (the l9th-century Oneida, N.Y., cooperative produced steel game traps, the Keil group of l9th-century Bethel, Mo., produced fine gloves), so too is the Lyman Family.
In the 1980s, the Lyman Family renovates the homes of Hollywood movie stars, producers and directors.
Dustin Hoffman, Richard Chamberlain, Steven Spielberg and Larry Gelbart are all among the clients of the Fort Hill Construction Co. Although no members of the family were trained as masons or carpenters, they say, 20 years after renovating dilapidated Roxbury homes they have hung out a shingle in Hollywood.
This business constitutes the family's principal income, says Eve Lyman, 34. "It's not true that Jessie is the source of most of our money," she says.
The holdings of the Lyman Family include several properties in the Roxbury section of Boston; a Martha's Vineyard estate purchased three years ago from James Cagney Jr. three homes in the Hollywood Hills area of Los Angeles; and a loft on Canal Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
The Thomas Hart Benton property in Chilmark, Martha's Vineyard, Mass., and the 280 acres in Kansas are held by the Benton Testamentary Trusts for Mrs. Benton Lyman and her descendants. The trusts direct that the trustees give her lifetime, rent-free occupancy, says Lyman Field, the Kansas City lawyer who is individual testamentary trustee of the trusts.
The family also owns three deep-sea fishing boats, a recreational vehicle, a backhoe on the Kansas farm. Numerous art pieces by Thomas Hart Benton hang in Kansas and Massachusetts. A portrait of his daughter at age 9 hangs in one of the Kansas houses. "Jessie With Guitar," a print of which is on display in the Benton studio at 3616 Belleview Ave. in Kansas City, hangs in Martha's Vineyard.
"It still bothers people," Mrs. Benton Lyman says. "They want to know what we do with the money we make. We throw it into the pot and we use it for whatever we need it for."
Now there is U & I magazine.
The family holds enough word processing and typesetting equipment to have produced a magazine as slick as it is unconventional.
Although they haven't published for 15 years, family members maintain that the magazine with its perfect bindings, its banks of justified type, its four-color photographs that bleed cleanly off the page is an in-house production except for the printing.
The first issue, published last year, could be found only in New York; Washington, Los Angeles and Boston. The second is available nationwide through about 25 distributors, with an initial press run of 7,500.
The magazine, carrying no advertising or individual bylines, has been residing alongside more mainstream of magazines on the newsstands of Kansas City area bookstores. The second issue, which costs $5, largely concerns farming, agriculture and the state of Kansas.
Dick Russell, a 1965 graduate of the Shawnee Mission School District and a 1969 graduate of the University of Kansas, wrote some of the articles. Mr. Russell wrote for the Topeka Capital-Journal and Sports Illustrated.
He's now a member of the Lyman Family and writes for a variety of environmental magazines. Although pieces aren't bylined in the new issue, Mr. Russell wrote an article about the Ogallala aquifer and the insides of a mammoth Kansas meatpacking plant. "In a way, my family editors are often tougher," Mr. Russell says.
Other articles include a retelling of Adam and Eve, comments on local farm prices, plus the transcripts of taped conversations with local farmers or one another. Although the magazine lists four post office boxes and encourages response, no mention is made of Mel Lyman.
There are other issues to talk about, family members say.
"So many people have reached the point where they are successful, where they have made the money, and now they are asking, 'Where did all the time go?'" says Eve Lyman, a member of the family for 15 years.
The family sees the magazine as a forum to discuss the concerns they keep hearing.
"We just wanted this to be read as one person to another," Mrs. Lyman says.
"Like a conversation," Mrs. Benton Lyman says.
"That's why we called it U & I," Mrs. Lyman says. "It's open-ended. Not defined by anything. Not defined by who's writing, where it comes from or who is publishing it."
Mrs. Benton Lyman says:
"We're really not all that interested in being prosperous. Quality of life is much more important to us than how much money we make. We like to keep life rich and alive.
"It's one of the reasons we did the magazine. We were becoming a bit stale and introverted."
* * * * *
Life, if occasionally stale, rarely has been boring for the Lyman Family.
Mrs. Benton Lyman initially met members as far back as 1963, she says. She had just been married, at St. Francis Xavier's Church in Kansas City, to David Gude, a recording engineer with Vanguard Records, a record label specializing in folk music.
Mrs. Benton Lyman, who often played guitar and sang at assemblies at Sunset Hill, performed with her husband two years, she says. By then she had met a banjo and harmonica player named Mel Lyman.
By most accounts, Mel Lyman was charismatic. He was an occasional member of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, popular in the 1960s. (Mr. Kweskin, still a family member, is part of the U & I Band.)
Mr. Lyman also was a writer. Advertisements appeared in the Avatar for Autobiography of a World Savior, by Mr. Lyman. In 1968, Esquire magazine published a profile of Mr. Lyman called "God Is Back He Says So Himself." Surviving issues of the Avatar, published from 1967 through 1969, seem largely given over to Mr. Lyman's philosophy, his responses to readers' letters and many photographs of him, ranging from conventional mug shots to close-cropped studies of his eyes.
It's part of what made the Avatar different, even amid the 1960s alternative press, says Abe Peck, associate professor of journalism at the Medill School of Journalism at North" western University in Evanston, Ill., and author of Uncovering the Sixties: The Life & Times of the Underground Press.
"While true believing became increasingly evident among a number of underground papers, they tended to be true believing around political figures," Mr. Peck says. "Here was true believing around a quasi-religious figure who was a member of their own commune. It was a little unusual."
Mr. Lyman fathered 12 children among seven women in the family, family members confirm. People have an idea of what extended family living is about, a visitor comments.
"It ain't that," Mrs. Benton Lyman replies.
"One of the reasons why this thing works is that we are very traditional in one way and in another way not traditional at all. We have great respect for the values of traditional things I think more so in this family than most."
But, Mrs. Benton Lyman says, "We don't believe in divorce. In other words, if you are married to someone in this family, you continue to be married to him for the rest of your life. You raise your children together. There's no such thing as divorce in our family, and the horror of divorce which is, I think, the most immoral thing that happens in society today the children become a battleground.
"I suppose if you look at it in terms of 'How many children do you have?' every single one of my children have different fathers," Mrs. Benton Lyman says. "I suppose that sounds terribly immoral. But it's not because each of the fathers is my great and devoted friend.
"We raise our children together and we are in constant companionship. We don't sleep with one another anymore. That's where you draw the line. You might have a relationship that lasts for five years, a very intimate relationship, out of which comes a child.
"That relationship continues in an intimate way, but the personal expression of it has to stop. There's no 'free love,' in other words."
Her father approved of the family, Mrs. Benton Lyman says indeed, some family members served as models for figures in the mural "The Sources of Country Music," on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tenn. Family members also helped Mr. Benton build a stone wall on the Chilmark property.
"My father thought it was great, but my father, you know, was an extraordinary person," she says. "He liked new ideas. He thought it was a wonderful idea because he said the worst thing about being young and creative was the loneliness you have to endure.
"He thought we had figured out a way to avoid the loneliness, and he approved of it."
As for her mother, Mrs. Benton Lyman says: "She was a very conservative Italian woman and thought we were . . . far out. She thought it was a strange way to live your life, that it wasn't a normal thing to do. She thought it was a scary way to live. 'How can you be sure your children will have enough to eat in 10 years?' But she adored the children so much she was willing to accept anything. "
Thomas Hart Benton died in January 1975; his wife about three months later. A plaque to her mother from Jessie stands to the south of the Benton Home on Belleview Avenue.
"We lost some good friends," Mrs. Benton Lyman says, referring to her parents. "They were nice to us when most people weren't."
Nearly, 20 years ago, family members and others selling the Avatar in Boston were arrested on felony obscenity charges. They would later be set free and the incident helped define the First Amendment freedom in Massachusetts.
"Like many other people selling underground papers, they would get selectively arrested on various vendor laws," Mr. Peck of Northwestern says. "As a result of that, Mel Lyman put out an issue with a colorful centerfold that had various four-letter words spelled out in an artful, Gothic way.
"By exercising both freedom of expression and occasional bad taste, the underground press was more than willing to take on the censors," Mr. Peck says. "Almost every town had this particular battle. They were the ones in Boston."
A few years later, in 1971, Rolling Stone devoted two issues to a darker side of Lyman Family life.
"Although they didn't commit crimes like (Charles) Manson, they definitely took advantage of people's vulnerability within the family," says David Felton, author of the two stories.
"Our only concern was that they were messing with people who were not in the family. Once the story came out, they did retreat and stopped messing with people on the outside world. "
Members of the Lyman Family will not contest that they withdrew. They say their children attending school in Kansas were harassed after the articles.
They also say the articles were without foundation.
If they were without foundation, why were they printed?
"Because," Mrs. Benton Lyman says, "they made a fortune doing the same thing with Charles Manson, and they equated us with the Manson Family and wanted to sell that many newspapers again, and most of it was libel and we should have sued them but we passed on the whole thing."
In 1973, three family members robbed a bank. One was shot and killed by police. Convicted was Mark Frechette, star of the 1970 film "Zabriskie Point." He pleaded guilty, was sentenced to jail and in 1975 was found dead in prison. A third served a prison term and was released.
On another occasion, a child in residence on family property, with family children, apparently set fire to neighboring property in Martha's Vineyard.
"It's not something that could not have happened to an ordinary family," Mrs. Benton Lyman says. "But it happens to us and it gets all blown up."
Mr. Lyman died "several years ago," according to one U & I press release. Photographs of Mr. Lyman are framed and hung about the Kansas property.
All still regard him as responsible for bringing their extended family together. Some came from families quite prominent. Besides Mrs. Benton Lyman, Faith Gude, another family member, is the daughter of the novelist Kay Boyle. Eve Lyman is the daughter of Abram Chayes, a Harvard University law professor who served in the State Department during the Kennedy administration.
"Here you have a very talented group of people, some of them well-educated, some of them from illustrious families," Mr. Felton says.
"That's what made it such a puzzle — why these people would give over their lives to one man."
Mel Lyman served as a catalyst, Mrs. Benton Lyman says, bringing people from different backgrounds together as one family. Was he messianic? "In those papers he was," she says pointing to a pile of old Avatars. "To us, he was just a friend of ours."
The only sign that announces the Benton Farm is along the dirt road. It reads: "Caution. Kids on bicycles."
A former grain silo is now converted into a lighthouselike dorm for some of the family children. Rocky ledges obscure a satellite receiving dish. The lines of a large barn lead the eye up to the wind vane, where there stands an elaborately carved winged horse.
It's a farm with suburban touches. Nevertheless, it's a farm. Large dogs approach visitors and ring around. Chickens scatter and ducks approach.
"We eat like kings," Eve Lyman says. "See there? Those are Muscovy ducks. Muscovy ducks cost $40 apiece at Balducci's in New York."
Balducci's is a Manhattan delicatessen. In the beginning, members admit, the Kansas farm was largely a matter of city kids deciding to be farmers.
Crops failed and animals died. Some adventures such as bringing a hog to market only ring funny now. "A 750-pound pig in the back of a Rabbit Volkswagen," Mrs. Benton Lyman says. "Stuff like that."
Today, the Lyman Family seems well in place in Marshall County.
Family members recently circulated a petition that protested the potential use of Marshall County as a nuclear waste dump. The U & I Band played a dance in the Marysville Knights of Columbus Hall in October and will again next month.
And on the Friday night before the U & I Band's appearance in Kansas City, eight Benton Farm children will attend the local high school prom.
It's the maturation of the second generation that has contributed to the family's decision to be more visible, Mrs. Benton Lyman says.
"A lot of our children are in public schools over the country," Mrs. Benton Lyman says. "They bring other children home. It's forced us to talk about our lives."
Horizons are expanding beyond Marshall County: One family member is enrolled at Kansas State University, another at Reed College in Oregon. Several other children have grown into teen-agers as well and the family faces crossing another barrier: generational.
"The children wanted us to be more actively involved than we were, " Mrs. Benton Lyman says. "I mean, children do make demands."
(below) Jessie Benton Lyman as she appeared in the pages of the Avatar nearly 20 years ago.
(below right) the cover of the second issue of U & I.