Pencils – Caitlin Benson Hartford, daughter

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I last saw you in October and you were still feathering your new nest. A single-story house that would be much easier on your knees and in a great neighborhood – if it weren’t for the knees – within walking distance to your favorite places in Fairhaven. Unpacked boxes still stuffed the garage and an outbuilding or two, but parts of the house were already taking on your flavor: the kitchen, dining and living rooms, and of course, your office. A corner nook off the main entry with a wrap-around desk and plenty of shelving, your snug mission control. A collection of yellow pads, post-its, printed emails, recipes, and personal cards tumbled in minor disarray across the desktop as if to say, “We’ve only just arrived, but already there are lovely and important things to remember and keep within eyeshot.”

The mail brought excitement one day in the form of a new electric pencil sharpener in a medium-sized box. After unpacking it, you wanted to try it out immediately. I thought it a bit silly, with so much need to reduce possessions, what would make you spend money on an electric pencil sharpener of all things?  But then I remembered the marmalade jars of fat, soft-lead pencils you strategically placed where one might need to write. Two jars sat on your desk to the left of the computer and another by the kitchen phone for transcribing messages and taking careful notes from phone conversations with your daughters so facts could later correctly be recounted to Herman or others. The special pencils, you explained, were too wide to fit into regular sharpeners and the electric sharpener you had for years had just quit working. With optimism for the unquestioned need to keep sharp pencils at hand, there was no doubting the equal need for another good sharpener. And so there it was, shiny, plugged in and ready to assist. 

When I returned the following March, a week after you were already gone, I noticed you had sharpened all the pencils to equal points and distributed them tip up among the marmalade jars. 

One must always be ready to write.

Every Comma Mattered: Sheila Benson’s Life & Times, by Chuck Wilson, friend & colleague

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Former Los Angeles Times film critic Sheila Benson died February 23, 2022 of natural causes. She was 91. Admired by colleagues for the eloquence of her prose and by filmmakers and actors alike for her generosity of spirit, Sheila came to criticism quite naturally. Her parents were artists and writers. She herself studied ballet under the great Balanchine. Observing the world, onscreen and off, with an artist’s eye, was an intrinsic gift Sheila spent her life cultivating.

Sheila was born December 4, 1930 in New York City to museum curator-dioramist turned costume designer Dwight Franklin and novelist-screenwriter Mary C. McCall, Jr. During the Depression, the Franklin-McCall’s moved to Los Angeles. Sheila was four-years-old. Her parents found great success in Hollywood, with Dwight designing costumes for Cecil B. DeMille while Mary became the first woman to be voted president of the Writer’s Guild of America (twice).

Sheila attended Beverly Hills High School and studied theater arts at UCLA alongside classmates James Dean and Carol Burnett. Sheila would eventually become a writer like her mother, but in her heart of hearts, she was a dancer, and as a teenager, studied at the School of American Ballet under choreographer George Balanchine. A harsh taskmaster whom Sheila adored, the Russian master taught her a respect for rigor and detail that she would carry forth into her own work. For Sheila, every comma mattered. Intensely.

She would marry three times, first to photographer Charles W. Ashley, with whom she had two daughters, Ann and Eden. Later, she married developer Walter Benson, with whom she had her daughter, Caitlin. Some years later, in 1982, she married businessman Herman Hong, who would prove to be the great love of her life. This August would have been their 40th wedding anniversary.

By the end of her second marriage, Sheila was living in Mill Valley, California, and writing film criticism for the Pacific Sun. Sheila’s reviews were immensely popular and caught the attention of Los Angeles Times film critic Charles Champlin, who invited her to join the paper.

Soon, Sheila was back in the city of her upbringing, traveling to screenings at the movie studios at which her parents had once worked, often with their daughter at their side. Those years, along with her deep love of literature and art, infused every line of every review she wrote.

Sheila was the Chief Film Critic of the Los Angeles Times from 1981 to 1991 and Critic at Large from ’91 to ’92. She was invited to serve on the critic’s jury to many prestigious festivals, from her beloved Mill Valley Film Festival to Telluride, Toronto, Sundance, and Berlin. She often moderated onstage interviews with filmmakers and actors, including a grand one with Alfre Woodard as well as a nerve rattling but triumphant encounter with Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni.

In those years, Sheila won the adoration of L.A. Times readers, who were known to read her reviews aloud or cut them out and post them on the fridge. Her reviews turned many small, no-budget releases, such as Some Girls and One False Move, into local hits.

Carl Franklin and Jesse Beaton, the director and producer, respectively, of One False Move, credit Sheila’s early support with helping the film, now hailed as a masterpiece, gain a nationwide release. “She changed the course of both our lives,” Beaton said upon learning of Sheila’s passing.

As Hollywood turned to superheroes and L.A. traffic became a bit too awful to bear, Sheila stepped away from the Times and she and Herman moved to Seattle and a new life. There, they made many new friends, and as in Los Angeles and Mill Valley, the Benson-Hong house was always brimming with activity. Dinner, of course, was served after 9 p.m. when it could be savored and the day fully discussed and appreciated. If you called, and you were welcome to call late, Sheila might talk with you, but Herman would surely chime in, his commentary laced with laughter. There was much laughter in that house. Laughter and joy and enviably good food.

Sheila was with us for 91 years and each was full to bursting with life.

Sheila Benson is survived by her husband, Herman Hong, and daughters, Ann Brooke Ashley, Eden Ashley Umble, and Caitlin Benson Hartford, and sons-in-law Michael Umble and Tim Hartford. She doted on her four grandchildren, Chloe & Riley Umble, and Samantha & Michael Hartford. She is also survived by her sister, Mary David Sheiner, and niece, Laurel Phillips.

Plans for a Sheilabration (multi-city tour) will be announced later this year.

In lieu of flowers, her family invites you to consider a donation in her memory to support human rights (refugee aid for Ukraine), reproductive rights, literacy, or voters’ rights – all causes near and dear to her activist’s heart.

A trip to the dentist – Eden Umble, daughter

Reflecting on my remarkable mother’s blessedly long and colorful life, so many memories bubble up. I’m eight years old, sitting in my third grade class, when I’m called to the Principal’s office for reasons unknown. (Betty Grimm wasn’t terrifying for her name alone). When I get there, convinced I must have done something dreadful despite my rock-solid teacher’s pet status, my mother is in the office, chatting up Principal Grimm. Mom says to me brightly, “Sweetheart, you have a dentist appointment this afternoon. I forgot to remind you this morning.”

She signs me out of school and takes me by the hand. (Our dentist, Dr. Joel Kudler, was the kind of gentle, sweet guy whom we all adored. But still, I’m thoroughly confused.) On our walk to the car in the warm sunlight, I ask, “I have a dentist appointment…??” She whispers conspiratorially, “You don’t. I’m taking you to a screening of Oliver!”

My. Mom. Lied. To. The. Principal. To take me, the middle kid… to a movie.
In the middle of a school day.  It doesn’t get more badass than that. 

(Over 30 years later, my husband and I pay homage to my mom’s example, taking our kids out of school with the ruse that they’re going to the doctor. My husband took it a step further, telling them they were getting SHOTS. Our daughter got suspicious when we passed the exit for her doctor’s office, but as we approached our destination, we played the Harry Potter theme and told them to check under their car seats, where the movie tickets were hidden. They really loved the movie, of course, but they were incredibly relieved about the shots.)

Today marks exactly one month since we lost our mother. Love you forever, my incomparable, brilliant, ingeniously loving momma.

– Eden Ashley Umble, daughter
March 23, 2022

Miracle Worker – Stephen M. Silverman, colleague

She was so loving and fun — and there was a time (January 1993, maybe) we were snowed in together for nearly a week in my Lincoln Center apartment because of a blizzard. As you can imagine, we watched a lot of great movies (“The Third Man’ sticks out in my mind) and got through the week, laughing a lot. She also came back from dinner that week and told me she had run into Stanley Donen in the restaurant and he said hello to me. I had been working on his biography but had gotten so pissed off at him I had put the book away for months and months. If it hadn’t been for Sheila being the surprise messenger, I probably never have gone back to it. 

So, you see, she was a miracle worker.

I share in your loss.

Again, lots of love, Stephen

Fond Memories – Chris Connelly, colleague

I’ve got fond memories of your mother’s literate & spirited reviews, especially during a film decade when her critical discernment and truth-telling were so greatly needed. I was very sorry to read of her passing. It’s fitting that you’ve been hearing from grateful readers & colleagues who appreciated her work… I think she helped a lof of us to enjoy thinking and sharing about the movies that much more. Sending gratitude for your mother’s writing, & all the best to you and your family.

Condolences – Justin Chang, colleague

Dear Ms. Umble and Mr. Hong,

Please accept my condolences on the passing of your beloved mother and wife. I never got to meet Sheila in person but she was extraordinarily kind and generous to me in her many emails over the years, which meant the world to me coming from a critic of her stature. She was tirelessly supportive even before I began working at the L.A. Times a few years ago, and I’m still humbled to be at the paper where she wrote about movies so brilliantly and memorably.

I know I am not alone in having been encouraged and inspired by Sheila’s amazing work and collegial spirit over the years. And on behalf of her many friends in the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, please know that so many of us are thinking fondly of her now and always, and also of you and her entire family. Love and blessings to you all.

Sincerely,

Justin Chang

The Sky has a New Star! – Jesse Beaton, friend

It’s just been a few hours since our beloved Sheila left us here on this crazy planet.
What a force of nature she was.
Whip Smart.
Insightful and provocative – a deep thinker who loved her family & friends; art, literature & cinema with a passion.
Hostess with the Mostess.
Collector of books and fab items gathered from swap meets and garage/estate sales from Marin City to the Rose Bowl.
Always discerning and playful in those curated choices.
Her many houses were always ‘homes’ filled with spirit and artifacts that sparked distinctive energy.
Champion of so many indie artists – especially Carl et moi!
Mother to her three fabulous daughters & a couple of us who were treated with such motherly love too.
I know Suzanne & I were amongst the lucky ones who really got to have that deep & meaningful experience even though we were not really related by blood.
But we were related by heart & soul from the moment we met.
Ben told that great story of how he & Don (in their inimitable way) hooked Sheila & Charles Champlin up for her 90th B’Day book.  The rest is history!
Oddly enough – just about 5-10 minutes before Eden called me this evening I picked up a Pacific Sun for the first time in eons.
Cosmic or what?
My heart goes out to you Herman, Eden, Ann & Caitlin.
Such a stunning shock.
At the same time – you gotta so love that Sheila did not linger in some long tragic way.
Homegirl knew how to make an exit!
A life so beautifully lived – full of love, adventure, a fab family & the lasting love of her life with Herman.  It really did seem like she would be with us forever.
I am just one of the luckiest people who really got to have a deep & meaningful relationship with one of the most interesting & soulful women who graced this planet.
I will forever cherish our bond – as I know all of you will do too.
She had a major impact on my life & Carl’s life too.  Her choice to take “One False Move” as her movie pic onto the Floating Film Festival in 1990 (or so??) changed the course of both our lives.  We would have never had the exposure and subsequent theatrical release our our film had Sheila not chosen our film to take onto that film festival. (She always had excellent taste!)

Just last week I put this photo in my photo file – Sheila looked pretty much the same from the day I met her til I last actually ’saw’ her at last year’s 90th B’Day Zoom.  She will always be in my heart.

And like Ben said – she was a whole lotta fun too!

Herman, Ann, Eden & Caitlin – I love you all and even though I know you are all now quite devastated I also know that you are all filled with the fierce love of Sheila and that you will be there for one another and be strengthened by the love she sent to you every day.
Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help you manage things in this next period of time.
I am happy to help in any way.
I can help with anything you need to put together a Celebration of a Life Well Lived!
Love you all, Jesse

Spark – Edward Landler, friend

A light shone there beneath the skin
Its source you’d see if you would look
It was sparked there in the eyes
Of course… that spark is love.

We all are creatures sparked by love
But in whose – how many – eyes we meet
Do we see that spark’s identity
With love… creation… all that is…?

There are some people I’ve been told
Whose deep connections in the soul
With all around them shines most clear
Mirrored in all that they hold dear.

That spark is knowing – consciously or not –
To love life in every form we find and feel it…

Those who love never die.

Rats and Mice – Michael Umble, son-in-law

I think of Sheila, I think about the look. The glint in her eyes. The expression utter delight, complete surprise, sly mischievousness and if you witness a wrong moment, there would be a sigh of exasperation and an expression of “oh rats and mice!”.

The joy and delight would come back, always. Joy. Surprise. Happiness. When I didn’t see the look, I knew it was there, answering my phone to an indescribably cheerful “Hullo, darlin’…” and I will miss that.

With that look, with a tone, no one ever made anyone feel more loved, and through her delighted and delightful laugh spread her brilliant enthusiasm. It’s a quality she passed on to her daughters which is lovely. I see it in Eden, it is so much a part of her (even the more harshly worded “rats and mice” part) and for that I am grateful, but I’ll always miss the original.