Adobe bricks support timeless memories

Photo © by Jeff Dean

Photo © by Jeff Dean (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

La Casa Caliente stretches across a hilltop with unlimited panoramas of majestic mountains and valley. It is a natural building made from sand, clay and water, sun dried in Mexico into two-foot long Adobe bricks. The Mexican tile adobe roof was handmade to perfection. Despite its name, Casa Caliente would remain cool during the long hot Tucson, Arizona summers. The ‘hot house’ designation was a creation of my adman grandfather (Hott is his family name). Simply, La Casa Caliente is a mud masterpiece in the valuable tradition of Mexican homes and in Adobe structures that date back to some of the oldest existing buildings in the world.  We will never know if the  adobe walls  silently archive the presence and the emotions of those who inhabit their interiors.  What if  the Adobe walls were able to speak?  This is what you might hear if that were to happen..

Casa Caliente’s adobe construction  has four bedrooms, seven bathrooms and separate guest’s quarters.  Outside, there is a charming patio with pool, an ancestral olive tree, and a complete citrus grove.   The colorful exterior vegetation includes:  red bougainvillea, desert saguaros, ocotillos, yuccas, paloverdes, mesquites, plus a plethora of colorful desert  plants and wild flowers.There are numerous free-loaders:  resident bobcats (often  with cubs),  a hungry mountain lion, and marauding, serenading coyotes searching for a small dog or house cat.

Casa Caliente Chronology:

May 26, 1954, Robert and Isabelle Patterson, purchased twelve acres of foothill desert, and the construction of Casa Caliente began the same year.

On December 7, 1960 Robert and Isabel Patterson sold the house and property to my maternal grandparents, Maxwell R. Hott and Frances Hott.

Robert Patterson is a direct descendent of John H. Patterson, who founded the National Cash Register Company in 1884. In 1926 NCR became publicly owned, and in 1953 – NCR established the Electronics Division. At that time NCR was based in Dayton, Ohio.  Robert Paterson, a.k.a. Bob Patterson, to my knowledge, never worked for NCR, although his brother, Bill, was Chairman of the Board. Bob was a stockbroker with the investment company, Ball, Burge & Kraus in Dayton, and he continued the same investment profession with Walston & Co. in Tucson.

Bob and Izzy were second marriages. Bob’s first wife, Bunny, was the National Woman’s Trap and Skeet champion. Reportedly the marriage broke down because Bunny was irrepressibly competitive. I have no record of Izzy’s first marriage, save that she was a successful model. Also, Izzy had a twin sister.

Izzy was a breathtaking beauty that stood six-feet tall, and not at all pretentious, despite her stunning looks. She seemed true to herself with an honesty of style that preferred jeans. Bob was considerably shorter, very Yale, quite stuffy and always wore a sport coat, even when hunting deer in northern Wisconsin. They seemed happy together. They had two children: a son nicknamed ‘Speedy,’ and a daughter, Shirley.

In 1959, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were entertained for dinner at the Patterson home. The invitation resulted from Izzy’s friendship with the owner of the Arizona Inn where the couple was staying. The following day, Bob and Izzy joined the Duke and Duchess for three-hole golf, and Izzy got to shout, “Duck Duke,” (as a preference to ‘fore) when a golf ball headed toward the Duke’s head.

My grandparents, Max and Frances Hott, were close friends of Bob and Izzy Patterson long before Tucson. Both families were summer residents in Northern Wisconsin, fifteen miles west of Fifield, where a three-mile lake stretches through seemingly unending pine forests.

Bob Patterson did not enjoy fishing, despite Izzy’s affection for the sport. Normally, he spent time alone managing investments, and afterward he and Izzy would become involved in activities with the children.

Bob was a great salesman and he convinced six to eight lake residents to buy Nipper sailboats. The owners formed the Blue Loon Yacht Club, and began sailboat racing for an annual pennant, which Bob set out to win. He admittedly, took lessons during the winter and won the first year’s pennant. A true sportsman, he willingly offered advice to fellow racers. Sailing rivalry grew keen and the races became very popular as were the social events afterward.

It was natural for the Patterson brothers to summer on the lake because they owned much of the surrounding forest. Oddly, my grandparents were there because of the Chicago Daily Journal. Mother’s maternal grandfather, Wiliam Frank Dunn, purchased newsprint from the paper mill in Park Falls, Wisconsin and shipped it to Chicago by rail to avoid the high price of Chicago jobbers. Frank Dunn was president, publisher and co-owner of the Chicago Daily Journal. While on a paper-buying trip, he purchased property from Jim and John Boyd who were starting Boyd’s Mason Lake Resort. Frank Dunn built one lakeside log cabin that was later increased to three cabins (the original cabin, a guest cabin and a kitchen/dinning room Cabin).

My grandparents met at the lake. Max was standing on the dock wearing a letterman’s sweater from the University of Chicago’s swim team, when Frances paddled in a canoe, dressed in buckskin clothing with a long feather in her hair. She was a striking, tall, slim, raven-haired woman. Max was 5’ 7”, with blue eyes and brown hair. He was smitten and awkwardly tripped and fell into the lake. His wife to be, Alice “Frances” Dunn quickly dismissed him as an idiot.

Prior to meeting his bride-to-be, Max Hott enlisted in World War II, at the age of twenty, where he transferred messages to and from the battlefront on a motorcycle. He was discharged after the war, with the Rank of Sergeant 1st, 3 cl., and studied at Aix-Marseille University with an Army scholarship. Max momentarily broke the 200 yard breaststroke record in Marseille (which was bested on the same day by Chicagoan Michael McDermott).

Professionally Max Hott followed in his father’s footsteps. John F. Hott at an early age successfully bought and sold farmland , and later became manager of the Pepsin Syrup Company. With an unusual advertising genius, the elder Hott devised large–scale advertising campaigns to make Dr. Caldwell Syrup of Pepsin, a dependable laxative, into a household name in America and abroad. John Hott was also the prime mover in forming the Monticello Rotary Club, and he built the beautiful mansion on State Street that was modeled after Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. He was a philanthropist, and his most enduring tradition was to give a fine watch to each local Eagle Scout. (The tradition passed onward, and his granddaughter, Jeanne, awarded the 160th watch in 2005. The tradition continues.

Max Hott inherited his father’s business acumen, and held the title of divisional vice-president of Sterling Drug, where he successfully marketed Pine Balm (daughter Jeanne advised, “Daddy why not put it in a pine cone,” which Max did)  and he positioned Campho-Phenique as a first aid antiseptic.  Max Hott was the only Sterling executive allowed to own his own manufacturing plant – The Pinus Medicine Company – where he manufactured Dr. Caldwell’s Syrup of Pepsin and Pine Balm.

In the 1930’s Max Hott was selected as one of the twenty-five top advertising executives in the United States. The twenty-five executives enjoyed an all-expense paid uproarious train trip from New York to San Francisco where the liquor flowed and the conversation was unforgettable.

In subsequent years, Max Hott purchased farmland, and also Pluto Water, with the famous Red Devil laxative that was available everywhere, even on passenger trains. (When Nature Won’t – Pluto will). The Pluto Corporation was based in French Lick Indiana and ownership came with a box seat at the Kentucky Derby.

Max and Frances had one child: Frances “Jeanne,” who was born May 7th, 1921. She was raised in Monticello, Illinois where there were more millionaires per capita than elsewhere in the US. She was eligible for Daughters of the American Revolution, and was transported by a chauffeur and later with a bodyguard after the kidnapping of Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr.   Jeanne was schooled in Gulf Park College for Women in Gulfport, Mississippi, where she enjoyed early parental permission to smoke cigarettes.  Next, she studied at National Park College in Washington D.C., where she was the cover girl for the class yearbook.  Her National Park College roommate, Barbara, was the sister of Emil (Bus) Mosbacher Jr., who skippered two winning teams in the America’s Cup races., and was the US Chief of Protocol during the administration of President Richard Nixon.  Jeanne was a frequent guest in the Mosbacher home and still has fond memories of the many celebrities she met in the Mosbacher White Plains home that including Tula Bankhead.

Max Hott could never have envisioned his only daughter would marry a man ten years older. Even less imaginable was his background: the son of a Greek immigrant who left his family in Sanga, Greece at a moment’s notice to work as a cabin boy aboard a merchant ship sailing for the port of New York. Steve Bennis was seventeen at the time.

The marriage should never have occurred. Jeanne Hott was in Monticello, Illinois, whereas Chuck Bennis lived in Los Angeles and held a job in public relations for RKO Pictures. The year before, he had been selected with eight other All American collegiate football players to appear in the movie The Big Game, starring Andy Devine. RKO hired Chuck afterwards. The job was to die for and Chuck had no thoughts of changing until his father, Steve Bennis, sent a telegram: “Your Mother is dying. Come home at once.” Chuck immediately informed RKO, bought No Dose pills and drove non-stop for Lincoln, Illinois.

Back in Lincoln, Illinois mother Anna Eckert lingered, and Chuck accepted a position with Lincoln Community High School to teach biology and coach the freshman football team. Prior to this, Chuck Bennis was an Illinois idol. He was the Illini football player who earned All-Big Ten and All-American Honors in 1933 and 1934, and served as co-captain of the 1934 team. Later, he was named “I” Man of the Year in 1978, one year after George Halas earned the same award. The fans also voted Chuck Bennis to the twenty-five-man All-Century Team during the Illinois Football Centennial Celebration in 1990.

The Lincoln High School football coach had never played the sport. Andy Anderson’s appointment was a direct result of being married to a prominent woman who served on the school’s Board of Directors. Anderson, for some unknown reason, scheduled a full game scrimmage with the freshman team. Bennis begged Anderson to reconsider. The freshman team weighed an average of 165 pounds, whereas the varsity was composed of big farm boys, all weighing over 200 pounds. The varsity coach was adamant. The game would occur, and it was promoted in the local newspaper.

Chuck Bennis addressed his team and said, “You’re going to hurt, maybe more than you have ever been hurt in your life. You’d better get used to it.” Thus began a regimen of off-school, full-contact boxing lesions. (Bennis was the former intramural light heavyweight champion). At the school the freshman could be seen training long after the varsity left for the showers. It was commonly accepted the event would be a massacre.

At halftime, the freshman led by one touchdown. At the end of the fourth quarter, the score was Freshman 14 – Varsity 7.  Anderson extended the game by one more quarter, and the freshman increased their score to 21 -14. From that moment onward, the freshman taunted the humiliated varsity to let them play the rest of their scheduled games.

Several weeks later, Chuck Bennis was fired by the Principal and told to get another job at the end of spring semester. Bennis called the University of Illinois football coach, Robert Zuppke, and related what happened. ‘Zuppke started laughing. Bennis said, “Not funny, Zup, I need to work.” There was a pause. Zuppke said, “You have a job. You’re my new head line coach!” And that placed Chuck Bennis within fifteen minutes from Monticello and a blind date with Jeanne Hott.

The merging of the two families was never comfortable. The Hotts were Presbyterian and infrequent churchgoers; the Bennises were devout Catholics and insisted that a priest performed the wedding ceremony.

It only got worse. Bennis’s mother, Anna, spoke German more fluently than English, and attended Catholic mass every day of her life. The father of the groom was the polar opposite of Max Hott, who inherited wealth. Steve Bennis began his business career selling bananas from a cart. Eventually, he opened a confectionary store with silent movies.  Next, he opened two movie theaters and an Opera house in Lincoln, Illinois.  In 1936, he bought the Lincoln Deer Creek Coal Mine. The theater acquisitions continued.  Steve Bennis added two new Lincoln Drive-in theaters, and purchased two more theaters and another Drive-In in Freeport, Illinois.

The disparity between the two families was apparent to everyone, including Coach Zuppke, who took Bennis aside after the wedding and said, “She’s going to lead you around like a prize bull with a ring in your nose.”

Max Hott and Chuck Bennis had an adequate relationship with the help of Frances Hott. Apart from the many cordial family functions, the two men competed for subtle psychological ploys to best one another and to secure an unfair advantage. The situation was a living example of the British author, Stephen Potter’s book: One-Upmanship. Politely stated: they did not get along, and as a result Chuck Bennis never entered Casa Caliente.

At one time two advertisements ran nearly side by side on the elevated Chicago ‘L’ line: The first ad was for Max Hott’s Dr. Caldwell’s Syrup of Pepsin with the tagline — “Pull the trigger on lazy bowels” (where someone wrote in white paint “and shoot yourself in the ass”). Nearby, an ad featured the testimonial of handsome athlete, Chuck Bennis, who drank a certain brand of milk.

Oddly, after the wedding, Chuck Bennis gave up the coaching he loved to manage his father’s coal mine. Champaign is located fifteen minutes from Monticello where the Hott’s lived. In comparison, the Bennis hometown of Lincoln, IL, was an hour away.

Lincoln was a vibrant picturesque community that was named by attorney Abraham Lincoln and christened with a watermelon before he became famous. Lincoln had a growing economy and an established polite society. There was an English Tudor-style hotel, frequent band concerts, carnivals, and later, after the war, Lincoln received one of the nation’s Chautauqua’s, created by President Roosevelt to bring entertainment and culture for the whole community.  Lincoln was also the proud hometown of William Maxwell, who wrote award winning novels and held the prestigious position as the New Yorker fiction editor.  Albeit exciting, Lincoln was a little rough around the edges with the Chicago Street bars. In contrast, Monticello was pristine, unspoiled, flawless–just what you would expect of the one-time wealthiest town in America per capita.

The new couple moved into the upstairs apartment of a family home, and Jeanne Hott at once became a celebrity. She was nineteen when she married Chuck Bennis who was socially unacceptable in Lincoln. That quickly changed by virtue of his beautiful bride.  A year later, Jeanne had her first child, Charles Michael Bennis, who at once became “Mike.” Soon Mother and son would begin commuting between Lincoln and Monticello during WWII.

Chuck Bennis was Rear Admiral (Admiral of the Fleet) Ralph E. Davidson’s personal communication officer aboard the USS Franklin.  Both the Admiral and Bennis survived each of the two devastating kamikaze attacks. Effectively, the Franklin was a blazing inferno twice, with horrible death tolls that nearly destroyed the Franklin. (Years later, Bennis took a an Asian cruse and remained below deck. Whenever he looked out over the water he saw dead bodies floating everywhere).

After the war, the marriage was strained. Jeanne was the beautiful only child, who was raised with servants and was continually doted upon by loving parents. Chuck was one of six children: five boys, the youngest died of Rheumatic fever, and one sister. Chuck inherited his father’s self-determination and the proven ability to succeed beyond belief. He would never admit it, but he carried sadness from the war.  The marriage was blissful or baleful. The self-reliant couple might have remained together for their child, and probably because Jeanne could never face her beloved father and say, “you were right.”  The marriage improved with the birth their second child,  John Maxwell Bennis in 1948.

The Historic 1953 Centennial brought excitement to the marriage when Alben Barkley, the United States Vice President, visited Lincoln and stayed in the newly built home of Chuck and Jeanne Bennis.  He was also taken for an aerial view of the surrounding Logan County in Bennis’ Ryan Navion.  The marriage seemed to benefit from the expanded social functions, and the entertaining of Lincoln friends in the box seat at the Kentucky Derby.

The Hotts had inherited the William Frank Dunn log cabins in northern Wisconsin, and both brothers, Mike and John, spent summers ‘Up North’ with their grandparents. It was the annual touchstone for two boys who measured each year by the coming summertime’s  trip to the cabins.  Jeanne would be there for some of the summer, with Chuck flying into the tiny airfield for short visits.

In that same year, 1954, I was trout fishing with Max when he had a major stroke in a remote wilderness area. I heard him call out for help, and I came at once to find him sitting upward on the ground. He had one urgent question, “Do you know where the Jeep is?” I admitted I didn’t.

He winced and admonished me, “Pal, don’t ever walk into the woods without knowing where you are and how you entered! See that big blue spruce on the hill? You can see the car from the tree. But you can’t walk there directly. You must circle around a treacherous bog.”  The journey to the car took three hours. I was twelve and Max was fifty-four, and we often interrupted our exit so I could shoot the .38 caliber Smith Wesson he carried for bears. He insisted I drive when we reached the Jeep. He unexpectedly smiled and acknowledged how my grandmother had been teaching me to drive. It would be a good lesson, he reasoned,  if I were to drive back to camp. I suspected but never knew how fearful he was of dying.

On that day, the lives of Max and Frances Hott changed. The Mayo Clinic in Rochester gave Max two years to live and insisted he retire immediately and move to a less stressful location. As a result, Max and Frances donated their home on an entire city block to the University of Illinois to become the Hott Memorial Center.   The elegant home contained formal gardens, a ballroom dance floor over the garage, and an extensive library with many first edition signed books, plus the many glorious interior effects.

Max and Frances moved into a small Tucson ranch house on North Camino Kino, in the Catalina Foothills Estates. Four years later, Max was still alive. He was taking art lessons and becoming an accomplished artist. They had social friends and bridge clubs. They read books about the desert and became enamored with their new location.  Soon, they were invited by Bob and Izzy  to dine in their newly constructed home, where they expressed their genuine appreciation for their newly constructed home

In 1960, Bob and Izzy gave Max and Frances the opportunity to buy their new home before it was listed. The negotiation ended at once with the Hotts buying the home. Bob and Izzy had grown tired of Tucson; Bob always had a sense of wanderlust. Perhaps, he could have been disillusioned with the Walston & Co. brokerage business in Tucson.  The Pattersons soon moved to Charlottesville, Virginia and into their Stockton Creek Farm where Bob and Izzy owned a historical colonial home with a large Angus cattle operation. Years later the place would be advertised in Vanity Fair as a plantation.

Max and Frances adored their new home. I was always a frequent visitor from the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado. However in 1963 – 1964, there was a sudden lapse in letters from my grandparents.  At the time, I was studying in Madrid at  Complutense University.  Normally, I received weekly letters from my grandmother who finally wrote, “Hell is paved with bricks of good intention.”  I would never know until I returned stateside at the end of the summer that my grandmother was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1964, and suffered severe radiation burns from the treatment that eradicated the cancer but left her with a colostomy. She had feared surgery and never told the radiologist when she was in pain.

In 1968, I moved with my wife from New York City where I was a stockbroker with Blair & CO. to become a stockbroker with E. F. Hutton, in Tucson. The move allowed for timeless, unforgettable memories in Casa Caliente. Especially significant were the afternoon dialogues with my grandmother ‘Meme’ to discuss literature and writing. I was always fascinated by Meme’s stories of Ernest Hemingway, from when they were high school chums in Oak Park, Illinois. I never met the members of the Hemingway family who occasionally visited Max and France in Tucson.

Max and I frequented the tough cowboy bars where he knew everyone. This included Stumpy’s in Trail Dust Town, and Jim Eddy’s Hidden Valley Tavern on the corner of Tanque Verde and Tanque Verde Loop. It was always exciting, especially during the summer outdoors fiestas.

On one such occasion a Yaqui Indian dropped dead. The next morning Max and I went to the bar and found the dead Indian lying on the pool table. The usual patrons were drunk. They had been drinking all night in memory of the handsome Yaqui actor who had performed in many of the Westerns that were filmed in Old Tucson. The actor had no family so Jim Eddy checked if the man had to be embalmed before burial. The municipal authorities advised Jim how the fierce Yaqui Indians had never accepted peace with the US, and that for all practical matters they were still at war, and were certainly not US citizens. The actor was buried behind the bar in a six-foot grave.

Meanwhile the winds of change were blowing. In 1968, my parents became separated after twenty-six years and filed for divorce. (Both parents would eventually remarry).  Max Hott’s health was precarious and he passed on in 1969. My grandmother would follow him three years later.  However before her death, Frances would attend the wedding of Jeanne and Warren Gallagher. It was a happy and festive occasion, and the beginning of thirty-two years of a blissful relationship with much of it spent in Tucson, where Jeanne and Warren enjoyed membership in the Tucson Country Club and the Mountain Oyster Club.

Warren bought a vintage red convertible, MG TC, and he and Jeanne delighted in touring the countryside around Tucson.  Warren had a penchant for  wearing ascots that might have been reminiscent of the days when he spent four years as a B-24 navigator with the 392nd Bomb Group based outside London (the 392nd suffered heavy losses of both aircraft and aircrew during its combat experience in World War II).  The house, still referred to as Casa Caliente, was the scene of happy frequent social events, and Jeanne and Warren adapted to their new life between Lincoln, IL and Tucson, AZ with aplomb. They traveled extensively about the southwest and Europe.   Professionally, Warren was a sales agent for corn and soybean farms as well as cattle ranches, and they especially enjoyed the National Western Stock Show, and previewing famous ranches.  The Irish in Warren came out in laughing eyes and unusual rules. Guests had to leave by the same door they entered. Mother and Warren were intuitive and it was most visible in the kitchen where they often worked without dialogue. They enjoyed a vibrant social life in both Lincoln and Tucson. Warren had seven sisters and he fathered two daughters, so he was always comfortable with Mother. He was a gracious host, and he will be long remembered by those who knew him. Their enjoyment of one another lasted thirty-two years until Warren died in Tucson in 2001.

Health reversals precluded my Mother, Jeanne Gallagher, from traveling to Tucson after Warren’s death, which occasioned the sale of Casa Caliente.  I had moved to Tucson, so that painful assignment naturally fell like a heavy weight over my shoulders.  The house was hardly altered by my mother, and the faint fragrance of Nina Richi perfume still persisted.  It is sometimes  hard for logic to prevail over emotion.

http://www.cmichaelbennis.com/

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