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The Life of Riley

Physiognomy requires a forensic eye or that of an artist. I have neither. So the Community Collection’s most recent addition — a portrait of some distinction, in my view — struck a chord that resonates still in my imagination.

Portraits, by their very nature, are commissioned by or for those among us who wield more than what might be thought their fair share of power. Nice alliteration, don’t you think? The consensus (admittedly from a small sampling) seems to be that the painting dates from the mid-1960s, though just as admittedly that judgment depends on the shirt, tie, and pocket square; the suit is lost in the background. And then there is the age of the subject, who might be in his fifties. The math then says he was born circa 1913-1917. About the age of my dad. This guy is beginning to look a lot more familiar.

All of this brings us to his identity, and that depends in my mind on the character of his face. Our subject could be anyone in Agincourt, from a grade school custodian, insurance salesman, banker, mechanic, or ophthalmologist. Were this simply a case of “pin the tail on the portrait”, one occupation would be as good as another. But as you know, there are stray threads in the story line seeking resolution. And so he has become William Tyson Bendix, a name that has been kicking around four or five years as the builder of Agincourt’s earliest mid-century modern home.

One of the student projects from a few years ago was done by Gabriela Bierle. Gaby was interested in mid-century design, but spun the project toward the work of E. Fay Jones, a disciple of late Frank Lloyd Wright and designer of large homes in Arkansas. Her interpretation of Jones’s design idiom was spot on, but I don’t have a copy of her design; just my failing memory. So I may have to intercede and give Bill and Maureen Bendix my own understanding of MCM design.

Don’t ask me how the name came to mind. It just did. But in hindsight, I know the source was a TV show from my youth: “The Life of Riley“, a radio program that migrated to TV and ran from 1949 (we got our first set in 1953) until 1958. The title role of Chester A. Riley, a wing riveter at an airplane manufacturing plant in California, was played by a raspy William Bendix. The feckless Riley was unlikely to have commissioned a portrait, so Agincourt’s William Bendix will play another role, yet to be determined. Suggestions, anyone?

The sixteen lots in Riverside Addition can be seen along the banks of the Muskrat, running from the alley just north of the Avenue as far north as Ralph Avenue. Fennimore Avenue splits the addition in half, eight lots to the north, eight to the south.

I’m asking for your help prematurely; there are complicating factors. Bendix, for example, built his MCM home in Riverside Addition, Agincourt’s first subdivision, on a thin strip of land between the west edge of the original town site and the Muskrat River. Much of that land had been occupied by a failed apple orchard, taken by blight and thereby opened for redevelopment. The Bendix family built on the southernmost lot, just north of the tourist court operated by Forrest Culp and his daughter Myra. Lots in Riverside Addition weren’t selling especially well, so Bendix put his own reputation on the line by building there himself. Flood waters be damned.

At least now we know what he looked like.

 


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