William Benjamin still curious about life at age 95
Although he admits there is really nothing he likes about growing old, William Benjamin defies the stereotype of a grumpy old man.
The urbane Montecito resident, who recently celebrated his 95th birthday, relishes his fascinating life because “I’m curious. I like to know things and meet people, find out what they know. I’m inquisitive. It’s a gift. I have made friends all over the world. I love to listen to people.”
Until the recent stay-at-home order, Mr. Benjamin also loved to travel throughout the world in search of new gourmet experiences, especially if oysters are on the menu.
“I just got back from a month-long road trip to Napa Valley. I had some of the finest oysters in Inverness (in Scotland). I can eat oysters all the time, and I do,” he told the News-Press. “I covered 2,460 miles in my red Volkswagen bug.”
An avid tennis player until about a year and half ago, Mr. Benjamin currently indulges in one of his favorite pastimes — reading.
“I like mysteries and history. Autobiographies and biographies are my favorites. I’ve read every presidential biography and autobiography ever written. David McCullough is a favorite,” he said.
The native of Providence, Ky., who was born Nov. 22, 1925, also enjoys reminiscing about his eventful life during which he has been a successful serial entrepreneur, content publisher and market validation expert, and a decorated military veteran who served in World War II and the Korean War. He also started four content development companies.
“During WWII, I was in the Army and fought against the Germans in France, serving with the 42nd Rainbow Division. I was 18 years old, and it was a scary experience. There are no atheists in foxholes. At the same time, I was fascinated by the war and being in France. There were so many new experiences,” said Mr. Benjamin, who was awarded the Bronze Star for a successful voluntary mission behind enemy lines in the battle for Strasbourg, France.
“In 2018, I was presented the Strasbourg Medal of Honor by the mayor of Strasbourg in a special military award ceremony,” he said. “It was a day-long celebration that also honored a much-decorated French combat soldier and fellow officer, Gerald de Turckheim, whose battalion fought alongside my unit to free the city of Strasbourg from German occupation.”
In 1950, Mr. Benjamin earned his bachelor’s degree in English and journalism at the University of Kentucky and two years later joined the College Department of the McGraw-Hill Book Company in New York City as a textbook salesperson and editorial scout in the Pacific Northwest.
“I traveled around college campuses in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. I talked to the faculties, who were very interesting people. It was a wonderful job,” he said.
In 1960, Mr. Benjamin returned to New York City and started his own science publishing company, W.A. Benjamin Inc. His business produced some 500 science textbooks, monographs and teaching aids, including the works of 38 Nobel Prize winners in physics, chemistry biology and mathematics.
“I lived in Greenwich Village as a bachelor until I married and had two children,” said Mr. Benjamin, who divorced several years later and in 1971, decided to fulfill a lifelong dream to live in Europe.
“I wanted to learn another language and participate in another political system. I wanted to live in someone else’s skin, experience what an expat goes through — the good and the bad,” he said. “I migrated to Paris because it is so different, so beautiful. The bridges alone captivated my heart. And the cathedrals. I love architecture, classical architecture. I had complete immersion in European architecture.
“Then there are the women, who are so different from American women. They were a real eye opener for this poor boy from Kentucky.”
Asked about French cuisine. Mr. Benjamin said, “How many hours do you have? Going to great restaurants is one of the most common things the French do. I met Julia Child in France, saw her in Cambridge, Mass., and again in a restaurant in Santa Barbara after I moved here.”
While in Paris, Mr. Benjamin launched his second company, The Center for Business Information, which provided American business information and research services to European companies.
“I also assisted American CIA cooperatives in Paris with logistical support for Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s successful peace treaty negotiations between Vietnam and the U.S. and the installation of a Soviet operations surveillance service in Lisbon, Portugal,” Mr. Benjamin said.
Decidedly homesick for weekend American football, genuine hamburgers and a real milkshake, Mr. Benjamin merged CBI with a French competitor and moved to Boston in 1979, where he started a consulting firm called Business Research Corp., which provided online product research and design services to the Christian Science Monitor, Atlantic Monthly, Paine Webber and A.C. Nielsen.
Hoping to escape the snowy winters of Boston, Mr. Benjamin moved once again to Santa Barbara in 1983.
“I also wanted to be closer to my kids, Michele and Malcolm, who live in Marin County in northern California. I checked out La Jolla, Carmel, Napa Valley but decided against them because La Jolla had too much traffic, Carmel was foggy and Napa Valley was raining like hell. When I went to lunch at the El Encanto Hotel with my son, I told him it was just like southern France,” he said.
In addition to becoming a full-time tennis player and annual voyager back to Provence, France, he designed and produced the first online travel guide on a floppy disk called TRAVELDATA, which he sold to Fielding Guides in 1985.
“I was notably competitive as a mid-range tennis player at every stop in my various residences and as a one-time runner-up senior squash champion in Paris, but my real passion is my constant quest for a new and interesting restaurant offering a native cuisine or new dish I have never tasted,” said Mr. Benjamin.