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Benjamin B. Green-Field (1898-1988)

Benjamin B. Green-Field, who founded and endowed the Benjamin B. Green-Field Foundation, was a Chicago born-and-raised businessman, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and bon vivant.

Heralded as “Chicago’s Mad Hatter” by famously crafting whimsical and elegant hats for women, including such celebrities as Lucille Ball, Marlene Dietrich and Elizabeth Taylor,  Mr. Green-Field’s history with headwear began mostly through necessity.

Born in 1898 to the son of an iron worker, Mr. Green-Field’s father died when he was just six years old, leaving his mother Ida, the head of the family and the sole supporter. In 1919, he and his sister, Bessie, opened a store on State Street, combining their first names to create the famous Bes-Ben logo. Within eight years the duo had expanded their business to include five shops. Their hats had become a necessary adornment for Chicago’s society ladies and beyond.

Bes-Ben’s hats were comparatively tame until 1941. Around this time, Mr. Green-Field’s creativity and sense of humor really began to surface in his designs. He began to incorporate unusual items into his hats: firecrackers, skyscrapers, animals, bugs, fruit, doll furniture, palm trees, cigarette packages and even Folies-Bergere dancers.

Mr. Green-Field also made pieces to commemorate holidays and events. For Hedda Hopper’s appearance at the film premiere of “The Razor’s Edge”, he topped a hat with razors. A Chicago socialite received a little hat covered with clocks to wear at a charity entitled “Time for Giving”.

His World War II designs included hats decorated with “victory gardens” and “invasion” hats. In deference to wartime rationing, Mr. Green-Field’s 1942 hats were constructed from ordinary kitchen utensils: a Dutch bonnet made from a kitchen towel trimmed with napkin rings; a cookie cutter and a tea strainer; a tricorn covered with plastic cutlery, grapefruit knives and ice tongs; and even a hat made of a sponge with protruding iced tea spoons.

The prices for Mr. Green-Field’s creations, which originally ranged from $37.75 to $1,000, tended to exclude women on a budget. However, every summer he would clean out his inventory for the new season at a midnight sale, marking down the hats to as little as $5. At 2 a.m., he would begin to toss the rest out the front door to waiting bargain-hunters. While the demand for hats in general dropped dramatically in the 1960s, Bes-Ben hats have remained hugely popular and collectible.

When a hat tops a world auction record it’s bound to turn heads for a good hard look. That’s what Bes-Ben hats are renowned for achieving. One recent auction sale was a Bes-Ben creation called Independence Day. This festive hat was adorned with an unfurled American flag, red, white and blue firecrackers and stars. A furious bidding war erupted between an Illinois collector and a New York collector, and ended in a spontaneous burst of applause as a new world auction record of $18,400 was set, with the hat becoming the prized possession of the Illinois collector.

Among the parade of Bes-Ben creations at the William Doyle Galleries in New York recently, was an entertaining Records hat. Dated to the 1950s, the red silk hat was festooned with black miniature records, each bearing different labels, including: Capital Records’ “Young at Heart” by Frank Sinatra and “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley on the Decca label. This was also a hit and sold for an astounding $4,312.

Mr. Green-Field’s success in the business world allowed him to lead a sumptuous life filled with world travel and collecting. However, beyond that he felt passionately about helping those less fortunate than himself. In 1987, not long before his death. he endowed the Benjamin B. Green-Field Foundation in order to improve the quality of life for children and the elderly of Chicago, his hometown.

The Green-Field Foundation donated a large collection of Mr. Green-Field’s hats and other belongings to the Chicago History Museum. The Indianapolis Art Museum also owns a a large collection of Mr. Green-Field’s hats.