Tuesday, April 4, 2017

She Achieved: Lotys Benning Stewart

In its colorful history, the eight-story Claypool Hotel in Indianapolis proved a luxurious spot for hosting gatherings for all occasions. On March 16, 1945, the hotel’s Riley Room, named for The Hoosier Poet, James Whitcomb Riley, was packed with more than 160 Indiana women of distinction in the fields of art, education, literature, politics, business, and social welfare. WIRE radio personality Wally Nehrling, master of ceremonies for the event, said that not since “the famous boatload of knowledge steamed down the Ohio has Indiana seen such a brilliant group assembled under one roof.”

The women were gathered to pay homage to Lotys Benning Stewart, who, for the past four years, had been responsible for the regular Sunday column “The Achieve” in the Indianapolis Star. “People think you can’t know anything when you do such a variety of writing,” said Stewart, “but I find that everything I do opens another door for me, and everything I write makes the next thing easier to do.” Through her column profiling accomplished Indiana women, Stewart had earned an enthusiastic readership and a reputation as one of the state’s leading female journalists. That may have been the reason why Star managing editor James Stuart, in 1946, offered her the opportunity to become the newspaper’s full-time fashion editor—the first such position in Indiana journalism.

Although Stewart protested that she knew nothing about fashion, she accepted the assignment and set out to master the field, eventually having her workload doubled when she also became the newspaper’s home furnishings editor. By the time she died, unexpectedly, at age 55, Stewart had written thousands of articles and had become well known nationwide as a pioneer in the field of fashions and home furnishings.

“Although she had not sought the role, the quality, volume and impact of her work made her a mid-century celebrity in Indianapolis,” said William Stewart, her only child. William’s father was Chelsea Scobey Stewart, director of program production for the Indianapolis Public Schools, whom Lotys had married in 1939. “In demand as a speaker, she regularly addressed meetings of women’s organizations, lectured to college classes and accepted invitations for radio station interviews,” William said of his mother.

Born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1908, Lotys (pronounced LOW-tis or LODE-us) was the daughter of William F, a New York Central Railroad executive, and Kathryn Benning, a talented ceramics artist. In the mid-1920s the Benning family moved to Indianapolis when William received a promotion from the railroad. Lotys attended Shortridge High School and after graduation started her undergraduate studies at Butler University. As a sophomore, she wrote book reviews for the campus newspaper, the Butler Collegian, and she started a literary column that featured interviews with authors who came to Indianapolis. Her first memorable interview came on a vacation trip to New Orleans, where she spent an afternoon with Dorothy Dix, the forerunner of today’s popular advice columnists. Lotys turned the meeting into an article for the Star.

After earning undergraduate (1929) and graduate (1931) degrees in English from Butler, Benning tried her hand as a freelance writer and served as publicity director for the Indianapolis Home Show for three years. Her next move was to become state director of information for the National Youth Administration, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs that fostered economic and educational opportunities for Americans between the ages of 16 and 25.  In later years, she also did publicity work for the John Herron Art Institute and the Indiana State Medical Association.

In 1941 Stewart joined the Star staff as the author of the “They Achieve” column. Until a bout of pneumonia laid her low for a time, she had written 234 Sunday stories without a break. At the Claypool luncheon celebrating the fourth anniversary of her column, Stewart, who compared the gathering to “having my album come to life,” managed to introduce each of the women in attendance by name. In addition to her column, Stewart hosted two programs on the Indianapolis radio station, WISH: “Women in War,” a series of interviews with local women involved in activities supporting the war effort, and “Ladies Listen,” which blended fashion news with stories about prominent Indianapolis women.

As fashion reporting grew in coverage in the post-war period, Stewart became a key figure in the semi-annual gatherings of fashion editors in Manhattan to preview fall and spring collections presented by major designers. In Indianapolis, she became close friends with Elizabeth M. Patrick, L. S. Ayres & Company fashion coordinator, and played an important role in promoting the company’s famed “That Ayres Look” slogan. “Lotys does the kind of fashion reporting that women can understand,” Patrick said at the time. “When she quits writing, it will be the end of a fashion era.”

Many times in the mid to late 1950s, William Stewart remembered accompanying his mother to Ayres’ eighth-floor auditorium to occupy a front-row seat for another runway fashion show. In that era, he was often the only male present at fashion showings in the department store’s French Room, a favorite destination, he noted, of fashion-conscious Indianapolis women. “I was also pressed into service as a model of Ayres’ young gentleman’s attire for Star photo shoots,” he recalled, “both in the store and on location.”

Of even greater interest to the young William were the location trips he took with his mother to Indiana furniture companies, such as the RomWeber Furniture factory in Batesville and the Smith plant in Salem, where wooden cabinets for every Motorola television sets were crafted. Several times each year, William and his father rode the Monon passenger train to Chicago to meet Lotys for lengthy Friday afternoon tours through the cavernous Merchandise Mart as “she made notes on the latest offerings of Dunbar and other Indiana manufacturers.”


Upon Stewart’s death on Nov. 8, 1963, an editorial in her beloved Star praised her many achievements, including numerous awards from organizations such as the American Furniture Mart and American Shoe Institute. Her newspaper colleagues remembered her “gentleness, her good humor, her sympathetic understanding of every co-worker’s problems,” and they retained vivid memories of her courtliness, accented by her “large hats of unique design, her cape and her elbow-length gloves.” Most of all, the newspaper recalled her legacy of “excellent reporting for a new generation of newspaper workers, both men and women.”

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