ALEXANDRE BENTO (1948-2014): ‘The Man Who Kept Freud’s House Safe’
On 10th June, 2014, Alexandre Bento, the long-standing caretaker at the Freud Museum in London, died of cancer of the intestine, at the age of only sixty-six years. As custodian of Sigmund Freud’s home at 20, Maresfield Gardens, Alex greeted virtually every visitor at the front door; and as such, he not only cared for this landmark house and museum, he also provided each psychoanalytical pilgrim with the warmest of welcomes. Through his role as custodian of this Freudian “Mecca”, Alex held the distinction, one suspects, of having met more members of the international psychoanalytical community than any other person in history.
Born on 1st April, 1948, Alexandre Bento, the only child of Manuel Bento and Julia Santos Bento, grew up in Arruda dos Vinhos, a hot vale tucked away among the mountains outside Lisbon, Portugal. At the age of three years, his parents divorced, and the young boy lived with both his father and his paternal grandmother. Round about the age of sixteen years, Alexandre became an apprentice in the Portuguese Air Force. Also at this time, his father Manuel Bento died from a sudden heart attack while still in his forties, and the young teenager had to assume responsibility for his grandmother.
Shortly thereafter, while still in his sixteenth year, Alex went to work for the Portuguese electricity company as a motorbike courier. During his term of employment, he had an accident which required hospitalisation in Arruda; and while there, he met a young volunteer, Maria Filipe, from Rio Maior, with whom he fell in love. The couple married in 1969. Having no siblings of his own, Alex now found himself happily wed to a woman who had eleven brothers and sisters, and he soon became very integrated into his new wife’s large clan.
A number of the couple’s family members had already immigrated to the United Kingdom, keen to escape the impoverishment of rural Portugal. An uncle had preceded them, working in hotels in order to improve his English; and, in 1971, the young Bento couple followed in his footsteps, eager to expand their economic prospects. Neither Alex Bento nor his wife spoke any English, but, nevertheless, they possessed sufficient courage to undertake this bold change of country and culture.
Before long, both found employment at the Otto Schiff House, a Jewish nursing home in Swiss Cottage, round the corner from Maresfield Gardens, where Alex became head of maintenance and Maria became a chef in the kitchen. During their twelve years working at the Otto Schiff House, Alex and Maria learned a great deal about Judaism and about the care of the elderly. Alex eventually came to consider himself an honorary Jew – perfect preparation for his ultimate position at the Freud Museum. According to his son Daniel Bento, Alex often recalled that meeting elderly Jews – many refugees from Nazism – could be a challenging experience at the outset, but that once one had developed a relationship with the residents of Otto Schiff House, Alex knew that they would do anything for him and would remain deeply loyal as friends.
We do not know precisely how Alex met Anna Freud, his future employer. He may have known her from the local neighbourhood. But ultimately, he came to make her acquaintance, as he and Maria enrolled their eldest child, Gina Bento, born in 1972, in Miss Freud’s nursery on Maresfield Gardens. The head of the nursery, Manna Friedmann (born Martha Weindling), herself a refugee from Germany, and a long-standing weaving partner to Miss Freud, would sometimes enlist Alex’s skills as a maintenance man to do repair work at 20, Maresfield Gardens, then inhabited by three frail, elderly ladies: Anna Freud, her companion Dorothy Burlingham, and the loyal Freud family housekeeper Paula Fichtl who had emigrated to London with Sigmund Freud in 1938.
Alex had already developed a reputation in the Swiss Cottage community as a trustworthy handyman; and Miss Friedmann invited him into Maresfield Gardens to change light bulbs for Miss Freud and to perform other tasks, including caring for the exterior of the house which had become dilapidated and overgrown with ivy. Alex proved so indispensable to Miss Freud, that before long Manna Friedmann asked him to spend evenings at Maresfield Gardens to provide extra care and support for the aged ladies and to look after Miss Freud’s precious chow dog Jo-Fi who would often disturb Alex’s sleep by pulling at the bed covers in the middle of the night.
Alex developed a deep loyalty to, and affection for, the daughter of Sigmund Freud, and he treated her with great respect, always referring to her as “Miss Freud”. He found her kind, gentile, and polite. And he soon joined Anna Freud’s “team”, and became highly integrated into the Freud orbit. Not only would both of Alex’s children – daughter Gina and son Daniel – come to attend the nursery on Maresfield Gardens but, also, his wife, Maria, would learn how to drive a car in Anna Freud’s “mini”.
After Miss Freud’s death in 1982, her long-term American friend and colleague Dr. Muriel Gardiner worked tirelessly to turn 20, Maresfield Gardens, into a Freud Museum. Manna Friedmann recommended Alex Bento to Miss Freud’s solicitor, Hugh Hamilton, as the ideal candidate to become caretaker of the new museum. Alex attended for an interview with Hugh Hamilton and with Hal Harvey, the grandson of Dr. Gardiner, and shortly thereafter he received a formal job offer. Both Alex and Maria had strong doubts about taking up a position at the incipient Freud Museum, as they already enjoyed stable, full-time posts at the Otto Schiff House, and they had no guarantee that the Freud Museum would offer any long-term financial security; but after careful reflection, Alex assumed the great responsibility of helping to open the museum, a project which required nearly four years of intensive labour, creating a museum virtually out of thin air!
Alex Bento took up permanent residence in Miss Freud’s house in November, 1982, one month after the death of the eighty-six-year-old pioneer of child psychoanalysis. Initially, Alex and Maria moved into Sigmund Freud’s old bedroom on the first floor – now the exhibition room. And from his new quarters, Alex supervised the extensive refurbishment necessary to transform a private house into a public museum, helping to strip out all of the old electrics, install security systems, and supervise the many contractors who would come to work there over several years. Quite a few of the ground floor rooms – the old kitchen, garage, laundry room, and bedroom of Paula Fichtl – would also need to be converted into a flat for Alex and Maria and their daughter Gina. The preparation included not only building works, but also, conservation of Sigmund Freud’s collection of antiquities, preservation of precious historical documents, and greeting many psychoanalytical colleagues from all over the world who came to pay their respects.
The museum eventually opened on 28th July, 1986, only a few months after Alex and Maria had welcomed their second child, Daniel Bento, born only twelve weeks previously.
From 1986 until his retirement as head caretaker in 2014, Alex worked closely with all of the museum’s successive directors: David Newlands, Richard Wells, Erica Davies, Michael Molnar, and eventually, its current director Carol Seigel. During this time, Alex earned much affection from the many staff members of the museum, appreciated for his generosity, his reliability, and for his supreme diplomacy, never breathing a bad word about colleagues. Alex loved his post at the museum, which he undertook with pride, and he spoke about the museum constantly with the greatest of pride and affection. He also came to work part-time as a caretaker at the nearby Anna Freud Centre. In addition to his formal duties at the Freud Museum and at the Anna Freud Centre, Alex also looked after Miss Jula Weiss, one of Anna Freud’s secretaries, to whom she had bequeathed the top flat at 12, Maresfield Gardens. Alex would buy her bottles of sherry on a regular basis as well as copious cigarettes. In general, he looked after Miss Weiss, who spent her Christmases with the Bento family.
As the caretaker of the Freud Museum, Alex not only welcomed every visitor to the museum but he also cared for the building with meticulous detail and ensured the welfare of the physical premises and of every object within, keeping Freud’s priceless collection of antiquities – on open display – safe from thieves. In this respect, he acquitted himself magnificently, and maintained an attitude of non-intrusive vigilance which shielded the museum from any anti-social acts.
Alex also had a very playful side. During his rare spare hours, he also developed his skills as a consummate wine-maker! And with Steven Neufeld, the first Associate Curator of the museum, and Leslie Sheppard, former Front of House Assistant, now sadly deceased, Alex even created his own label for “vinho tinto” red wine: Chateau Freud (with no accent on the word “château”). I feel very privileged to possess an unopened bottle of the 1987 vintage, manufactured by “Bento, Neufeld & Co.”, which I keep in my study as a cherished memento.
After many years of hard work, Alex became ill with cancer; and regrettably, he had to stop work at the Freud Museum in November, 2012, and then retired with his wife to his native Portugal for medical care. He terminated his employment officially in January, 2014; and in February, 2014, he returned to the Freud Museum for a brief visit, during which time the Trustees welcomed him, fêted him with much-deserved congratulatory speeches and gifts, and celebrated his enormous contribution to the institution over many long decades.
Having spent twelve years at the Otto Schiff House and more than thirty years at the Freud house, Alex Bento had a huge capacity for loyalty. And he inspired similar loyalty and devotion in his family. His daughter Gina da Silva has worked at the Anna Freud Centre for more than twenty years, and continues to do so, looking after the needs of the many delegates who attend regularly for conferences and events; and her husband Francisco da Silva works hand-in-hand with Daniel Bento as joint caretakers of the Freud Museum. Collectively, the Bento and da Silva families have kept Maresfield Gardens safe and well cared for since the early 1980s.
I first had the privilege of meeting Alex in 1986 when I went to work at the museum, and I enjoyed many more encounters with him over the intervening years. He always impressed me as a warm-hearted, sane, dedicated, and compassionate person: the sort of individual that one would happily describe as a true gentleman. He always greeted me in the most friendly and helpful manner, as he did all the many hundreds of thousands of visitors who came to Maresfield Gardens from all over the world. Long before any tourists would set eyes upon Freud’s famous couch in the study, they first would first meet Alex, poised at the reception desk in the foyer of the museum. He set a tone and an atmosphere of graciousness which both his son Daniel and his son-in-law Francisco continue to provide to this day.
A beautiful, inscribed wooden bench in the back garden of the museum now commemorates Alexandre Bento. He has literally become part of the furnishings of psychoanalytical history, along with Sigmund Freud’s couch. According to Daniel Bento, Alex regarded himself not only as a custodian of Freud’s house but, also, of Freud’s legacy, and he took this responsibility very seriously, convinced that the cleanliness, tidiness, and warmth of the museum represented in many ways the very integrity of Sigmund Freud.
We shall miss Alexandre Bento greatly, a man to whom we owe an incalculable debt.
Brett Kahr wishes to express his warmest thanks to Daniel Bento, son of Alexandre Bento, for his generous assistance in the preparation of this memorial tribute, and to the other members of the Bento family for having read and commented upon a draft of this memorial tribute.