As early evening descended on some excruciatingly hot summers day in 1967, Niven and I were walking slowly through acres of walnut trees at his ranch in Hollister, California, when he mentioned casually that these acres of trees almost became a vineyard.
In typical Niven fashion, with a languid meandering drawl, which fit the hot dusty earth of California, he began to unwind a slow and bemused story of an almost wealth that was not to be.
California in the early and mid sixties was just beginning to produce grapes on a large scale for wine. Napa and Sonoma were in their infancy as one of the wine producing capitols and one of the largest producers of wine was Almaden Vineyards.
Almaden was one of the businesses of Louis Benoist of San Francisco, a descendent of French aristocracy, a uniquely extravagant and flamboyant figure of the late fifties and early sixties, he had five houses planted around California, huge yachts and planes, and a lifestyle that fitted a boastful man of means.
One afternoon, some months before our conversation, Niven received a call from a representative of Mr. Benoist, who asked if he may come over that day for a conversation.
It turns out, Mr. Benoist was expanding both his lifestyle and his property and wanted to buy Niven’s few hundred acres of mostly untended apricot and walnut trees and turn them into more land for Almaden to grow grapes.
Although the land looked fallow, dusty, and dry to me, and the ranch an unpretentious single level house that was comfortable but nothing special, it turned out the land was perfect for a premiere vineyard and Louis Benoist wanted it. Niven in his usual fashion negotiated an extravagant and incredibly prosperous deal for himself and with his very best gold pen signed that day a letter of intent to be finalized and notarized at Mr. Benoist extravaganza party at one of his palatial estates in two weeks.
As we reached an end of an allay of walnut trees my heart began to beat faster in expectation. If you think I’m a good story teller you should have heard Niven. Remember he’s a screenwriter novelist and if there ever was one who could spin a yarn it was Britton Niven Busch. Niven told me he was ecstatic at the thought of selling a few hundred acres of dirt. He had negotiated a huge sum and with it he had fantasies of a beautiful townhouse in Pacific Palisades in San Francisco.
Finally the evening arrives and Niven and Cheeta, his fourth and my most favorite wife, go to Mr. Benoist house for one of the most lavish and extravagant parties Niven had ever seen. And Niven, who was a product of Long Island extravaganza, had seen a lot. Remember this man was friends with many of Hollywoods most illustrious luminaries, and I could only imagine what his good times were like.
As we are slowly meandering back towards the ranch Niven tells me that all night Mr. Benoist eludes him. He seems to be continually avoiding any opportunity to sign the papers but finally at the very end of the evening Mr. Benoist tells Niven he’s too busy at the moment but they will get together next week to finalize everything.
I am now more impatient than ever and beg Niven to get on with the story and tell me what happened. He laughs and slowly unveils the remainder and the most important part of the story I’m about to tell you.
Firstly, despite numerous attempts by Niven over the next few weeks, Louis Benoist never signed the papers. Two weeks after this last extravagant and lustful party, Niven reads in the San Francisco Chronicle that Louis Benoist has been arrested by the FBI, and here is where this story like many other stories of the past, the present, and I am sure the future merge into the common denominator of greed.
With an eye for going from rich to even richer Louis Benoist began to expand his empire on credit, buying more businesses and more land, and this is where Niven came in. Louis Benoist was on a tear buying more and more land for his ever-expanding Almaden Vineyards and to raise the capital that all acquisitions need, Louis Benoist put up as collateral all the soybean oil he had stored in his tanks being held at Lawrence Warehousing, which I understand to be many millions of dollars.
He borrowed huge sums of money against this oil to go on his buying spree. The banks, to continually check and confirm their collateral, would send inspectors out to the warehouse on a monthly basis armed with a giant dipstick that they would place into the top of the tanks to make sure their oil was still there. Month after month they would confirm their collateral. It was just on the day that Niven was to get his papers signed, that someone spilled the oil and told the FBI that there was fraudulent playing at Lawrence Warehousing. Oh to imagine what could have been.
So the story goes like this. Over the last number of years Louis Benoist had been sucking dry his soybean oil unbeknownst to the banks. He did this, like all intelligent men of greed, by cheating those who supported him. He had placed a small and narrow tube down the inside of each of his tanks and slowly syphoned out and sold all the oil outside of this small tube. By the time the FBI got to him the tanks were basically empty except for a few hundred gallons that remained inside the tube to satisfy the bankers dipsticks.
So with this discovery the world of Louis Benoist, Almaden Vineyards, Lawrence Warehousing, and a number of other businesses along with the houses, the yachts, the planes, came tumbling down and just a few days after his arrest Almaden was sold in a fire sale to National Distilleries. Along with the sale all the hopes of what might have been for Niven were lost.
Niven the ultimate wheeler-dealer had been double wheeled and double dealed by the infamous Louis Benoist.