Ben Feder’s WWII watercolors to be donated to VA hospital

Unlike many mothers of American servicemen posted overseas during World War II, Rebecca Feder wouldn’t send her son food packages. Instead, she sent him something more vital to a budding artist.

“She figured the Army would know how to feed him,” said Phyllis Rich Feder, widow of the serviceman, Ben Feder. “So she sent him art supplies to feed his talent.”

Armed with plenty of paints and brushes during his U.S. Army Air Forces stint in what was known as the China-Burma-India Theater, the Bronx-born airman created watercolor images of his surroundings, most of them depicting airfield buildings and bamboo huts known as “bashas” that served as living quarters for many American GIs posted to remote jungle areas of Southeast Asia.

Now, nearly 80 years later, Ben Feder’s artwork is being donated to a Veterans Affairs nursing home in his hometown borough. Phyllis Feder said donating 11 framed paintings is not only a gesture of gratitude for the services the VA provides; it’s also the fulfillment of a running joke her late husband had with a fellow WWII veteran from the Bronx.

“He had a friend who always said, ‘We’ll probably both wind up in the VA home in the Bronx,’” said Phyllis, herself a Bronx native who, at 86, still operates Clinton Vineyards, the pioneering wine business Ben started in Dutchess County in the 1970s.

“These pictures are so lovely,” Phyllis said. “Ben would love for them to be in the VA residence.”

‘Ben was willing to take chances’

Ben Feder (pronounced FAY-der) was 86 when he died of cancer on Sept. 24, 2009, at his home in Clinton Corners. A graphic artist who started his own book design firm in Manhattan before venturing into real estate development, Feder got into the wine trade after buying a former dairy farm in the town of Clinton in 1969.

After a few years of owning a herd of cows that came with the property, Feder realized the farm life wasn’t for him, so he sold off the cattle. He then got the idea to start a vineyard, hearkening back to his post-war days when, while enrolled in the Parsons School of Design thanks to the GI Bill, he went to Paris to study art and ventured into the French countryside.

“He became enamored of everything French,” Phyllis said.

In the 1970s, he began researching the vineyard business, touring California’s Napa Valley and talking to viticulture experts. He became a friend and confidant of Hermann Wiemer, the German-born pioneer of the Finger Lakes region’s now-thriving wine industry. It was from his talks with Wiemer that Feder decided to focus on a single variety of grape, seyval blanc, a French American hybrid grape that has properties conducive to the Northeast’s cold climate.

“Hermann was convinced that seyval had properties that would make it a very important grape in the East,” Feder told The New York Times in 1981.

“Ben was willing to take chances,” Phyllis said. “As it turned out he was 100 percent correct.”

Feder’s first vines were planted in 1976. The seyval blanc grapes harvested the following year produced a crisp, fruity, off-dry white table wine that helped kick-start what until then had been a small, family-owned Hudson Valley wine industry, with just a handful of vineyards in operation.

Favorable reviews of Feder’s wines soon resulted in chefs from Manhattan fine-dining restaurants adding Clinton Vineyards products to their wine lists.

Clinton Vineyards really took off in the early 1990s, when Feder delivered hundreds of cases to the 1992 Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden, where Bill Clinton received the party’s nomination for president. After Clinton defeated incumbent President George H.W. Bush that November, wine produced and bottled in Clinton Corners graced the tables at the inauguration parties.

Ben Feder’s impact on the Hudson Valley wine industry was “enormous,” according to Jim Trezise, a longtime friend of the couple who served more than 30 years as president of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation.

“He was one of first to believe the Hudson Valley was a good place for growing grapes,” said Trezise, a Finger Lakes resident who’s now president of WineAmerica, a national Washington, D.C.-based trade group. “And he was an incredible painter and artist and person.”

Today, there are nearly 60 wineries in the Hudson Valley, third by region in New York state behind the Finger Lakes (144) and Long Island (82), according to the statewide trade group’s website.

Coming full circle

Benajmin Feder was born Feb. 1, 1923, in the Bronx. His father was a cellist for the New York Philharmonic when it was conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Feder grew up in his parents’ apartment on the Grand Concourse, then considered the Park Avenue of the city’s fastest-growing borough.

Phyllis Feder says she knows very little of her husband’s military service, other than he enlisted after graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx in early 1942, served in the Air Force (then part of the Army) and was posted to the theater of war commonly known as the CBI.

She also knows one other thing about her husband’s wartime service: he was very proud of it.

Two black-and-white photographs of her late husband are among her most treasured keepsakes. One shows him wearing fatigue pants and a white T-shirt while standing outside a thatched-roofed hut somewhere in the CBI, smiling for the camera as a monkey squats on his left shoulder. The other photo shows the artist-turned-vintner decades later, wearing a ballcap with the distinctive CBI emblem featuring a 12-pointed Chinese sun, the Star of India and red and white stripes representing the U.S. (the American officer who designed it purposely left out Burma, supposedly because the Allies had been driven from the country — now Myanmar — early in the war).

Two black-and-white photographs of Ben Feder are among Phyllis's most treasured keepsakes.

Two black-and-white photographs of Ben Feder are among Phyllis’s most treasured keepsakes.

Provided by Phyllis Feder

Two black-and-white photographs of Ben Feder are among Phyllis's most treasured keepsakes.

Two black-and-white photographs of Ben Feder are among Phyllis’s most treasured keepsakes.

Provided by Phyllis Feder

Shawn Kingston, the head of community development and civic engagement at the James J. Peters Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in the Bronx, said Ben Feder’s artwork will hang in the halls and common areas of the facility’s nursing home, where veterans of WWII, Korea and Vietnam are residents.

“This will certainly be a nice touch, especially coming from a World War Two veteran,” Kingston said. “I couldn’t think of a better setting.”

Feder met the former Phyllis Rich Flood on a blind date in the city in 1988, when she was working in graphic design at Push Pin Studios, co-founded by Milton Glaser, who created the ubiquitous “I Love NY” logo.

She soon found out Feder was as multitalented as he was handsome. They married the following year.

“Ben could do everything but the tango,” she said.

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