|The publication of Peter Benchley's wildly successful novel Jaws renewed
interest once again in the career of his famed grandfather, the author, actor,
columnist, critic, and all around great wit and bon vivant of the 1920's--Robert
Although his acting fame won him an Academy Award in 1935 for his movie
short "How To Sleep," he remains best remembered for his hilariously funny
sketches in the New Yorker, the old Life, the Bookman, Vanity Fair, Liberty, and
the Hearst newspaper chain. Eventually a large mass of them was collected into
sixteen published volumes, bearing such improbable titles as My Ten Years In
A Quandary, and How They Grew, From Bed To Worse: or, Comforting
Thoughts about the Bison, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: or David
Copperfield, and After 1903? What?
The easy-going Benchley considered himself a lazy man despite this frenzy of
print, the forty-six movie shorts he starred in (and often wrote), and the many
feature films he graced. He felt he should have pursued a more serious form of
writing, that he had let his talents go to waste.
His adoring public thought otherwise--and so did his friends at New York's
Algonquin Round Table, that fabulously influential and gifted congregation which
included Benchley, poet and author Dorothy ("Men seldom make passes at girls
who wear glasses") Parker, columnist Franklin P. Adams, the New York World's
Heywood Hale Broun, dramatist Robert Sherwood, playwright George Kaufman,
New Yorker founder Harold Ross, critic Alexander Woolcott, novelist Edna
Ferber, and playwright Marc Connelly.
In the early 1920s as the Round Table began and most of these personages
were yet to hit their stride, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, and Robert
Sherwood found themselves at Vanity Fair magazine, where Benchley (who
could barely manage himself) was managing editor, Sherwood (with no
background whatsoever) was drama editor, and Dorothy Parker (who
surprisingly did have qualifications) was drama critic.
Although they addressed themselves archly as Mr. Benchley, Mr. Sherwood, and
Mrs. Parker, the trio was inseparable. The story circulated that they traveled
together to protect the six-foot-seven Sherwood from attacks by midgets, and
the story was partially true. Wee people from circuses appearing at the nearby
Hippodrome did once harass him--but the trio's friendship was much deeper
than that, however.
When this group walked down the street it looked life a moving pipe organ, what
with the varying heights of the Olympian, Sherwood, the average-to-portly
Benchley, and the diminutive Mrs. Parker, and at Vanity Fair they displayed a
striking esprit de corps--but only for each other, not for management.
After their employer ordered all employees not to discuss their respective
salaries, Benchley and friends paraded around the office with home-made signs
strung from their necks proudly announcing their pitiful salaries.
On another occasion, management demanded that each employee fill out a
tardy slip even if he just slightly late. This irked Benchley. Once, he was eleven
minutes late. He took out his slip, and in the tiniest handwriting possible
endeavored to cover every square millimeter of the card of how he had been on
the way to work on 44th Street when suddenly he spied a large crowd in front of
the Hippodrome. The assemblage had gathered because the Hippodrome
elephants had escaped, and a posse formed to hunt them down before they
wrecked havoc upon the Big Apple. So Benchley took the lead, chasing the
pachyderms up Fifth Avenue to the Plaza Hotel, then to Central Park up to 72nd
Street. At 72nd Street they headed for the island's West Side. Benchley feared
they would reach the Hudson and managed to divert them in a southerly
direction, until all found themselves on 12th Street and headed for the docks.
Benchley then got control of the situation and rode herd on the beasts until he
could deposit them safe and sound at the Hippodrome.
All of which left him eleven minutes late.
Benchley never received a tardy slip again.
Despite the verve Benchley, Sherwood, and Parker inserted into the pages of
Vanity Fair, manager Frank Crowninshield tired of their behavior. When Dorothy
Parker wrote a relatively mild criticism (considering her capabilities) of actress
Billy Burke's talents, Crowninshield used it as an excuse to fire her.
Gallantry still being alive, Benchley and Sherwood handed in their resignations.
In the interim before their last paycheck they wore red chevrons on their sleeves
in the manner of mustered out troops who had not yet been discharged, but no
one asked them to change their minds.
Benchley--now with a wife and son to support-tried earning his bread as a free-
lance writer. He and Parker rented a tiny office above the Metropolitan Opera
where the two planned to grind out gems for grateful editors. This room, said
Benchley was so small that one cubic foot less of space and it "would have
Benchley soon was in great demand. He instituted a book review column for the
New York World that he used as a jumping-off point for a variety of topics. In
addition he was soon made Life's drama critic--fulfilling his ambition since
college days. Mrs. Parker soon abandoned at the office. Since her well-known
aversion to actual writing left her with nothing to do, she had her office door
lettered "Men" to attract male visitors.
Bob Benchley began moving in fast circles. Although an ardent prohibitionist
when the Noble Experiment began, by the end of the '20s he was an elegant
boulevardier and flaneur, in other words, a drunk. Some credit him with the
immortal line, "let's get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini."
While on one of his nightly forays, he exited a night club and spotted a beautifully
uniformed gentleman at the door whom he commanded to summon a taxicab.
The supposed doorman scornfully turned on Benchley, saying that he was
Admiral So-And-So of the United States Navy. "All right, then," said Benchley,
"Get us a battleship."
On another occasion at the same establishment, the help was lined up one by
one to receive gratuities. As was his habit, Benchley tipped them generously,
save for one fellow (who probably reminded him of that Admiral). "Have you
forgotten me?" he asked with palm outstretched. Benchley grabbed it and shook
it, saying as he hurried off, "No, I'll write you every day."
His writing reflected the same offbeat humor. As a critic he was loath to chastise
too severely for fear of wounding a budding career, but he could be harsh when
he felt the public was being insulted. In this vein, he maintained a running feud in
Life with Abieâ€™s Irish Rose, but when it closed after 2,327 performances he
had put in his usual space in the magazine, a box with a heavy black border for
the play along with the Gothic script words: "In Memorium."
His regular columns focused on either ordinary situations in his own life or on
bizarre, or just slightly strange, events he scanned in the morning papers. A
good example of his short pieces was one on how a service station attendant
could spot a drunk driver (after some pundit suggested that they be banned
from purchasing gas):
"When the people in the back seat are crouched down on the floor with their
arms over their heads."
"When the driver goes to the rest room and doesn't come out"
"When the driver points to the gas tank and says, 'A pound of liver please.'"
"When the driver is alone and stark naked."
"When there is no driver."
Of his own autobiography Benchley had this to say:
"Robert Charles Benchley, born on the Isle of Wight, September 15, 1807.
Shipped as a cabin boy on the Florence J. Marble, 1815. Arrested for bigamy
and murder in Port Said, 1817. Released, 1820. Wrote Tale of Two Cities.
Married Princess Anastasia of Portugal, 1831. Children: Prince Rupprecht and
several little girls. Wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1850. Editor of Godey's Ladies
Book, 1851-1856. Began Les Miserables in 1870, finished by Victor Hugo.
Died 1871. Buried in Westminster Abbey."
The reality was a little less dramatic. Born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1889,
Benchley received a thoroughly middle class upbringing, but tragedy marred his
early life. His older brother, Edmund (several years his senior and his mother's
favorite), attended West Point and fought in Cuba during the Spanish-American
War. One day a reporter from the local paper visited Mrs. Benchley with the
news that her oldest son was dead. â€œOh, why couldn't it have been Robert?"
she blurted out, a remark she regretted for the rest of her life. The comment
became common knowledge around Worcester.
Robert matriculated at Harvard where he participated in several dramatic
productions and was elected editor of the Lampoon. For one class, he
composed a paper on the topic of embalming. For another he was assigned to
write a final on the Anglo-American fishing rights dispute, a subject he knew
His answer began: "I know nothing about the point of view of Great Britain in the
arbitration of the international fishing problem, and nothing about the point of
view of the United States. Therefore I shall discuss the question from the point of
view of the fish." He proceeded to do just that, and, strangely enough, was not
awarded a degree.
Following commencement (but not graduation) he spent several unsatisfying
years in advertising and other sundry pursuits, until finding himself at the New
York Tribune (where he claimed to be "the worst reporter even for my age in
New York") and then to Vanity Fair. From there it was fame and fortune at the
Writing was not always easy. Distractions at the Algonquin often prevented him
from finishing (or even starting) a story. On one occasion he was at his
typewriter agonizing over what to put on paper. He got up, talked with some
friends, and returned to his work. He thought again and came up with the single
word "The." Then, he left for the party down the hall. Finally, conscience forced
him back again to his desk. He thought and thought again and finally, inspired,
completed his original thought by typing out "The hell with it," and going back to
Finally he moved across the street to the unpretentious Royalton, where his
small suite of rooms became famous for its collection of junk furniture and bric-a-
brac. It started off with small items, Benchley recalled, then "people started
looking around town for heavier things. It got to be a game. Trucks began
arriving with old busts of Sir Walter Scott, four-foot statues of men whose shirt
fronts lit up when attached to an electric connection, stuffed owl and fox terriers
that had lain too long at the taxidermist's. This phase ended with the gift of a
small two-headed calf in a moderate state of preservation. . . ."
At the Royalton, Benchley received notice that his income taxes were being
audited. The IRS requested he fill out a detailed form outlining every cent made
and spent for the last decade. He eyed the document, scrawled, "Don't be silly"
across it, and sent it back.
Strangely enough two men from the Treasury Department arrived the next
His stage debut came in 1922 in a nonsensical one-night review put on by the
denizens of the Algonquin entitled No Siree! where Bob introduced his
memorable "Treasurer's Report."
His masterful timing and his whimsical sense of nonsense enhanced his stage
career until he was soon earning more from vaudeville, Broadway, and motion
pictures than from his first forte of writing.
By the mid-thirties he had been lured away to Hollywood, a place he loathed but
which he did not allow to change him. Once, a Los Angeles doctor prescribed
for him one of the then-new sulfa drugs and asked Benchley to advise him of any
Before the doctor's next house call, Benchley and his friends took a down pillow
and a little glue, proceeded to cover Benchley from the neck down with feathers.
Then they put Benchley under the covers.
"Do you notice any effects from the sulfa?" the doctor asked.
"No, I'm sorry, but it really didn't seem to have any effect on me at all," said
"That's funny," said the doctor disappointedly.
Benchley still averred that nothing unusual had happened, but as the doctor was
preparing to leave Benchley called to him: "Wait a minute. There is just one thing
. . ."
Then he threw open the covers.
Finally in 1939 he abandoned writing entirely to concentrate on his acting. To a
large extent, interest his work has since been overshadowed by such funnymen
as James Thurber and S. J. Perelman, but his work remain in print, and several
studies of his life have appeared in recent years to supplement the excellent
biography of him by his son, Nathaniel.
"It took me fifteen years," Benchley once explained before he did give up his
literary efforts, "to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn't give it up
because by that time I was too famous."
A Profile in Humor
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