|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 Benchley.
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
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
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 constituted adultery."
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
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:
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
"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 nothing about.
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 Round Table.
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 the party.
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 morning.
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 side effects.
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 Benchley.
"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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