Thursday, September 15, 2016

Birthday: "Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said nothing."

Benchley, Lunch, the Algonquin, third from left

Robert Charles Benchley (1889-1945)
Journalist, critic, humorist

I read “The Sunday Menace” in an anthology in 1970, and was hooked. Once I escaped my hometown- which had produced two governors, a US Senator and several famous author without feeling the want of a bookstore- I discovered Robert Benchley in full. Much of his work was still in print; libraries still carried his original collections. Then he led me to his New Yorker colleagues- Mrs Parker, James Thurber, E.D. White. They are the quarter whose works I don’t need on the shelves. It’s all in my head.

Benchley meandered through life, seemingly good at everything; trying to do them all more or less simultaneously, he spread himself too thinly, and lived too hard. But at his best, Robert Benchley was the funniest man in America between the wars.

Born in Massachusetts, Benchley grew up in the shadow of his older brother, a West Pointer who was one of the first casualties in the Spanish-American War. When the telegram arrived, Benchley’s mother, distraught, cried, “Why couldn’t it have been Robert?”

It was the sort of comment a lifetime of apologies can’t quite undo. Benchley, then nine, seems to have taken it in stride, but as he grew older became a dedicated anti war activist, at the cost of several writing jobs during World War I. His brother’s fiancee, an heiress, supported the cost of Benchley’s Harvard education, where his talent as a writer and comic performer began to shine and he met the illustrator of most of his books, Gluyas Williams. He graduated 1913, married the next year, and spent the next six years bouncing from job to job: writer at Curtis Publishing (home of The Saturday Evening Post); freelancer for Vanity Fair, beat reporter for The New York Tribune; columnist for Collier’s Sunday magazine editor for The Trib; stand-in theater critic for Vanity Fair; writer for Life; managing editor at Vanity Fair.

At the last he fell in with two of his lifelong companions, Robert Sherwood and Dorothy Parker; they took advantage of their editor’s vacation to take very long lunches at the Algonquin Hotel; their friends started showing up, and a bigger table had to be brought in for what became known as the ten-year lunch. After a salary dispute led to Dorothy Parker’s dismissal, Benchley resigned in protest, and both became celebrities.

Suddenly he had too many offers. Naturally indolent, he complained of the work load, and claimed he turned in an article, “I Like to Loaf,” two weeks late. In 1922 the “Vicious Circle,” as the sharp witted Algonquin Round Tablers had become known, put on a comic review called, “No, Sirree!” Benchley’s performance of “The Treasurer’s Report”, in which a community group’s annual meeting falls part under the panic-stricken annual report of its shy CFO, was the hit of the show, and he spent the next year repeating it in an Irving Berlin revue on Broadway.

By 1925 he was cranking out screenplays for Jesse Lasky; he landed a column in The New Yorker (arriving in Venice, he cabled editor Harold Ross, “STREETS FULL OF WATER STOP PLEASE ADVISE”). After making a few well-regarded humorous shorts in Hollywood, he moved there in the mid-30s to take up a physically grueling, but financially lucrative, career making ten-minute “How to” films, sometimes, two in a day. He got hold of study the Mellon Foundation did for the Simmons Mattress Company, and in twelve hours filmed “How to Sleep,” which won the 1935 Academy Award for Best Short Film. Benchley said the project “wasn’t much of a strain- I was in bed most of the time.”

The Mellon Foundation was not amused.

He was always taking on more than he could do: a column for the Hearst papers; supporting roles in Hollywood feature films (most notably, Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, in 1940); the first experimental TV broadcast, from the Empire State Building; a radio show.

The intersection of Prohibition with Benchley’s decade as a Broadway theater critic and his charter membership in the Round Table turned him from a teetotaler to a serious drunk. “I know I’m drinking myself to a slow death,” he joked, “but then I’m in no hurry.” By 1943 he’d earned so much money making increasingly by-the-numbers short films (over fifty in a decade) he gave up writing altogether. His health failed, in a series of calamitous episodes, and he died at 56 shortly after the end of World War II.

Influenced by, and later friends with, the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock, Benchley’s humor fell into three broad categories. One was his ability to blow everyday incidents at home into neurotic catastrophes into which he- supremely confident, not quite as smart as he thought, strode to save the day. Another was as a bemused, detached observer of the foibles of modern life ( he adored skewering scientific discoveries). The last, and best, was a streak of absurdist tomfoolery. His 600 essays included “African Sculpture: Its Background, Future and the Old-Fashioned Waltz”; a sendup of academic scholarship, “Shakespeare Explained,” (in which one line, “”What ho! Where is the music?” is subjected to pages of footnotes); and “Another Uncle Edith Christmas Story,” which anticipated “Bad Santa” with a scabrous, bullying old seaman:

Uncle Edith said: "I think it is about time that I told you a good old-fashioned Christmas story about the raging sea."

"Aw, nuts!" said little Philip.

"As you will," said Uncle Edith, "but I shall tell it just the same. I am not to be intimidated by a three-year-old child. Where was I?"

"You were over backwards, with your feet in the air, if I know anything about you," said Marian, who had golden hair and wore it in an unbecoming orange ribbon.

"I guess that you probably are right," said Uncle Edith, "although who am I to say? Anyway, I do know that we sailed from Nahant on the fourteenth March."

"What are you--French?" asked little Philip, "the fourteenth March."

"The fourteenth _of_ March, then," said Uncle Edith, "and if you don't shut up I will keep right on with the story. You can't intimidate me."

"Done and done," said little Philip, who bled quite a lot from a wound in his head inflicted a few seconds before by Uncle Edith.

"We set sail from Nahant on the fourteenth of March (nya-a-a-a-a) on the good ship Patience W. Littbaum, with a cargo of old thread and bound for Algeciras."

"End of story!" announced Marian in a throaty baritone.

"It is not the end of the story, and I will sue anyone who says that it is," petulated Uncle Edith. "You will know well enough when I come to the end of the story, because I shall fall over on my face. Now be quiet or Uncle Edith will give you a great big abrasion on the forehead."

"I can hardly wait," said little Philip, or whichever the hell one of those children it was, I can't keep them all straight, they are all so much alike...

“The Sunday Menace” is one of Benchley’s portrayals of existential dread in family gatherings. “Open Bookcases” worries about the 1930s interior design fad for ornate, glass-doored shelving and the pressure Benchley feels to conform. News of the rage for Hemingway first editions spawned, “Why Does Nobody Collect Me?”

70 years after his death, Benchley remains resolutely in print, if not the household name of his heyday. He influenced a generation of humor writers, starting with James Thurber and continuing through Mark Russell, Bob Newhart and Dave Barry today. The writing gene was strong: his son, Nathaniel (1915-81), wrote an acclaimed biography of his dad; Nat’s son, Peter (1940-2006), was the author of Jaws.

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