By David Trumbull, Chairman of the Robert Benchley Society
Given February 28, 2012 to the Beacon Hill Seminar.
"'What is the news this morning, Mr. MacGregor?' I asked, peering around from behind a hangover."
That's the opening line from the Benchley essay, "MacGregor for Ataman!" The Mr. MacGregor in question was a real person, a bit of an odd duck, and a good friend and personal secretary to Robert Benchley.
Benchley knew many odd ducks; and he had an inexhaustible supply of friends. If we conceive of twentieth-century American humor as a city full of witty, funny people, Benchley would be the intersection of 42nd Street and Broadway in that town. Or perhaps he would be the corner of Hollywood and Vine, which, by the way, is where Benchley's star is placed on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It seems that just about every witty or humorous writer crossed paths -- but never swords -- with Sweet Old Bob (S.O.B. to his friends). Benchley knew everyone. And he was friends with everyone.
Humorist Will Rogers famously said, "I never met a man I didn't like," but when you read his comments on the men of his age, especially politicians he disagreed with, you will find that he had a pretty low opinion of many men, or at least of their intelligence and integrity. Benchley, on the other hand, really does seem to have never met a man he didn't like.
It is true that bias -- such as Benchley believed was displayed by Judge Thayer during the infamous Sacco-Vanzetti trial -- could work Benchley up to a righteous anger worthy of the Old Testament Jehovah. But Benchley, even when roused to the strongest of emotions over the actions of men, never indulged in personalities.
About Sacco and Vanzetti. Here is one of the Benchley -- also Dorothy Parker -- connections to Boston generally, and Beacon Hill specifically. In August 1927 Benchley and Parker came to Boston to protest the verdict. Benchley met with Governor Alvin T. Fuller, and his correspondence with the governor survives. Benchley -- not the radical that Parker was, and generally more cautious that she -- did not, as did Parker, get arrested protesting in front of the State House. Parker was booked at the police station at 74 Joy Street (now the Beacon Hill Civic Association). Asked whether the police had taken her fingerprints, Parker is reported to have bared her black-and-blue arm and said "No. But they left me a few of theirs."
There has always been much speculation as the exact nature of the friendship between Mr. Benchley and "Our Mrs. Parker." Alexander Woollcott wrote of showing a young man the sights of New York:
"I pointed out celebrities in the manner of a barker on a Chinatown bus. Young Bill seemed especially interested in the seamy lineaments of a fellow Harvard man named Robert Benchley... Seated beside him was a little and extraordinarily pretty woman with dark hair, a gentle, apologetic smile, and great reproachful eyes. 'And that, I suppose,' said the lad from Emporia, 'would be Mrs. Benchley.' 'So I have always understood,' I replied crossly, 'but it is Mrs. Parker.'"Woollcott, today largely forgotten, was one of the most celebrated drama critics and journalists of the 1920s through 1940s. He was the inspiration for the character of Sheridan Whiteside in "The Man Who Came to Dinner" and possibly for Waldo Lydecker in "Laura." The Algonquin Round Table originated as a celebrity roast for Woollcott and he as regular at that luncheons. He is also the namesake of the Alexander Cocktail (roughly equal parts gin, white crème de cocoa, and light cream), of which Benchley wrote:
"Professor Klaus Hansen, of Norway, has announced that he recently drank a 98 per cent solution of 'heavy water' (H O) without experiencing any ill effects. That's what he thinks. That's what the man said who first drank an Alexander cocktail."But to go back to the beginning.
Benchley was born in 1889 in Worcester, Massachusetts. His New England roots remained with him through his career first in New York and later in Hollywood, and account for a certain puritanical disposition. He didn’t take an alcoholic drink until well into his thirties. It was during prohibition and the drink was an Orange Blossom.
"He tried one sip, then put the glass down and looked around the room, ‘This place ought to be closed by law,’ he said and everybody fell off their chairs with laughter."He went on to have rather too many drinks over the next 20 some years. And he did deliver, but not write, the line:
–Robert Benchley, a Biography by Nathaniel Benchley (page 163)
"Why don’t you slip out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?"which is followed in the movie, The Major and the Minor, by the line--
"I’d offer you a whiskey sour, but that would mean thinking up a new joke."Although he seldom wrote about New England, he frequently peppered his essays with New England place-names… Ah, New England, or as Benchley put it:
"New England, that 'vacation-land of America,' where the business slogan is 'The customer is always in the way.'"Of his childhood in Massachusetts he wrote:
"When I was a child I was of an affectionate disposition, but not enough to get arrested."For those who find in the comedian some desperate longing for escape from personal pain through humor, you will find much to work with in one incident from his youth. Robert's older brother, Edmund Benchley, died in 1898 in the Spanish-American War when Robert was but nine years of age. Upon learning of Edmund's death, his mother cried out, "Why couldn't it have been Robert?" To this day, Edmund is better memorialized in Worcester than is Robert.
—"A Brief Study of Dendrophilism"
Benchley left Worcester for school, including Harvard College, where was editor of the Harvard Lampoon. This brings us to Benchley's period in the Boston/Cambridge area and I'll share one anecdote from the biography written by his son Nathaniel.
"Another time, he and a friend were walking on Beacon Hill, and when they reached Louisburg Square, with its neat facing rows of eighteenth-century brick houses and its atmosphere of Old World elegance, Robert had an idea. 'Come on,' he said, 'Let's get the davenport.' Picking a house at random, they went up the front steps and tapped on the silver knocker. A maid answered the door, and Robert said, 'We've come for the davenport.' The maid paused a second, then said, 'Which one?' and Robert, who by this time could see into the hall, replied, 'That one.' The maid let them in, and they picked up the davenport, carried it out and across the square, and brought it to the door of another house. Robert rang the bell, and when the maid answered he said, 'We've brought the davenport. Where should we put it?' The maid looked around in bewilderment, then said, 'There, I guess,' pointing into the sitting room. They deposited it where she said, and left. The matter wasn't straightened out for several months, when the owner of the davenport went to the other house for tea and recognized her property. The explanation that 'two men just left it here' was accepted graciously, albeit a little coldly."And that is the origin of the name of the Boston "We've Come for the Davenport" chapter of the Robert Benchley Society.
After college there were a few unsatisfying jobs in the Boston area. These included a brief stint at Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where his principle duty was to accompany Mrs. Jack Gardner to Red Sox games so she would stop pestering the professional staff to drop their duties and run off to Fenway Park with her.
His professional life took off when he started, in the late nineteen-teens, to write for various New York publications, including Vanity Fair, where he filled in as theatre critic when P. G. Wodehouse left to pursue screen-writing.
And so we come to the Benchley/Wodehouse connection. Benchley's essay, "The Social Life of the Newt," first published in Vanity Fair in 1919, was almost certainly the inspiration for the Wodehousian newt-obsessed character Gussie Fink-Nottle.
Benchley was friend and admirer of many of the writers of his time. In fact, he was so gregarious that it got in the way of his already poor work habits and contributed to his small literary output compared to, say, Wodehouse. The distractions of friends from the Algonquin Round Table -- that gathering of New York wits that lasted from 1919 to 1929 -- got so bad that he finally took rooms across the street at another residential hotel, the Royalton. But the friends followed him there (and brought with them "presents" that over-filled the place and made work just about impossible). Benchley writes of his digs at the Royalton in his essay "No Pullmans, Please!"
"It began with little articles to line up on top of a bookcase, miniature geese, little men with baskets, shells with eggs in them and broken stags. I also was not averse to hanging oddments on the walls. My friends entered into the spirit of this admirably. Every one had fun but the lady who dusted.Noel Coward, a Round Table semi-regular, at least when he was in New York, upon visiting Benchley at the Royalton said:
"Then people began looking around town for heavier gifts. It got to be a game. Trucks began arriving with old busts of Sir Walter Scott, four-foot statues of men whose shirtfronts lit up when attached to an electric connection, stuffed owls 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.
From then on the slogan became: 'Send it to Benchley!' Wrecking concerns were pressed into service, and chipped cornices from the old Post Office, detached flights of stairs, hitching posts and railings began pouring in. Every day was like Christmas in Pompeii. The overflow went into the bedroom and I started sleeping under an old spinet, covered over with a set of bead-curtains which had been brought to me from a bordello in Marseille."
"I must say, it looks lived in."Benchley’s other literary friends included--
Ernest Hemingway (also a great drinking buddy).
Stephen Leacock, who wrote:
"Here, for example, is Robert C. Benchley, perhaps the most finished master of the technique of literary fun in America. Benchley's work is pure humor, one might almost say sheer nonsense. There is no moral teaching, no reflection of life, no tears. What Benchley pursues is the higher art of nonsense and he has shown in it a quite exceptional power for tricks of word and phrase."Speaking of Leacock, English legal scholar (and humor author) Sir Carleton Kemp Allen (1887-1966) wrote in his "Oh, Mr. Leacock!" (1925):
--Greatest Pages of American Humor (1936).
"There are certain things which are too sacred to every Englishman to be lightly joked about; among them I would name Shakespeare, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and the pious peace, the beatific beauty, of a Christmas afternoon...These things go deep into our inner natures; but I am sorry to say none of them is sacred to Mr. Benchley. He is pleased to be satirical about them."James Thurber confessed that the professional humor writer is plagued by:
"the suspicion that a piece he has been working on for two days was done much better and probably more quickly by Robert Benchley in 1924."Wolcott Gibbs, editor, humorist, parodist, drama critic, and short story writer for the New Yorker, wrote:
–My Life and Hard Times (1933).
"When you were with him, in the wonderful junk shop he operated at the Royalton in '21', or in less fashionable saloons which had the simple merit of staying open all night, you had a very warm and encouraging feeling that you were a funnier man than you'd previously suspected, the things you said sounded quite a lot better than they really were and, such was the miracle of his sympathy and courteous hope, they often actually were pretty good. He wanted his guests to feel that they were succeeding socially and he did his best to make it easy for them. The truth, of course, was that Benchley himself maneuvered there conversations, tactfully providing most of the openings for wit, but the effect was that people were mysteriously improved in his company, surprisingly at home on a level of easy charm of which nobody would have dreamed they were capable. This willingness to play straight man to amateur but hopeful comedians is rather rare in the world he inhabited, where it is not customary to give very much away, but he did it instinctively."Other friends and admirers included S. J. Perelman and H. Allen Smith, among others.
--excerpt from "Robert Benchley: In Memoriam" published in More in Sorrow, 1958; originally published in the New York Times.
It was in New York that Benchley first performed "The Treasurer's Report" live on stage. The skit, which I'll not read because I simply do not have the talent or discipline to carry it off, presents a woefully unprepared and nervous assistant treasurer delivering the most fractured financial report ever [uhm] delivered. It was widely successful and soon Benchley was off to Hollywood to film The Treasurer’s Report. It was the first all-talking picture (people forget that most of The Jazz Singer was silent with dialogue cards).
Benchley went on to a successful career in the talkies (eventually quitting writing entirely). His How to Sleep won the 1935 Academy Award for Best Short Subject. Many of Benchley’s "shorts" are available now on DVD. He also played supporting roles in several feature-length films, usually type-cast as a society drunk or writer with a less-than-admirable work ethic.
His death in 1945 can be traced, ultimately, to his heavy drinking.
This brings us to Benchley’s lasting influence.
In his day, Benchley was one of America's most well-known and loved humorists. Today he is largely forgotten by the general public. But among professional, or serious amateur, humorists he is revered as the master.
After his death, the Benchley character of the confused "everyman" was taken up by such writers as:
Woody AllenThe Robert Benchley Society keeps alive the Benchley tradition of warm, genial, witty humor through an annual writing competition. Past judges have included Dave Barry, Bob Newhart, and Mark Russell. This year's judge is Arte Johnson, well-known to many as "Wolfgang the German" and "Tyrone the Dirty Old Man" from Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. Entries are due by April Fool's Day.
For more information about Benchley, the Society, or rules for entering the competition, see our website http://www.robertbenchley.org.