Robert Benchley (1889-1945) was one of the most popular and influential humorists of 20th century America. He took his gentle, self-deprecating wit to celebrity in literature, the theater, and the movies.
The offspring of a prominent local family and the grandson of a lieutenant governor of the state, Robert C. Benchley was born in Worcester, Massachusetts on September 15, 1889. When he was nine, his beloved older brother Edmund was killed in the Spanish-American War, prompting the outburst from his mother, "Why couldn't it have been Robert?"—a cry that became known around the community.
Even in high school Benchley was active in theater, getting work as an extra with touring road companies when they appeared in Worcester. Sent to Phillips Exeter Academy with financial aid from his brother's fiancee, Lillian Duryea, he joined the drama club and did illustrations for the literary magazine. At Harvard, where his financial help from Duryea continued, he drew for the Lampoon, eventually becoming the president of the humor magazine's editorial board, and appeared in a number of shows produced by the Hasty Pudding Club. He also began to write and deliver humorous monologues.
From 1912 to 1914 Benchley worked for the Curtis Publishing Company and in 1914 was married to Gertrude Darling, a friend since childhood. In 1916 he was hired as a reporter for the New York Tribune through the influence of Franklin P. Adams. Later that year he moved to the Tribune Magazine, of which Adams was the editor; the magazine, however, lasted just over a year. He worked as a theatrical press agent for a few weeks and then as the aircraft news censor for the Aircraft Board, a position he resigned out of loyalty to a friend falsely accused of being pro-German.
Benchley became managing editor of Vanity Fair magazine in 1919; within a year his drama critic, Dorothy Parker, was fired for a blast at Billie Burke, the actress wife of producer Florenz Ziegfeld, and Benchley resigned in support of critical independence. In 1920 and 1921 he wrote a thrice-weekly column, "Books and Other Things," for the newspaper the New York World. In April of 1920 he became the drama editor of Life, then exclusively a humor magazine, a position he held until 1929, and in 1921 he contracted with columnist-editor David Lawrence to do a weekly syndicated feature. In the same year he published his first book, Of All Things, a collection of familiar essays on topics ranging from the social life of the new to bridge-playing and fuel-saving. His subsequent books followed the pattern established here of essays gathered after their publication in periodicals.
It was in these years that he became associated with the Algonquin Round Table, a group of rising young literary lights who met daily for lunch at the hotel on West 44th Street in Manhattan. At various times the group included drama critic Alexander Woollcott; playwrights Marc Connelly, Robert Sherwood, and George S. Kaufman; humorist Dorothy Parker; and actress Katherine Cornell and was renown for the mots which originated there. Benchley's most quoted quip, delivered on a rainy day, was "I've got to get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini."
The group put on a one-night theatrical piece, No Sirree!, in 1922, the year which saw Benchley's second book, Love Conquers All. The hit of the evening was the humorist's monologue "The Treasurer's Report," a rambling and occasionally chaotic statement by an assistant treasurer filling in for his superior, who is ill. It became his best-known work. He was signed to present it professionally in the Music Box Review, which he did for nine months in 1923, and he took it to the screen in 1928.
Later Writings and Productions
The late 1920s and early 1930s saw his association with the fledgling New Yorker magazine become closer. In 1927 he began the occasional column "The Wayward Press," which he wrote until 1939, and in 1929 he became the drama columnist for the magazine, a post he resigned in 1940. Meanwhile he published Pluck and Luck (1925), The Early Worm (1927), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or David Copperfield (1928), The Treasurer's Report (1930), No Poems (1932), and From Bed to Worse (1934).
Benchley's popularity in Hollywood continued to grow as he made more one-reel and two-reel shorts in 1928 and 1929, most of them monologues based on the model of "The Treasurer's Report." In 1932 he played a cameo role in the full-length feature Sport Parade, the first of many such appearances. In 1935 he won an Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his monologue "How to Sleep" and was nominated for another in 1937 for "A Night at the Movies." Although he published My Ten Years in a Quandary in 1936, After 1903—What? in 1938, Inside Benchley in 1942, and Benchley Beside Himself in 1943, his interest in writing was decreasing and his absorption with film growing more complete. His total cinematic oeuvre comprised 49 short subjects, plus the aforementioned guest appearances.
Benchley died on November 21, 1945. There were three posthumous anthologies of his work, Benchley—Or Else! (1947), Chips off the Old Benchley (1949), and The Benchley Roundup (1954), all of them consisting largely of previously uncollected essays, some of which the humorist himself evidently did not wish to include in other anthologies.
The importance of Benchley in the history of modern American humor is undeniable, but his humor has seldom been analyzed because it contains so many elements. Although he once did a short-lived magazine series depicting himself as the archetypal poor soul, that was not the most suitable persona for him because of the underlying intellectual quality of his work. Both in writing and on film he saw himself as bemused and semi-inept: that is, he was almost, but not completely, able to cope with human foibles and the unpredictability of inanimate objects. Further, he was capable of whimsy, as in "The Benchley-Whittier Correspondence"; hyperbole, as in "The Treasurer's Report"; the ridiculous, as in "Chemists' Sporting Extra"; and satire, as in "Tabloid Editions."
Throughout his work, however, there runs a self-deprecating tone, unusual in a WASP blue-blood at a time when virtually all of the self-mocking humor was heavily ethnic (whether Irish or Jewish or German). It is perhaps best encapsulated in Benchley's wry observation, "It took me fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn't give it up because by that time I was too famous."
Further Reading on Robert Benchley
The best biography is by the humorist's son, Robert Benchley: A Biography by Nathaniel Benchley (1955). Others worth consulting are Robert Benchley by Norris W. Yates (1968) and Robert Benchley: His Life and Good Times by Babette Rosmond (1970). There are frequent mentions of Benchley in books about the Algonquin Round Table, such as The Vicious Circle by Margaret Case Harriman (1951) and The Algonquin Wits, edited by Robert E. Drennan (1968). The best filmography is in Selected Short Subjects by Leonard Maltin (1983).
Additional Biography Sources
Altman, Billy, Laughter's gentle soul: the life of Robert Benchley, New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.
Gehring, Wes D., "Mr. B," or, Comforting thoughts about the bison: a critical biography of Robert Benchley, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992.
Rosmond, Babette, Robert Benchley: his life and good times, New York: Paragon House, 1989.