by Louis Kronenberger
ROBERT BENCHLEY: HIS LIFE AND GOOD TIMES
In any mental traveling backward on my part, any happy remembrance of things past, I would think of Robert Benchley as a way station to stop off at. For in days gone by he gave me, and thousands of others, a great many laughs and a great deal of pleasure. Mr. Benchley, as he teas spoken of by his intimates, seems in memory like slightly old-time fun, but no Sleepy I follow: like clean fun, but not the slightest Hit square. What one recalls as particularly attractive is that despite his respectable look and his air of good manners. he could be uproariously lethal and quite unapologetically mad. To write about him today is to be reminded that Benchley, beyond being verv much himself as humorist and satirist, was also part of a particular age and of a particular group, both of which be adorned, perhaps a trifle to his undoing— something the more regrettable for his having been, personally, superior to both. Indeed, anyone who knew him, even as slightly as I did, must have an affection for the man as well as the writer.
There are relatively few crucial dates anti facts in his life: born, Worcester, Massachusetts, 1889; middle-class urban upbringing; Harvard, class of 1912. Thereafter came various making-ends-meet jolts for a writer in an age when even radio was unborn and when life was a comic magazine: newspaper reporter, advertising underling, theatrical press agent. By 1918 Benchley was managing editor of chic, glossy Vanity Fair, which a somewhat later alumnus once described as “the worst work of the best writers,” and which gave Benchley, for teammates, Dorothy Parker and Robert Sherwood. These three would very decidedly meet again, were, indeed, charter members of a soon-to-befamous group. Inside a few years Benchley would become a rather dashing man-about-town; would begin to bring out—to the jolly accompaniment of Gluyas Williams’ drawings—his comic pieces in book form; would become drama critic for the old Life, as later for the New Yorker; would, with his smash monologue “The Treasurer’s Report,” have begun a long successful stage and screen career (he made twenty-one movie shorts) and a New York-Hollywood shuttle lasting till his death in 1945.
The particular era that Benchley rose to fame in was the improvident and high-stepping child of the jazz Age and the Volstead Act. With gaywhite-wayward ness Benchley’s Manhattan went roistering through the 1920s—an open season for sex, an open sesame with speakeasies, rackety Broadway supper clubs, jazzrhythmed Harlem hot spots, giddy scandals, and tabloids straining to do them justice; above all. a highrise, ever higher rising, stock market, which eventually sounded taps by precipitously toppling over. The era bred an insane optimism—no more wars, each year more progress, each year more pay—linked to a rather flip cynicism and shallow sophistication. The particular group that Benchley teas a notable part of. christened the Algonquin Group after the hotel it regularly lunched at, reflected a 1920-ish sophistication at its brightest and filled the air with instantly circulated anecdotes and wisecracks. Besides Benchley, Sherwood, and Mrs. Parker, the group included among others George S. Kaufman, Marc Connollv, Frank Sullivan, Hey wood Broun, F.P.A., and Alexander Woollcott. Their great success sprang, of course, from their talent, but their success teas greater than their talent, there being other reasons for it. Thus, almost as important as the talent were the times, when a speakeasy might serve as a salon, when prankishness could substitute for patina, mockery for tradition, and parlor games for more austere forms of culture. Yet, for all their antics, the Algonquin Group were never very adventurous or avant-garde or even bohemian; their plays excepted—plays carefully tailored for Broadway—theirs were short-breath talents: humorous
pieces, parodies, skits, light verse, short stories, satires. What they read was not dangerously above the level of what they wrote: Dorothy Parker fed happily off A. E. Housman and Edna Millay; Woollcott, a literary pop tiff of sorts, for whom literature was either treacle or truffles, built ephemera into masterpieces and then boosted them into best sellers. And as the period favored (he group, so did their bring a group favor them. The Algonquin performers, with their midday Round Table as their stage and their mots as their press agents, gained final stature by unwearied logrolling, by praising one another (though not always from love) while disparaging a great deal else. If a little too superior, they were in their own way truly superior, with so great an impact that as jesters they became more like crowned heads. Whatever their failings, these people helped make the ‘New York of the twenties a legend, and the New Yorker, in the history of humor, a landmark.
Benchley, however much of a Lothario or a lush he may have been, comes close to being the Round Table’s Galahad. He had its wit with almost nothing of its waspishness, and a friendliness and generosity all his own. His wife said that lie “never refused any one anything,” but there was more than a billfold beneficence; there was a generous nature, an instinct to be kind, a conditioning to lie courteous. To a sharp tongue he brought a saving screwiness, so that his chastisings wound up as chuckles. After receiving endless suicide notes from Mrs. Parker, he said to her, “Dorothy, if you keep this up, it’s going to ruin your health.” When, leaving a restaurant, he asked a resplendently uniformed man to call him a taxi and the man announced that he was an admiral in the United States Navy: “In that case,” said Benchley, “call me a battleship.” And when, while living at Hollywood’s famous Garden of Allah, he tried again and again to rouse the switchboard operator, who had fallen asleep, he left a note for her: “Let this be a lesson to you. I might have been having a baby.”
Miss Rosmond writes admiringly, not to say adoringly, of Benchley, of his “nobility, charm and talent" and his “rare inner fibre,” though she by no means scamps the wine and women in his life. Unfortunately, site strikes a wrong note with both aspects, being rather too rhapsodic on the one hand and rather too gossipy on the other. Moreover, though a book so long on anecdote may provide today’s younger generation with some good domestic champagne, much of it is for others pretty stale beer. Nor, in wishing to be of help to the unsophisticated is Miss Rosmond notably sophisticated herself. “This was the time of the giants of American humor,” she tells us of the late 1920s, . . a period like the early nineteenth century in England when lyric poetry bloomed, producing Shelley, Keats, Byron, Wordsworth”—surely a monumental example of chalk and cheese. And if an analogy seemed in order, what was wrong (except their superiority) with England’s carlynineteenth-century “giants” of humor: fane Austen. Sydney Smith, Lamb, Peacock, and the Byron of Don Juan? Scaling wobblier heights, Miss Rosmond declares that “it has been the custom to lump all humorists, with the possible exception of Aristophanes, Congreve and Mark Twain, as ‘Algonquin wits.’ ” Well, perhaps a graduate student, absolutely desperate for a thesis subject, might care to find out just when and where all the other humorists, or even any handful of them—Lucian? Rabelais? Chamfort? Heine? Gogol? —underwent lumping. With the Algonquin wits themselves, Miss Rosmond is on a good deal firmer ground. Anecdotes, repartees, saber thrusts, poisoned darts abound, beginning with the book’s introduction, in which Benchley’s widow looks back and speaks out, very tartly about Dorothy Parker and Donald Ogden Stewart, very understandably about Woollcott. Throughout the book, almost in opposition to Benchley’s nobility, there is mention of Mrs. Parker’s unkindliness. Some of her remarks doubtless gave cause for complaint, but all in all her wit was much less a matter of malice than of metier: she had a talent for witty responses, and it became, in a sense, her trade. In Miss Rosmond’s account, a number of people found Mrs. Parker disagreeable: f knew her pretty well and liked her very much, and if she had a serious fault, it was that in other people’s presence site was too agreeable, and acidulous only afterwards.
Miss Rosmond has written as a true believer of Benchley and his times, and today, when we are even more distant from them in attitudes than in years, her choice of a hero and his stamping grounds is altogether welcome. What is too bad is that she brought to a brightly gilded, rather shallow world too unshaded an appreciation and too unperspectived an appraisal; has written a quite short book that yet seems padded, and a quite genuine tribute often marred by its tone.
Benchley’s life and good times have both a personal attractiveness and a period interest, but his books —though he said many good things as well as wrote them—have a greater interest, He published some fifteen, all of-them, so far as I know, collections of short humorous pieces of one kind or another: nonsense, topical spoofs and satires, parodies, screwy autobiographical bits, and very occasionally something mildly serious. This makes for a rather limited diversity, first bec ause the genres are blood relations, again because the genres frequently merge, finally because so many pieces never really fall into any periods. The upshot of my inspection, which might seem pedagogical enough for a Benchley spoof, is that there is nothing, thereafter, to be pedagogical about. Benchley’s mature work seems all of a piece: it neither grows nor shrinks, becomes longer or shorter, more blithe or bitter, more screwy or sane. He simply had his good days, his bad days, and his in-between ones; and was always recognizably, and often repetitiously, Benchley.
Today, almost a generation after his death, he is one thing further. He has become faintly historical: at his most inspired, a humorist for all time, but for the most part, a humorist of his own time; a little dated in his manner, a little more in his material. What he seized on, swooped down on, lunged at, let fly at was for the most part soc ial and cultural stuff, very topical and very vulnerable; much less often had it to do with the human animal’s blundering, very recurrent and quite ineradicable. All this was somewhat further restricted to urban and suburban, to middle-class and uppermiddle-class, life. What much of Benchlev’s period stuff caught on the run and squirted with a hose, a Sinclair Lewis slowed down to study in detail and drove home with a hammer. Now and then the fading past gains in nostalgia what it loses as satire, but a good deal of itt has become elicited as well as passe; has us look back to a world of Pullman cars and of paying calls, of whole families at summer resorts and whole families touring Europe, of Sunday afternoon doldrums, and of sex still examined humorously under glass. On occasion Benchley manages, while remaining a jester, to make a salient point or even a mild protest; but he is writing pre-eminently for people who share, in period language, his background, who, in the midst of their laughter, can nod recognition and approval, can murmur touche or hear, hear or me, too. Supplementing Benchley’s trained eye is his great talent for wacky phrases, and this counts considerably here, the madness being the more rewarding because of the middle-classness.
We still, today, often get quite good platefuls of satire or fun, but with Benchley’s finest dishes it is the sauce, and not the meat, that matters—a sauce more than piquante, a sauce ivre, a sauce idiote. To proffer any brief tastes of this must also seem like dangling grapes before Tantalus, and must lack all cumulative hilarity; but let us dangle Benchley’s fish that “has eyes in its wrists,” or His advertising conference for marketing a steel handkerchief, or his artist’s model who strangely got nowhere “in spite of Iter great beauty and collection of time tables,” or the husbandly speech to die wife who gets all messed up in the Sunday papers: “What do you do with a newspaper? . . . try to dress yourself in it? You’ll never get anywhere without buttons, you know.” (I myself got so bleary-eyed with Benchleyisms that, cross my heart, I read the title of one of his pieces, “The Woolen Mitten Situation" as “The Wooden Mitten Situation.”)
For sustained success Benchley comes off best, I think, with parodies or their near-neighbors. Not always, like Max Beerbohm or Wolcott Gibbs, a strict parodist, Benchley can be extremely funny through ballooning the whole conception, through being more farcical than faithful, as in the parody of Dreiser, whose clodhopper prose, doggedly repeated information, and documentary approach are transmuted into wild laughter. Wildly comic, too, is the best of the opera-plot travesties and of the Raquel-Meller song resumes, the takeoff of a professorish literary biography, and of the New York Times Book Review Queries and Answers. A parody of a different sort, and the best known of all Benchley’s recitations and writings —his “Treasurer’s Report”—still holds up nicely. What may be the best known of his cracks, “I must get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini,” wasn’t his, but a press agent’s; and Benchley, we are told, disliked it.
He shared his nutty streak, of course, with others in the Greater Algonquin set; indeed, it was perhaps the most recognizable aspect of their group humor. It was not new with them, having already turned up in Samuel Foote’s well-known eighteenth-century “What, no soap” piece, and having provided a surrealist safety valve, through Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, and others, in a Victorian England that drew back from realism and was stifled in prudishness. But, pioneered by Stephen Leacock, a new brand of irrelevancies and absurdities, of nonsense and non sequiturs, exploded after World War I in Benchley, Stewart, Lardner, Thurber, Frank Sullivan, Perelman, and others. With Benchley’s fullbloom wackiness went a light-touch geniality that proved not only pleasant but protective: it absolved him from manifesting any strong personal attire or sharp point of view. On the rare occasions when he adopted a half-serious tone, as in the defense of life in New York which he wrote for the Yale Review, there is a loss of poise and a lack of brightness. Nor, the few times that he no more than simmers with indignation, does lie shine. When he goes mad, he can be wonderful; when he even faintly gets mad, he’s no good.
At other times lie is also no good —after all, he wrote, by his son’s count, more than a thousand pieces. It is rather a pity that he wrote with deadlined journalistic regularity, this not so much to disparage a rather mechanical procedure as to wonder why he kept on with it. He had instinctive sensibility and taste, he was very little fooled by what he looked around at, he had read a lot, and indeed, for years he had a great desire to write about the Age of Queen Anne—something he spoke of to many people, me among them. How much the Queen Anne book became a useful fantasy it would be hard to say, nor is it the real point of what I am saying: what one does regret is that he never attempted a Benchley essay that might, in its own fashion, have the dexterity and solidity of, say, a Beerbohm essay; or a really penetrating satire, or any facet of what makes lustrous the Age of Anne. Was it the company he kept, and the late hours they kept? Was it the wolf at the porte cochere? But, though a matter for regret, it is not one for moralizing. If an eye-on-theclock humorist, Benchley was a true and funny one; if a hail-fellow Galahad, certainly by Algonquin and perhaps by Arthurian standards, his heart was pure.