Saturday, November 21, 2015

I hope not a ‘what it was’

Robert Charles Benchley - the early 20th century American columnist and comic actor - died 70 years ago today. He seemed to find his métier early on, while at Harvard through writing for its literary and comic magazines. But, after university, it took him some years to settle into what became a successful career as both a drama critic/humorist in New York, and a comic actor/monologuist in Hollywood. He did, at times, keep diaries, and although these have not been published, as far as I know, Benchley’s son Nathaniel drew on them extensively for his 1955 biography, as did Wes D. Gehring almost 40 years later.

Benchley was born in 1889 in Worcester, Massachusetts. His elder brother, Edmund, died in the Spanish-American war when Robert was but 9, and subsequently Edmund’s rich fiancee, helped Robert attend Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, and later, from 1908, Harvard. At Harvard, Benchley became involved with theatrical productions and the Harvard Advocate and the Harvard Lampoon, being elected, in his third year, to the board of the latter. In 1914, her married Gertrude Darling, who he’d met at high school, and they had two sons, Nathaniel (one of whose children, Peter, would write the famous book, Jaws) and Robert.

After Harvard, Benchley tried a variety of jobs in New York City - copy work, translation, press agent, reporting - but too often found himself not quite at ease with the work or the expectations of others. Having written freelance articles for Vanity Fair since 1916, he was taken on as managing editor in 1919, along side his Harvard Lampoon collaborator, Robert Sherwood, and Dorothy Parker, who had taken over as theatre critic from P. G Wodehouse. Although Vanity Fair suited Benchley well, allowing him to vent his humorous style, he, along with Sherwood and Parker soon fell out with the managers. When Parker was fired, Benchley resigned in sympathy, and returned to freelancing. The three friends had been meeting for lunches at the Algonquin Hotel, and, as this continued, so they became known as the Algonquin Round Table.

In 1920, Benchley joined the staff of Life magazine as the drama critic, eventually managing the whole drama section, and remained until 1929. During this time, the Round Table put on a one-night review, but Benchley’s contribution - The Treasurer’s Report - was so popular that he was asked to reprise it often. Irving Berlin, in fact, hired him for $500 a week to perform it nightly during Berlin’s Music Box Revue which ran for a year in 1921-1922. This led to work writing work for film screenplays and Broadway musicals, including, in 1928, a film version of The Treasurer’s Report. Benchley then wrote and/or starred in many more short films. On leaving Life, he was invited to be the theatre critic for the newly-established magazine The New Yorker, which would publish an average of nearly 50 Benchley pieces a year during the early 1930s.

The 1930s and early 1940s saw Benchley often in Hollywood, moving from Paramount to MGM and back again to Paramount, making 40 short films and appearing in minor roles in some 50 feature films. His How to Sleep (1935) won an Academy Award for best live-action short film. Biographers say, however, that though films brought Benchley fame, it is his writing that must be considered his lasting achievement. From 1920s on, and every few years, he published a compendium of his columns and essays, illustrated by Gluyas Williams: Pluck and Luck (1925), for example, My Ten Years in a Quandary, and How They Grew (1936), and Inside Benchley (1942). In later years, Benchley’s drinking led to him being diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, and he died, still in his mid-50s, on 21 November 1945. A limited amount of further information can be found at Wikipedia, The Worcester Writers Project, or Encyclopædia Britannica.

In 1955, McGraw-Hill published Nathaniel Benchley’s biography of his father - simply called, Robert Benchley - drawing on diaries Benchley had kept as a young man. More recently, in 1992, Greenwood Press published Wes D. Gehring’s “Mr B” or comforting thoughts about the bison: a critical biography of Robert Benchley, and this too culled significant details from Benchley’s diaries. Indeed, where Nathaniel’s book contains no introduction, and no acknowledgement of sources, Gehring’s book does, at least, provide some background on the diaries.

According to Gehring, Benchley’s diaries are contained in five bound volumes, for the years 1911-1914 and 1916, and these are held by the Mugar Memorial Library, Boston University. There were also, he says, childhood diaries, and possibly adult diaries (the library holds travel diary fragments, from 1922 and 1930), but these were most likely destroyed by his wife. Gehring believes she might have done this to carry out Benchley’s wishes. And, in support of this idea, he quotes Benchley as having said once, ‘no one else is ever going to get a look at these diaries so long as I have a bullet in my rifle.’

Gehring quotes extensively from Benchley’s diaries, but in a very bitty way, weaving phrases and sentences into his own text. (He does, though, scrupulously provide a date for each one.) Here’s an example from Gehring: ‘Besides his wedding, 1914 was also memorable as Benchley received his first check for a story (the amount was forty dollars). The September 28 timing could not have been more opportune, because as Benchley noted in his diaries: “our bank account was nil, it lacking two days of pay-day.” He would later describe their first married New Year’s Eve together, “sitting up in bed going over the bills to be paid tomorrow.” (From the notes: the first quote is dated 28 September 1914, the second 31 December 1914.)

The following, more complete, extracts from Robert Benchley’s diaries can be found in Nicholas Benchley’s 1955 biography.

23 July 1907
‘Then Lucy, Miss Jean, Jessie, Miss Ida and I went on the river in the moonlight in the two canoes. Sang and drifted. Took my mandolin. Slick.’

22 November 1907
‘Played football in the moonlight until nearly 11 o’clock. Came back to the room and fooled around.’

10 December 1907
‘Had a peach of a rough-house up in John’s room trying to put Fat on one bed.’

25 February 1908
‘Fat and I went to the Town Hall and hear Jacob Riis lecture on “The Battle with the Slums.” Illustrated. Very interesting.

1911 [on being elected to the board of Harvard Lampoon - undated in Nathaniel’s book]
‘It will mean a lot of work and a lot of worry and responsibility for it is a responsible position, yet I am very happy to be given it - not least of all because Mother will be so proud - and Gertrude too - and maybe my course will seem a little more worth while to Lillian. I never dreamed when I was a struggling freshman toiling over bum jokes that I would some day be the dreaded censor of the jokes of others - I trust I remember enough of how I felt, to be as nice as Hallowell was to me then. It is the biggest thing so far in my college course, but it doesn’t seem so big now that I’ve got it - I can see lots of bigger things that I ought to do, a “cum laude,” for instance.’

30 July 1914
‘Europe seems tottering on the brink of a general war over the Austria-Servia affair, but I can’t make it seem possible that they really will fall back so far into the middle ages after having come so far.’

31 July 1914
‘The stock markets are closed, and Germany is on the point of declaring war on Russia. Still, I can’t help feeling that things will be straightened out without a general European war.’

3 August 1914
‘A depression seems hanging over everything that is ominous - reflected from Europe where all the progress of 100 years is going to smash. H. G. Wells wrote better than he knew. But if any one is to lose, I hope that it is Germany and Austria, on whose aggressive brutality rests the blame.’

4 August 1914
‘Germany has declared war on England and Turkey on Servia. It is almost ludicrous in its immensity, yet frightful.’

16 August 1914
‘Japan has jumped in now and given Germany till August 20 to get out of Kaeow Chow. It is something of the “kick-him-in-the-teeth-he-ain’t-got-no-friends” attitude, and “come-on-in-and-get-a-piece-while-the-getting-is-good.”

13 November 1915
’12:27 - GAME CALLED. Nurse (a new one) comes in and asks my name. “Benchley.” Well, Miss Erbstadt just telephoned down & said the baby has just arrived and they are both all right. She said she didn’t know whether it was a boy “or what it was.” I hope not a “what it was.” “Both all right” is more to the point.

12:32 - Another nurse says she thinks she said a boy, but not sure. It ought to be fairly easy to ascertain before long.

12:35 - A Boy! and love from the Wife! Yea! Nurse tried to tell me “twins,” but I was a sly dog and didn’t bite.’

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