- Historic Sites
“im Fine, Just Hurting Inside”
Robert Benchley, a woebegone chronicler of his own inadequacies, was the humorist’s humorist, a man beloved by practically everyone but himself
April/May 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 3
Edmund, a handsome, dashing figure, received a commission to West Point in 1894. In 1898 his class was graduated early in order to go off to the SpanishAmerican War. During a skirmish in Cuba on July 1, Edmund was shot through the heart and killed. Word of his death reached Worcester on July 4, just as the town was about to erupt in its traditional Independence Day festivities. His mother went into shock, and in her hysteria she blurted, “Oh, why couldn’t it have been Robert?” Soon everyone in town, including Robert’s classmates, knew what she had said.
She spent the rest of Robert’s childhood—indeed, the rest of her life—trying to atone for those words. She catered to his every need and even tied his shoes for him each morning until he was old enough to go to high school. She also added a fanatic pacifism to her prohibitionism, and both were bulwarks of Benchley’s own philosophy. Although he later enthusiastically took up drinking, he remained antiwar, writing in the mid-1920s of “five million youths, cheered on by a hundred million elders with fallen arches, marching out to give their arms and legs and lives for Something to Be Determined Later.”
Edmund had been secretly engaged to Lillian Duryea, heiress to the fortunes of a prosperous starch business. She practically adopted Robert, eventually placing him in Phillips Exeter Academy at her own expense.
At Exeter, Robert was judged a fine, though not superior, student. Once he was assigned to write an essay on something “practical,” so he went to the local mortician and prepared a thorough, precise paper on how to embalm a body. His queasy but impressed teacher gave him an A.
It was also Lillian who insisted that Robert go to Harvard, and she lent him the money for tuition. Benchley’s contemporaries there included Walter Lippmann and John Reed. Years later Benchley recalled Reed as a radical who “smiled now and then and even cracked jokes, and did not always enter the room as if … [he] were the man coming to take away the piano.” Benchley became president of the Harvard Lampoon , the student humor magazine, on which he worked with Frederick Lewis Allen, a future editor in chief of Harper’s Magazine ; Henry Holt, Jr., who later published some of Benchley’s books; and Gluyas Williams, whose incomparable drawings illustrated them.
Benchley’s philosophy of higher education was one that has been admired and followed by many undergraduates. “My college education was no haphazard affair,” he later wrote. “My courses were all selected with a very definite aim in view, with a serious purpose in mind: No classes before 11 A.M. or after 2:30 P.M. and nothing on Saturday. … On that rock was my education built.” He claimed that such a regimen enabled him to take courses on the social life of minor sixteenth-century poets, Russian taxation systems before Catherine the Great, and North American glacial deposits.
As he had in grammar school, in high school, and at Exeter, Benchley became involved in theatrical activities at Harvard, writing and acting in several productions of the Hasty Pudding Club. He also became renowned among his fellow students—and even around Boston—for delivering mock lectures and travelogues, perhaps the most memorable of which was entitled “Through the Alimentary Canal with Gun and Camera.”
Because he failed a course in international law by responding incorrectly to an exam question about a fisheries dispute (he looked at it from the point of view of the fish), Benchley did not get his degree with his class and later had to take makeup courses. But as president of the Lampoon he was still called upon to deliver the traditionally humorous Ivy Oration at commencement. His adlibbed parody of academic and political rhetoric, delivered to a huge audience that had suffered through two days of ponderous speeches, was greeted with wild enthusiasm.