- 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
His success as a college humorist was so great that the editor of the Boston Journal offered him a job writing a daily humor column. Benchley turned it down with the observation that he didn’t want to have to be funny every day. Shortly afterward he moved to New York City, where he got a job writing advertising copy for the Curtis Publishing Company. He had only modest luck extolling the benefits of advertising in Curtis publications, and his career there came to an abrupt end early in 1914, not long after he had attended the company’s annual dinner wearing a red wig, a false beard, and eyeglasses, passing himself off as a “Mr. Constantine,” president of a Seattle advertising agency. His immediate superior had approved of the prank and seated Benchley next to none other than Cyrus H. K. Curtis himself. When called upon to speak, Benchley delivered a furious denunciation of the Curtis Publishing Company, so enraging Curtis that the publisher had to be restrained from attacking him. As a finale, Benchley doffed his disguise and sang a chorus of “Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl.” The audience had been so gulled by Benchley’s performance that only scattered applause and laughter greeted it, and Curtis grumbled that the hoax seemed “funny now. But it wasn’t funny five minutes ago.” In a matter of weeks Benchley was looking for a job. Years later he remarked that the company gave him “plenty of time to get my hat and coat, and they advised me to stay out of advertising, because I was too tall.… Curtis stayed in Philadelphia in its small way and I went elsewhere.”
The “elsewhere” turned out to be Boston, where the Russell Paper Company hired him to be the “welfare secretary” for its paper-mill employees, organizing company bowling matches and clambakes.
During this period Benchley submitted some brief humorous essays to Frank Crowninshield, then an editor of The Century magazine, who rejected them but urged him to write more. This encouragement and his employment with the paper company persuaded Benchley that he was financially solvent enough to marry Gertrude Darling, whom he had known since they were in grammar school. They were married on June 6,1914, and the following October his first commercially published article appeared in Vanity Fair , of which Crowninshield had just become the editor. The article spoofed the titles then favored for popular novels and suggested as a suitable candidate: “No Matter from What Angle You Look at It, Alice Brookhausen Was a Girl Whom You Would Hesitate to Invite into Your Own Home.”
Benchley’s comic speeches were still fondly remembered in Boston, and he was asked to address the Harvard Club’s dinner honoring the university’s undefeated football team, which had just whipped Yale 36 to 0. He and some friends managed to cajole a local Chinese merchant into wearing a dress suit and impersonating a “Professor Soong” of the Imperial University of China, whose address on “Chinese football” would be “translated” by Benchley. The merchant rattled off a stream of obscenities and invective in Chinese, while the unwary audience (all except for one Chinese alumnus) waited for Benchley’s explanation of what was being said.
Yale’s coach Frank Hinkey had introduced the lateral pass to the game that year, certainly without success against Harvard, and Benchley proceeded to tell the audience that the play called the kaew chung , or lateral pass, was actually an ancient Chinese invention, “but as in no instance was it ever known to gain over three yards, and that in the wrong direction, it was abandoned in the year 720.” Benchley then asked the “professor” what he thought Harvard needed to continue its splendid record on the gridiron, and after the Chinese merchant had cursed for at least five minutes, Benchley paused, turned to his listeners, and interpreted: “He says, ‘Hinkey.’ ”
The whole performance received considerable coverage in the local press and caused one writer to dub Benchley “the greatest humorist of all time at Harvard.” He subsequently was invited to attend every Harvard Club dinner and even received an invitation to address the Harvard Club in Chicago. The university’s president, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, also was scheduled to speak to the Chicago alumni but insisted that he be placed on the bill before Benchley, knowing that to follow him would be disastrous.
Shortly after Benchley’s much acclaimed appearance with “Professor Soong,” he secretly was invited to address Boston’s Wardroom Club, a group of Navy officers. There he impersonated Stanton Abbott, private secretary to Josephus Daniels, the teetotaling secretary of the Navy who wanted to ban liquor from the fleet. Benchley told the officers that not only was it the secretary’s intention to expunge “even the memory of vile spirits from our jolly jack tars,” but also, in an effort to apply a “single standard of morality” to officers and enlisted men, officers henceforth would be required to undergo the same “physical examination and certain prophylactic treatment” that was administered to crewmen following liberty. It only gradually dawned on his listeners that they were being snookered.