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“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
As gratifying as these public appearances were, they did little for Benchley’s bank account. The paper company for which he was working also was having financial difficulties, and a week after his first son, Nathaniel, was born in November 1915, the firm told Benchley that “the boys had had enough clams” and his services as welfare secretary were no longer required.
Franklin P. Adams had earlier offered him a thirty-five-dollar-a-week job as a reporter on the New York Tribune . While Benchley wasn’t especially interested in becoming a reporter, he now was in desperate need of a job, and he accepted the offer. On January 1, 1916, Benchley arrived at the Tribune to become, he later wrote, the “worst reporter, even for my age, in New York.”
Benchley was rescued from the newspaper’s city room by being transferred to its new supplement, the Tribune Magazine , and he began to relish his association not just with Adams but with other colleagues, such as the sportswriter Heywood Broun, the drama editor George S. Kaufman, and the music critic Deems Taylor. On the Magazine Benchley wrote a feature story and a book review each week, and he also began turning out parodies of popularized science articles, exploring such subjects as “Do Jelly Fish Suffer Embarrassment?”
Benchley continued his happy employment with the Tribune until the Magazine was abruptly discontinued in May 1917. Needing a full-time job, he spent twelve miserable weeks working as a press agent for the irascible William A. Brady, a Broadway producer to whom Benchley took an immediate dislike. He also continued producing free-lance pieces, drawing on his experiences as a harried young suburbanite and father. He wrote of the perils of trying to operate a home furnace and of traveling with an infant: “In America there are two classes of travel—first class, and with children. Traveling with children corresponds roughly to traveling third class in Bulgaria. …
“Those who have taken a very small baby on a train maintain that this ranks as pleasure along with having a nerve killed. On the other hand, those whose wee companions are in the romping stage, simply laugh at the claims of the first group. Sometimes you will find a man who has both an infant and a romper with him. Such a citizen should receive a salute of twenty-one guns every time he enters the city and should be allowed to wear the insignia of the Pater Dolorosa, giving him the right to solicit alms on the cathedral steps.”
Fortunately, Benchley was soon asked to come back to the New York Tribune by Ernest Gruening, an old friend who was now managing editor. The job was as a seventy-five-dollar-a-week editor of the Tribune Graphic , a twelve-page prototype of the Sunday rotogravure section. The job, his fourth within a year, would last all of ten weeks.
After Benchley had been at the Tribune Graphic for a month, he and Gruening decided to use the section to make a plea for racial tolerance. They juxtaposed a photograph of black troops being awarded medals in France with a picture of a lynching in Georgia. Minutes after the section had rolled off the presses, they were summoned by management and ordered to remove such “pro-German” propaganda from the paper. A month later Gruening was fired. He was told that rumors of his German sympathies (apparently fostered by his Teutonic-sounding name) made his presence on the paper “embarrassing.” Infuriated, Benchley immediately wrote out his resignation, addressing it to Ogden Reid, the publisher, and to two of the more senior editors. “I haven’t the slightest idea who is boss on this sheet, so I am sending this resignation to the three whom I suspect,” he wrote. A few months later, shortly before the birth of his second son, Robert, Jr., Benchley was offered the job of managing editor of Vanity Fair , where he became friends with Robert E. Sherwood, the twenty-three-year-old drama editor, and Dorothy Parker, the twenty-six-year-old drama critic. Sherwood stood six feet seven inches tall. Parker may have topped five feet. Benchley was six feet tall. The three became inseparable, and when they walked down the street together, they looked, said Nathaniel Benchley, “like a walking pipe organ.” The trio enjoyed baiting management. Once a directive came down forbidding employees to discuss their salaries. Benchley, Sherwood, and Parker responded by printing their salaries on cardboard signs, which they hung around their necks.