- 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
Their jocular stay at the elegant Vanity Fair came to an end in January 1920 when Parker wrote an unflattering review of a performance by Billie Burke, known to a later generation as the good witch Glinda in The Wizard of Oz but then the wife of the powerful impresario Florenz Ziegfeld. Ziegfeld complained loudly and long to Vanity Fair ’s management, and she was sacked. Benchley and Sherwood responded by quitting. It was, the critic John Mason Brown wrote years later, a characteristic move for Benchley to make: “spirited, generous and quixotic.… He had a family to support, too little money, too many debts, and now not even a regular job.” But he had been without a job before and always seemed to manage.
Benchley and Parker briefly rented a tiny, triangular office on the third floor of the Metropolitan Opera House studios. It was so small, Benchley later said, that “one cubic foot less of space and it would have constituted adultery.” Benchley wrote advertising copy on a free-lance basis and without enthusiasm, but he also arranged to do a regular column called “Books and Other Things” for the New York World , with the “other things” in the title enabling him to write parodies, satires, and commentary about whatever he saw fit. In April the post of drama critic opened on Life , a comic weekly for which Benchley had longed to work. (When it folded a decade and a half later, Henry R. Luce bought the rights to its name for his new picture magazine.) Benchley was hired and at last settled into a job he would hold for the next nine years. It also would change the way he lived and permanently alter his relationship with his family.
A month after he went to work for Life , Benchley purchased a house in the suburb of Scarsdale. In the early 1920s six to nine new plays opened each week during the theater season, and Benchley sometimes dashed to three different openings in a single night. He rarely got home for dinner more than once a week, and the commuting wore him out. Eventually he rented an apartment in the city and went home only on weekends and occasionally only on Sunday. His wife and sons “became the commuters,” Nathaniel Benchley later wrote, traveling to his apartment in New York and later to his bungalow in Hollywood to see him. That remained the case for the rest of Benchley’s life. Although the outward relationship between Benchley and his wife remained cordial, and they sometimes shared vacations and always spent the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays together, it is clear they grew apart. Late in life Gertrude Benchley told an interviewer, “I had him so early, and I knew what his possibilities were and that I had to share him—so I did.” She remained a proper, slightly prim New Englander, uninterested in the glitter of Broadway or Hollywood or their inhabitants, while he became a bon vivant of epic proportions, with a seemingly unending supply of boon companions and several aspiring actresses as girl friends. He may have been .tormented by pangs of conscience periodically, but nonetheless he began to lead what Wolcott Gibbs, then on the staff of The New Yorker , called “one of the most insanely complicated private lives of our day. …”
He also began to drink. Though he had originally rejoiced over the adoption of prohibition, Benchley now was constantly in the company of a hard- drinking crowd, and at the age of thirtytwo, he decided to try liquor. His first glass of rye whiskey “came as a nostalgic, jarring shock,” his son later wrote. Its smell reminded Benchley of the “personal bouquet” of a long-dead relative. “My God,” he said. “It’s Uncle Albert.” At last Benchley realized what his uncle had been up to during the frequent trips he made to the family barn back in Worcester.
In time Benchley’s drinking surely equaled and probably outstripped his Uncle Albert’s. He would begin downing cocktails at five in the afternoon and frequently continued drinking for the next ten hours. His capacity “was one of the marvels of the age,” a biographer wrote, and he was rarely seen to be overtly inebriated. He appears to have become a sort of polite alcoholic—always courteous, ever convivial, frequently jolly, but forever with glass in hand. “He was a very amusing drunk,” recalls Al Hirschfeld, the New York Times theatrical caricaturist for the past sixty years and a habitué of many of the speakeasies Benchley patronized. “Sometimes that’s the penalty you pay when you become a character. It happened to Dylan Thomas, you know, and it’s one of those things. People just expect you to behave like a drunk, and so I suppose you live up to your mythology.”
In addition to his work as drama critic for Life , Benchley continued to write comic essays and oversaw the production of a spectacularly successful “Burlesque Issue” of the magazine that featured spoofs of other publications. In a section parodying the New York Daily News , he printed a bird’s-eye photo of a happy crowd surrounding Britain’s gilded royal coach and captioned it: “Convention-Crazed Dentists Parade Through Streets of London Dragging Largest Gold Tooth in the World.”