- 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
Benchley’s increasing fame brought more opportunities. He swallowed his distaste for the “papier mâché hills of Hollywoodland” and what he considered “the country’s most frothy and inconsequential citizens” and went west to write subtitles for a film starring Raymond Griffith, an elegant, top-hatted comedian. He also began writing “The Wayward Press” column for The New Yorker , analyzing the city’s newspapers under the pseudonym Guy Fawkes; started the drama department for The Bookman ; continued his play reviewing for Life ; and in January 1928 unintentionally launched his own film career by agreeing to make a movie version of “The Treasurer’s Report.” It was the first commercially successful, all-talking picture. (Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer had little spoken dialogue and was largely a musical film with subtitles.)
Benchley went to the Fox movie company’s studios in Astoria, Long Island, and shot the ten-minute film in one day, adding the presence of a “chairman” to introduce him, reciting the monologue as he had done hundreds of times before, and supplying a few more pieces of comic business. When the film was released four months later, it was an immediate success, earning a whopping $165,000 in its first year. (It had cost less than $16,000 to make.) Not surprisingly he was persuaded to make a second film, The Sex Life of the Polyp , in which he combined portions of three Vanity Fair articles—“The Social Life of the Newt,” “Do Insects Think?” and “Polyp with a Past”—and posed as a scientist to deliver a patently absurd lecture. He then made three more films for Fox, basically reworking material he already had written on tending a furnace, learning to drive, gardening, and bridge playing.
As a devotee of the theater, however, Benchley disliked, even feared, talking pictures, and he resisted further film blandishments—at least for a few years. But the movie work wasn’t as taxing as his writing, and the money was irresistible. He could earn fifteen hundred dollars a week in Hollywood compared with the three hundred dollars a week he got from The New Yorker . He retained his scorn for the motion-picture medium for the rest of his life—“good actors in a good play can make a monkey out of the movies,” he wrote in 1938—but as his activities as a motion-picture performer grew, he gradually withered as a writer. He spent up to six months a year in Hollywood, turning out light dialogue for feature films, appearing in some of them, making his own comedy shorts, and cavorting with the sort of people he once had called frothy but now considered close friends.
Benchley became a cross-country commuter. In New York he lived amid a spectacular clutter of gewgaws, exotica, and junk crammed into a two-room apartment in the Royalton Hotel, across the street from the Algonquin. His apartment became “as famous as, and in some ways resembled, the Smithsonian Institution,” Nathaniel Benchley wrote. Its controlling motif was Victorian, with three impressive portraits of the old queen hung between the windows. The color scheme was primarily red, but the main room contained a blue couch that Benchley called the track. Whenever he got ready to lie down on it for a nap, he would say, “Well, I guess I’ll do a couple of laps around the track.”
The apartment’s minuscule foyer was stuffed with trunks, old newspapers and magazines, bound volumes of The New Yorker , canes, coats, a sword, and even a deer skull. One five-foot bookshelf contained nothing but books that had been collected for their titles, such as Talks on Manure, The Culture and Diseases of the Sweet Potato, Success with Small Fruits, Bicycling for Ladies, and Forty Thousand Sublime and Beautiful Thoughts . Another bookcase was adorned with hideous little carvings made out of roots, miniature geese, and water-filled glass globes that could be shaken to whip up small snowstorms inside. Sandwiched in between these trinkets were Benchley’s extensive collection of books about the Queen Anne period and first editions of the works of his friends Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. “Old Ernie” occasionally stayed at Benchley’s New York apartment and once mischievously wrote scatalogical inscriptions in several of his books. In A Farewell to Arms he patiently filled in all the blank spaces that the publisher had delicately substituted for the rawer words in the manuscript. He then noted on the flyleaf: “Corrected edition with filled-in blanks. Very valuable—sell quick.” Also part of Benchley’s fifteenhundred-volume library—but stashed in the closet—was a collection of scholarly books, some of them in German, that he did not want people to know he read. He was afraid of being considered pretentious, and sometimes he would hide the true nature of a book he was reading by covering it with the dust jacket from a murder mystery.