- 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 was a nocturnal person, famed for his marathon excursions around Manhattan, where he seemed to know all of the out-of-the-way taverns that were distinguished principally for the fact that they stayed open all night. Sometimes his small-hour prowling ended up at Grant’s Tomb, where a few of his friends once surreptitiously spotted him placing a note in a milk bottle by the steps leading up to the tomb. After he had left, they checked the note, which read: “One milk, no cream. [Signed] U.S. Grant.” He also was a frequenter of the bordello maintained by the celebrated Polly Adler, but one biographer insists that he used it only as a place to get some sleep or the quiet he needed to write.
Benchley managed to do a prodigious amount of work despite his frenetic social life. In 1933 he began writing a thriceweekly newspaper column for Hearst’s King Features Syndicate and continued it for three years; from 1938 to 1940 he hosted a popular variety show on radio while also making numerous guest appearances on other programs; he published twelve collections of his essays; made forty-eight movie shorts, and either wrote dialogue for or appeared in forty-seven feature films.
All the while, Benchley continued his association with The New Yorker , but writing became an agony for him, and his work for the magazine began to suffer. By 1940 the editor, Harold Ross, had to dispatch an assistant, St. Clair McKelway, to tell Benchley that Wolcott Gibbs would be replacing him as drama critic. McKelway met Benchley for cocktails but couldn’t bring himself to deliver the ill tidings. Typically, Benchley knew precisely what was on McKelway’s mind and told him he understood perfectly. “It was his knack to take other people’s side, especially when they were in trouble,” wrote Brendan Gill in his book about The New Yorker . In December 1943 Benchley gave up writing altogether, making a formal announcement that he was going to concentrate on movie and radio work instead, believing that few humorists were funny after they had reached the age of fifty.
Beneath the surface of Benchley’s almost perpetual bonhomie was a profound depression over the course his career had taken. When he would enter the Harvard Club in New York with the announcer from his radio show, he repeatedly responded to the happy greetings of friends with a falsely cheery “I’m fine, just hurting inside.” Shortly before he abandoned writing, he was attending a party in Hollywood to celebrate the second of Robert Sherwood’s Pulitzer Prizes for drama. Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker were also there. Late in the evening Benchley began muttering, “Those eyes—I can’t stand those eyes looking at me!” He began backing away from Sherwood, and everyone thought he was about to make a joke. It was no joke. Benchley pointed at Sherwood and said: “He’s looking at me and thinking of how he knew me when I was going to be a great writer. …And he’s thinking now look at what I am!” Sherwood later told Benchley’s son that he probably had, unhappily, been thinking along just such lines.
“[My father] had a theory that everyone tends to become the type of person he hates most,” Nathaniel Benchley wrote, “and when he gave up writing he gave up the one thing in which he had honest pride.”
In October 1945 Benchley had a complete physical checkup on the West Coast. His astonishing constitution and stamina appeared undiminished, but actually they weren’t. Late in November, shortly after returning to New York, he began to suffer a series of nosebleeds and finally had one that wouldn’t stop. He was taken to the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, toting along a book of philosophical essays including one entitled “Am I Thinking?” He had jotted in the margin, “ NO . (and supposing you were?)” At the hospital he began hemorrhaging, lapsed into a coma, and died of a cerebral hemorrhage on November 21. He was fifty-six.
When his friend George Ade had died the year before, Benchley said, “When a great humorist dies, everybody should go to a place where there is laughter and drink to his memory until the lights go out.” Hundreds of Benchley’s friends did just that, gathering at Romanoff’s in Beverly Hills and “21” in New York, where a small plaque beside his favorite table still honors his memory, reading “Robert Benchley, His Corner, 1889–1945.”