- 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
Early in 1939 Robert Charles Benchley—Phillips Exeter Academy, 1908; Harvard, 1912—put on a paper hat and hoisted himself up onto a set of phony telephone wires strung between mock utility poles on a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer sound stage in Hollywood. He was filming one of the ten-minute comedies that were eroding his self-respect while increasing his fame and income.
In this film, Dark Magic , Benchley was portraying a clumsy father who fiddles with a toy magic kit he bought his son and disappears in a puff of smoke. He is next seen balanced precariously on the telephone lines, still engrossed in the toy’s instructions. Benchley lay down on his stomach, stretching his six-foot, two-hundred-pound frame across the wires, and brooded there uncomfortably while technicians adjusted their lights and camera. His wife of twenty-five years, Gertrude Darling Benchley, happened I to be on the set watching. “Remember how good in Latin I was in school?” Benchley asked her. “Well, look where it got me.”
In many ways Robert Benchley was, as the film historian Robert Reddine wrote, “a by now familiar figure: the professional humorist who at heart is a deeply troubled man. …” But Benchley was also a man of immensely ingratiating, almost indefinable charm, whose self-effacing humor in print, on film, and in person enthralled and influenced his contemporaries. Forty years after his death, he is still admired, envied, and emulated by those who would make us laugh.
“I’ve got most of my Benchley books up in Nantucket,” says Russell Baker, “and if I’m up there working on a column, sometimes I’ll pick [one] off the shelf and see if there is anything in it I can steal.”
“Benchley was one of my role models when I was a kid,” says Art Buchwald. “When I grew up, I stopped reading Benchley because he had thought of every good idea before I did … [and] he inhibited me.”
“Bob Benchley is bone china to my Melmac,” says Erma Bombeck. “If he were alive, I’d be sitting at his right hand making notes.”
Benchley was a leading drama critic in New York for more than twenty years and simultaneously the star of a highly successful series of comedy films, one of which— How to Sleep —received the Academy Award as the best short subject of 1935. He also appeared in dozens of mostly forgettable feature films as a supporting actor, often adding the only wisp of class to the movie. In a thirty-year writing career he produced hundreds of comic essays still prized for their elegance and economy. He also was the paterfamilias of a clan of writers, the latest of whom is his grandson, Peter Benchley, author of Jaws, The Deep , and other books.
Robert E. Sherwood, a longtime Benchley friend and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, once wrote that Benchley’s life “represented some of the strangest reversals of moods and habits I have ever observed in one human being.” Benchley described himself as a “confused liberal.” He was a registered Republican who often voted Democratic, a former social worker who fought injustice and took part in the effort to win a new trial for Sacco and Vanzetti, and a devotee of the Queen Anne period in English history who yearned to write scholarly books. He was a frugal homebody and ardent prohibitionist who became a perpetually absent husband and father, a generous spendthrift, and a notoriously rollicking imbiber with a remarkable talent for friendship.
Benchley never could resolve the inner conflict between his low opinion of the humorous writing he did and the enthusiasm with which he wrote it—or with the financial rewards it brought. “He felt that he had burned himself out on the mass production of trivia when he should have been doing something better, and he knew that his fame was more because of the movies than because of his writing …,” wrote the late Nathaniel Benchley in his biography of his father. Robert Benchley’s dilemma, according to his son, was that “he didn’t really want to be funny … [but] the only way he could make money was as a comedian.” Throughout his life Benchley was plagued by a “New England conscience that tortured him like a hot iron, and made him want to shake loose from a whole way of life”—the one he led in New York and Hollywood. On the other hand, he was extremely adept at outwitting that conscience, having a good time, and seeing to it that all in his company enjoyed themselves too.
Benchley’s antecedents in humor were such literate observers of human folly as Oliver Wendell Holmes, author of “The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table,” and George Ade, the Hoosier whose Fables in Slang enriched the language; Heywood Broun; Ring Lardner; and F.P.A. (Franklin P. Adams), whose newspaper column, “The Conning Tower,” and other writings, said Benchley, made “it possible for us to admit our learning and still be held honorable men.”
Benchley’s humor reflected all these veins. He could be a deft parodist, a satirist, a writer of glorious nonsense, and perhaps most memorably, a woebegone chronicler of his own bumbling inadequacies.