Information

Robert Blenchley


Robert Benchley, the son of Charles and Maria Benchley, was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on 15th September, 1889. His great grandfather was Henry Wetherby Benchley, the founder of Benchley in Texas, and a civil rights activist who was involved in the Underground Railroad.

Robert's older brother, Edmund, was killed during the Spanish-American War. It has been claimed by Brian Gallagher that he heard his mother say on hearing of Edmund's death screaming "Oh, why couldn't have been Robert?". Gallagher argues that this incident gave him a great desire to be loved. It has also been suggested that it helped influence his anti-war views. It has been pointed out that after his brother's death his mother brought him up as a pacifist. Benchley was educated at Harvard University and married Gertrude Darling in June 1914. His wife had two children Nathaniel (1915) and Robert (1919).

After leaving university Benchley tried very hard to become a journalist. He did freelance work for Vanity Fair before Ernest Gruening recruited him to work for the New York Tribune. Benchley, who by this time was a pacifist, wrote critically about the First World War. On 7th June 1918 he wrote an article in praise of African-American regiments on the Western Front. Gruening later explained in his autobiograpy, Many Battles (1973) what happened: "On Sunday, June 7, he scheduled a half-page picture of a contingent of Negroes of Colonel Hayward's 169th Infantry which had distinguished itself in recent engagements in France, and two of whom - their pictures were shown separately - had been decorated with the Croix de Guerre for bravery in action. As the page was being made up, Bob received a photograph of the lynching of a Negro man in Georgia being witnessed by a large crowd. Bob thought that running these pictures together might prove useful as a plea for racial tolerance and I agreed."

The photograph of the lynching in Georgia with the article on the soldiers who had won the Croix de Guerre caused problems for Benchley with Garet Garrett, the executive editor of the newspaper. Benchley's son, Nathaniel Benchley, later pointed out: "The page went to press.... and the first copy hadn't been upstairs more than three minutes when there was a dropping of pencils, a ringing of bells, and then a great clanking sigh of the presses ground to an emergency stop. Robert was summoned down to the office of Garet Garrett and there he found Garrett, Rogers and Ogden Reid, the Editor in Chief standing in a semi-circle and looking with frozen horror at the lynching picture. He was told it was pro-German, that it was a terrible thing to run "at this time" and that he would damned well get another picture to replace it because the Alco Company had already been notified to make a new press cylinder."

Benchley continued to have problems with the executive editor of the New York Tribune. "Garrett began to criticize Robert's choice of pictures with remarkable vigor... He and Gruening had a long argument about a picture of the Kaiser that Robert had run, Garrett maintaining that to show the Kaiser as a normal human being, walking down the street, tended to weaken the public's hate for him. The policy was that any picture that showed a German not cutting off a child's hand was a bad picture. Gruening disagreed and told Garrett exactly what he thought of such a policy, but it had no effect. Three days later Garrett pounced on a picture Robert had scheduled... showing a U-boat crew picking up survivors of a ship they had torpedoed. This, it seemed, was as good as a pro-German picture, because they weren't machine gunning the survivors." As a result of this interference, Benchley and Gruening resigned from the newspaper.

In May 1919, Frank Crowninshield, the editor of Vanity Fair, appointed Benchley as managing editor of the magazine on $100 a week. John Keats, the author of You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker (1971) has pointed out that Dorothy Parker, a fellow worker on the magazine, soon became a close friend: "He (Benchley) was one of the few people of this world for whom no one could find an unpleasant word, and not a few of his friends said that his simple presence in a room made everyone feel better. The essence of Mr. Benchley's charm lay in his delightfully oblique view of the world, through which he made his way in a kind of hopeful desperation."

At Vanity Fair Benchley worked alongside Robert E. Sherwood and Dorothy Parker. As Harriet Hyman Alonso has pointed out: "Benchley was a man whom Bob had admired since first seeing him at Harvard, where Benchley was a student in the class of 1912. At Bob's freshman smoker he gave the featured speech and then spent time with the new students, drinking beer, smoking, and generally joking around. Benchley also served as president of the Harvard Lampoon and wrote scripts for several of the Hasty Pudding shows." During this period he began having lunch with Parker and Sherwood in the dining room at the Algonquin Hotel. Sherwood was six feet eight inches tall and Benchley was also over six feet tall. Parker, who was five feet four inches, once commented that when she, Sherwood and Benchley walked down the street together, they looked like "a walking pipe organ."

According to Harriet Hyman Alonso , the author of Robert E. Sherwood The Playwright in Peace and War (2007): "John Peter Toohey, a theater publicist, and Murdock Pemberton, a press agent, decided to throw a mock "welcome home from the war" celebration for the egotistical, sharp-tongued columnist Alexander Woollcott. The idea was really for theater journalists to roast Woollcott in revenge for his continual self-promotion and his refusal to boost the careers of potential rising stars on Broadway. On the designated day, the Algonquin dining room was festooned with banners. On each table was a program which misspelled Woollcott's name and poked fun at the fact that he and fellow writers Franklin Pierce Adams (F.P.A.) and Harold Ross had sat out the war in Paris as staff members of the army's weekly newspaper, the Stars and Stripes, which Bob had read in the trenches. But it is difficult to embarrass someone who thinks well of himself, and Woollcott beamed at all the attention he received. The guests enjoyed themselves so much that John Toohey suggested they meet again, and so the custom was born that a group of regulars would lunch together every day at the Algonquin Hotel."

Murdock Pemberton later recalled that he owner of the hotel, Frank Case, did what he could to encourage this gathering: "From then on we met there nearly every day, sitting in the south-west corner of the room. If more than four or six came, tables could be slid along to take care of the newcomers. we sat in that corner for a good many months... Frank Case, always astute, moved us over to a round table in the middle of the room and supplied free hors d'oeuvre.... The table grew mainly because we then had common interests. We were all of the theatre or allied trades." Case admitted that he moved them to a central spot at a round table in the Rose Room, so others could watch them enjoy each other's company.

The people who attended these lunches included Benchley, Robert E. Sherwood, Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott, Heywood Broun, Harold Ross, Donald Ogden Stewart, Edna Ferber, Ruth Hale, Franklin Pierce Adams, Jane Grant, Neysa McMein, Alice Duer Miller, Charles MacArthur, Marc Connelly, George S. Kaufman, Beatrice Kaufman , Frank Crowninshield, Ben Hecht, John Peter Toohey, Lynn Fontanne, Alfred Lunt and Ina Claire. This group eventually became known as the Algonquin Round Table.

The group played games while they were at the hotel. One of the most popular was "I can give you a sentence". This involved each member taking a multi syllabic word and turning it into a pun within ten seconds. Dorothy Parker was the best at this game. For "horticulture" she came up with, "You can lead a whore to culture, but you can't make her think." Another contribution was "The penis is mightier than the sword." They also played other guessing games such as "Murder" and "Twenty Questions". A fellow member, Alexander Woollcott, called Parker "a combination of Little Nell and Lady Macbeth."

Dorothy Parker developed a reputation for making harsh comments in her reviews and on 12th January 1920 she was sacked by Frank Crowninshield, the editor of Vanity Fair. He told her that complaints about her reviews had come from three important theatre producers. Florenz Ziegfeld was particularly upset by Parker's comments about his wife, Billie Burke: "Miss Burke is at her best in her more serious moments; in her desire to convey the girlishness of the character, she plays her lighter scenes as if she were giving an impersonation of Eva Tanguay."

Benchley and Robert E. Sherwood both resigned over the sacking. As John Keats, the author of You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker (1971): "It is difficult now to imagine a magazine of Vanity Fair's importance then truckling to Broadway producers, but the newspapers and magazines of 1920 did, and this was a sore point to the working newspapermen and theatre critics at the Round Table. They believed that if an actor was guilty of overacting, it was no more and no less than a critic's duty to report that he was - producers be damned. Furthermore, in this case, Vanity Fair's position seemed to be one of accepting a complaint from an advertiser as sufficient excuse to fire an employee with no questions asked, and it was the injustice of this position that led Mr Benchley and Mr Sherwood to tell Mr Crowninshield that if he was going to fire Mrs Parker, they were quitting."

Parker and Benchley rented a small office together. Benchley later commented: "One cubic footless of space, and it would have constituted adultery." A few weeks later he abandoned the economically precarious existence of a free-lance writer and accepted the post as drama editor on Life Magazine. It was said that after Benchley left, Parker was very lonely and she decided to move in with the artist, Neysa McMein as her relationship with her husband was over. Donald Ogden Stewart commented: "It was a case of incompatibility. It just didn't work. When we got back from Germany, it was already over."

On 30th April 1922, the Algonquin Round Tablers produced their own one-night vaudeville review, No Siree!: An Anonymous Entertainment by the Vicious Circle of the Hotel Algonquin . It included a monologue by Robert Benchley, entitled The Treasurer's Report . Marc Connelly and George S. Kaufman contributed a three-act mini-play, Big Casino Is Little Casino, that featured Robert E. Sherwood. The show included several musical numbers, some written by Irving Berlin. One of the most loved aspects of the show was the Dorothy Parker penned musical numbers that were sang by Tallulah Bankhead, Helen Hayes, June Walker and Mary Brandon.

Samuel Hopkins Adams, the author of Alexander Woollcott: His Life and His World (1946), has argued: "The Algonquin profited mightily by the literary atmosphere, and Frank Case evinced his gratitude by fitting out a workroom where Broun could hammer out his copy and Benchley could change into the dinner coat which he ceremonially wore to all openings. Woollcott and Franklin Pierce Adams enjoyed transient rights to these quarters. Later Case set aside a poker room for the whole membership."

In 1925 he began working for The New Yorker, a new magazine established by his friend, Harold Ross. Four years later he began its theatre critic. Robert Blenchley was considered to be one of America's leading journalists. However, he ruefully admitted that "it took me fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn't give it up because by then I was too famous."

Blenchley also did work in Hollywood and acted in his first feature film, The Sport Parade in 1932. Benchley also wrote and directed humorous short-films such as How to Sleep (1936) that earned him an Academy Award. This was followed by How to Train a Dog (1936), How to Behave (1936) and A Night at the Movies (1937).

Robert Benchley, a heavy drinker, died of cirrhosis of the liver on 21st November, 1945.

On Sunday, June 7, he scheduled a half-page picture of a contingent of Negroes of Colonel Hayward's 169th Infantry which had distinguished itself in recent engagements in France, and two of whom - their pictures were shown separately - had been decorated with the Croix de Guerre for bravery in action. Bob thought that running these pictures together might prove useful as a plea for racial tolerance and I agreed.

The page went to press.... He was told it was pro-German, that it was a terrible thing to run "at this time" and that he would damned well get another picture to replace it because the Alco Company had already been notified to make a new press cylinder...

Garrett began to criticize Robert's choice of pictures with remarkable vigor... This, it seemed, was as good as a pro-German picture, because they weren't machine gunning the survivors.

Benchley was a man whom Bob had admired since first seeing him at Harvard, where Benchley was a student in the class of 1912. Benchley also served as president of the Harvard Lampoon and wrote scripts for several of the Hasty Pudding shows. "It gave me a particular thrill to see Benchley," Bob recalled of his college years, "because I had every intention of stepping into his boots." Benchley had become Bob's role model, "a shining objective toward which to strive as an undergraduate," though one he felt he "never even approached" throughout his entire career. After World War I ended, Bob had another reason to admire Benchley; he had been raised by his mother to be a pacifist after his brother Edmund, thirteen years his senior, was killed in action during the Spanish-American War.

He (Benchley) was one of the few people of this world for whom no one could find an unpleasant word, and not a few of his friends said that his simple presence in a room made everyone feel better. Benchley's charm lay in his delightfully oblique view of the world, through which he made his way in a kind of hopeful desperation.

© John Simkin, April 2013


Robert Benchley

Robert Benchley (1889-1945) was one of the most popular and influential humorists of 20th century America. He took his gentle, self-deprecating wit to celebrity in literature, the theater, and the movies.

The offspring of a prominent local family and the grandson of a lieutenant governor of the state, Robert C. Benchley was born in Worcester, Massachusetts on September 15, 1889. When he was nine, his beloved older brother Edmund was killed in the Spanish-American War, prompting the outburst from his mother, "Why couldn't it have been Robert?"—a cry that became known around the community.


Robert Blenchley - History

Robert Benchley Seventy-five years ago today, hard-working Robert Charles Benchley died in his hospital room. He was just 56 years old. Benchley, once the country’s premier humorist, had stayed active until the end. In 1933, he began his first radio show, broadcast on CBS. He also appeared in 46 movie shorts between 1928 and 1945. Columnist Sidney Carroll wrote in 1942, “The movies get a comedian and the literary muse seems destined to lose her most prodigal son for good. Literature lost out because so many people in Hollywood think Robert Benchley looks much funnier than he writes. And they keep him busy looking at the cameras instead of writing for them.” At the time, Benchley was on the Paramount lot making two forgettable films: Out of the Frying Pan and Take a Letter, Darling.

Throughout World War II Benchley kept up an extremely busy pace in Hollywood. He lived in a bungalow in the Garden of Allah and worked steadily in movies and radio. In his early fifties Benchley eventually suffered from health problems exaggerated by his heavy drinking. He was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and high blood pressure. In late 1945 he returned to New York for a break, but his health slid downhill. He collapsed in his room at the Royalton Hotel on West Forty-fourth Street. He died in the Harkness Pavilion at the Columbia University Medical center on Fort Washington Avenue, on November 21, 1945.

Following a private service his body was cremated and the ashes were given to his family. At the cemetery in Nantucket, however, the family discovered that the urn was empty. When the correct cremains were located, his ashes were interred properly. His headstone, chosen by his son, Nat, was carved with his New Yorker byline, an em dash before his name. His beloved wife, Gertrude, is buried next to him. She died in 1980.

Today, what is the legacy of Robert C. Benchley, 75 years after his death? Many of his humor columns were collected in best selling books. They are all long out of print. No major publisher is publishing his work his words live on in digital archives maintained by his two most famous magazine affiliations, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. His words do reach new audiences decades after his death earlier this month the humorist and television writer Merrill Markoe told New York magazine that Benchley was a major influence on her style.

If anyone new to Benchley–born in the last 25 years–they would probably first discover him on TCM. His movies appear often. You can press a button and stream him right now on Disney+ and watch The Reluctant Dragon. The Robert Benchley Society, founded by David and Mary Trumbull in 2003, is the only organization keeping his spirit alive. Like some of his peers from the Algonquin Round Table–Marc Connelly, Deems Taylor, Alexander Woollcott–Benchley is teetering on being lost to history, remembered only by those hardcore old comedy fans that keep talking about him in the way we reminisce about things we’ll never see, such as Vaudeville and the Ziegfeld Follies.

Benchley was a teetotaller until he fell in with the Vicious Circle in the Speakeasy Era in his thirties. Twenty years later, drink did him in. Is it appropriate to raise a glass to him? Since we cannot sit at his table at “21” today, I think it’s more than appropriate, the milestone of today demands it.

For more about Robert Benchley, read The Algonquin Round Table New York: A Historical Guide (Lyons Press), out now in paperback.


SleuthSayers

One of the interesting things about the Argyopelius, or [Pg 254] "Silver Hatchet" fish, I find, is that it has eyes in its wrists. I would have been sufficiently surprised just to find out that a fish had wrists, but to learn that it has eyes in them is a discovery so astounding that I am hardly able to cut out the picture. What a lot one learns simply by thumbing through the illustrated weeklies! It is hard work, though, and many a weaker spirit would give it up half-done, but when there is something else of "more importance" to be finished (you see, I still keep up the deception, letting myself go on thinking that the newspaper article is of more importance) no work is too hard or too onerous to keep one busy. So, with a perfectly clear conscience, I leave my desk for a few minutes and begin glancing over the titles of the books. Of course, it is difficult to find any book, much less one on snake-charming, in a pile which has been standing in the corner for weeks. What really is needed is for them to be on a [Pg 257] shelf where their titles will be visible at a glance. And there is the shelf, standing beside the pile of books! It seems almost like a divine command written in the sky: "If you want to finish that article, first put up the shelf and arrange the books on it!" Nothing could be clearer or more logical.

Robert Benchley American Actor

Robert Benchley was previously married to Gertrude Darling (1914 - 1945) .

About

American Actor Robert Benchley was born Robert Charles Benchley on 15th September, 1889 in Worcester, Massachusetts USA and passed away on 21st Nov 1945 New York, New York USA aged 56. He is most remembered for Member of Algonquin Round Table. His zodiac sign is Virgo.

Robert Benchley is a member of the following lists: American film actors, People from New York City and American comedians.

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Details

First Name Robert
Middle Name Charles
Last Name Benchley
Full Name at Birth Robert Charles Benchley
Alternative Name Robert Charles Benchley, Robert Benchley, Bob
Age 56 (age at death) years
Birthday 15th September, 1889
Birthplace Worcester, Massachusetts USA
Died 21st November, 1945
Place of Death New York, New York USA
Cause of Death Cirrhosis of the Liver (cerebral hemorrhage)
Build Large
Hair Color Brown - Dark
Zodiac Sign Virgo
Sexuality Straight
Ethnicity White
Nationality American
Occupation Text Writer, critic, film actor
Occupation Actor
Claim to Fame Member of Algonquin Round Table
Music Genre (Text) Deadpan, Parody, Surreal humour
Year(s) Active 1928�, 1928�
Official Websites www.rottentomatoes.com/celebrity/robert_benchley, www.allmovie.com/artist/robert-benchley-p5269
Friend Dorothy Parker, Robert Sherwood, Dusty Anderson

Robert Charles Benchley (September 15, 1889 – November 21, 1945) was an American humorist best known for his work as a newspaper columnist and film actor. From his beginnings at The Harvard Lampoon while attending Harvard University, through his many years writing essays and articles for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker and his acclaimed short films, Benchley's style of humor brought him respect and success during his life, from his peers at the Algonquin Round Table in New York City to contemporaries in the burgeoning film industry.


The climate of repression established in the name of wartime security during World War I continued after the war as the U.S. government focused on communists, Bolsheviks, and “reds.” The Red Scare reached its height in the years between 1919 and 1921. Encouraged by Congress, which had refused to seat the duly elected Wisconsin trade unionist and socialist Victor Berger, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer began a series of showy and well-publicized raids against radicals and leftists. Striking without warning and without warrants, Palmer’s men smashed union offices and the headquarters of Communist and Socialist organizations. Writing in the Nation in March 1919, noted humorist Benchley described the climate of surveillance and sheeplike compliance that made the “Red Scare possible” and mocked the public’s hunger for enemies.

You couldn’t have asked for anyone more regular than Peters. He was an eminently safe citizen. Although not rich himself, he never chafed under the realization that there were others who possessed great wealth. In fact, the thought gave him rather a comfortable feeling. Furthermore, he was one of charter members of the war. Long before President [Woodrow] Wilson saw the light, Peters was advocating the abolition of German from the public-school curriculum. There was, therefore, absolutely nothing in his record which would in the slightest degree alter the true blue of a patriotic litmus. And he considered himself a liberal when he admitted that there might be something in this man [labor leader Samuel] Gompers, after all. That is how safe he was.

But one night he made a slip. It was ever tiny a slip, but in comparison with it De Maupassant’s famous piece of string was barren of consequences. Shortly before the United States entered the war, Peters made a speech at a meeting of the Civic League in his home town. His subject was “Interurban Highways: Their Development in the Past and Their Possibilities for the Future.” So far, 100 percent American. But, in the course of his talk, he happened to mention the fact that war, as an institution, has almost always had an injurious effect on public improvements of all kinds. In fact (and note this well—the government’s sleuth in the audience did) he said that, all other things being equal, if he were given his choice of war or peace in the abstract, he would choose peace as a condition under which to live. Then he went on to discuss the comparative values of macadam and wood blocks for paving.

In the audience was a civilian representative of the Military Intelligence Service. He had a premonition that some sort of attempt was going to be made at this meeting of the Civic League to discredit the war and America’s imminent participation therein. And he was not disappointed (no Military Intelligence sleuth ever is), for in the remark of Peters, derogatory to war as an institution, his sharp ear detected the accent of the Wilhelmstrasse.

Time went by. The United States entered the war, and Peters bought Liberty Bonds. He didn’t join the Army, it is true, but, then, neither did James M. Beck, and it is an open secret that Mr. Beck was for the war. Peters did what a few slangy persons called “his bit,” and not without a certain amount of pride. But he did not hear the slow, grinding noise from that district in which are located the mills of the gods. He did not even know that there was an investigation going on in Washington to determine the uses to which German propaganda money had been put. That is, he didn’t know it until he opened his newspaper one morning and, with that uncanny precipitation with which a man’s eye lights on his own name, discovered that he had been mentioned in the dispatches. At first he thought that it might be an honor list of Liberty Bond holders, but a glance at the headline chilled that young hope in his breast. It read as follows:

Pro-German List Bared by Army Sleuth

Prominent Obstructionists Named at Senate Probe

And then came the list. Peters’s eye ran instinctively down to the place where, in what seemed to him to be 24-point Gothic caps, was blazoned the name “Horace W. Peters, Pacifist Lecturer, Matriculated at Germantown (Pa.) Military School.” Above his name was that of Emma Goldman, “Anarchist.” Below came that of Fritz von Papen, “agent of the Imperial German Government in America,” and Jeremiah O’Leary, “Irish and Pro-German Agitator.”

Peters was stunned. He telegraphed to his senator at Washington and demanded that the outrageous libel be retracted. He telegraphed to the Military Intelligence office and demanded to know who was the slanderer who had traduced him, and who in h-l this Captain Whatsisname was who had submitted the report. He telegraphed to Secretary Baker and he cabled to the President. And he was informed, by return stagecoach, that his telegrams had been received and would be brought to the attention of the addressees at the earliest possible moment.

Then he went out to look up some of his friends, to explain that there had been a terrible mistake somewhere. But he was coolly received. No one could afford to be seen talking with him after what had happened. His partner merely said “Bad business, Horace. Bad business!” The elevator starter pointed him out to a subordinate, and Peters heard him explain “That’s Peters, Horace W. Peters. Did’je see his name in the papers this morning with them other German spies?” At the club, little groups of his friends dissolved awkwardly when they saw him approaching, and, after distant nods, disappeared in an aimless manner. After all, you could hardly blame them.

The next morning the Tribune had a double-leaded editorial entitled “Oatmeal,” in which it was stated that the disclosures in Washington were revealing the most insidious of all kinds of German propaganda—that disseminated by supposedly respectable American citizens. “It is not a tangible propaganda. It is an emotional propaganda. To the unwary it may resemble real-estate news, or perhaps a patriotic song, but it is the pap of Prussianism. As an example, we need go no further than Horace W. Peters. Mr. Peters’s hobby was interurban highways. A very pretty hobby, Mr. Peters, but it won’t do. It won’t do.” The Times ran an editorial saying, somewhere in the midst of a solid slab of type, that no doubt it would soon be found that Mr. Peters nourished Bolshevist sentiments, along with his teammate Emma Goldman. Emma Goldman! How Peters hated that woman! He had once written a letter to this very paper about her, advocating her electrocution.

He dashed out again in a search of someone to whom he could explain. But the editorials had done their work. The doorman at the club presented him with a letter from the House Committee saying that, at a special meeting, it had been decided that he had placed himself in a position offensive to the loyal members of the club and that it was with deep regret that they informed him, etc. As he stumbled out into the street, he heard someone whisper to an out-of-town friend, “There goes Emma Goldman’s husband.”

As the days went by, things grew unbelievably worse. He was referred to in public meetings whenever an example of civic treachery was in order. A signed advertisement in the newspapers protesting, on behalf of the lineal descendants of the Grand Duke Sergius, against the spread of Bolshevism in northern New Jersey, mentioned a few prominent snakes in the grass, such as Trotzky, Victor Berger, Horace W. Peters, and Emma Goldman.

Then something snapped. Peters began to let his hair grow long and neglected his linen. Each time he was snubbed on the street he uttered a queer guttural sound and made a mark in a little book he carried about with him. He bought a copy of “Colloquial Russian at a Glance,” and began picking out inflammatory sentences from the Novy Mir. His wife packed up and went to stay with her sister when he advocated, one night at dinner, the communization of women. The last prop of respectability having been removed, the descent was easy. Emma Goldman, was it? Very well, then, Emma Goldman it should be! Bolshevist, was he? They had said it! “After all, who is to blame for this?” he mumbled to himself "Capitalism! Militarism! Those Prussians in the Intelligence Department and the Department of Justice! The damnable bourgeoisie who sit back and read their Times and their Tribune and believe what they read there!" He had tried explanations. He had tried argument. There was only one thing left. He found it on page 112 of a little book of Emma Goldman’s that he always carried around with him.

You may have read about Peters the other day. He was arrested, wearing a red shirt over his business cutaway and carrying enough TNT to shift the Palisades back into the Hackensack marshes. He was identified by an old letter in his pocket from Henry Cabot Lodge thanking him for a telegram of congratulation Peters had once sent him on the occasion of a certain speech in the Senate.

The next morning the Times said, editorially, that it hoped the authorities now saw that the only way to crush Bolshevism was by the unrelenting use of force.

Source: Robert Benchley, “The Making of a Red,” Nation 15 March 1919.


Open Bookcases

Things have come to a pretty pass when a man can&rsquot buy a bookcase that hasn&rsquot got glass doors on it. What are we becoming&mdasha nation of weaklings?

All over New York City I have been&mdashtrying to get something in which to keep books. And what am I shown? Curio cabinets, inclosed whatnots, museum cases in which to display fragments from the neolithic age, and glass-faced sarcophagi for dead butterflies.

&ldquoBut I am apt to use my books at any time,&rdquo I explain to the salesman. &ldquoI never can tell when it is coming on me. And when I want a book I want it quickly. I don&rsquot want to have to send down to the office for the key, and I don&rsquot want to have to manipulate any trick ball-bearings and open up a case as if I were getting cream-puffs out for a customer. I want a bookcase for books and not books for a bookcase.&rdquo

(I really don&rsquot say all those clever things to the clerk. It took me quite a while to think them up. What I really say is, timidly, &ldquoHaven&rsquot you any bookcases without glass doors?&rdquo and when they say &ldquoNo,&rdquo I thank them and walk into the nearest dining room table.)

But if they keep on getting arrogant about it I shall speak up to them one of these fine days. When I ask for an open-faced bookcase they look with a scornful smile across the sales room toward the mahogany four-posters and say:

&ldquoOh, no, we don&rsquot carry those any more. We don&rsquot have any call for them. Everyone uses the glass-doored ones now. They keep the books much cleaner.&rdquo

Then the ideal procedure for a real book lover would be to keep his books in the original box, snugly packed in excelsior, with the lid nailed down. Then they would be nice and clean. And the sun couldn&rsquot get at them and ruin the bindings. Faugh! (Try saying that. It doesn&rsquot work out at all as you think it&rsquos going to. And it makes you feel very silly for having tried it.)

Why, in the elder days bookcases with glass doors were owned only by people who filled them with ten volumes of a pictorial history of the Civil War (including some swell steel engravings), &ldquoWalks and Talks with John L. Stoddard&rdquo and &ldquoDaily Thoughts for Daily Needs,&rdquo done in robin&rsquos egg blue with a watered silk bookmark dangling out. A set of Sir Walter Scott always helps fill out a bookcase with glass doors. It looks well from the front and shows that you know good literature when you see it. And you don&rsquot have to keep opening and shutting the doors to get it out, for you never want to get it out.

A bookcase with glass doors used to be a sign that somewhere in the room there was a crayon portrait of Father when he was a young man, with a real piece of glass stuck on the portrait to represent a diamond stud.

And now we are told that &ldquoeveryone buys bookcases with glass doors we have no call for others.&rdquo Soon we shall be told that the thing to do is to buy the false backs of bindings, such as they have in stage libraries, to string across behind the glass. It will keep us from reading too much, and then, too, no one will want to borrow our books.

But one clerk told me the truth. And I am just fearless enough to tell it here. I know that it will kill my chances for the Presidency, but I cannot stop to think of that.

After advising me to have a carpenter build me the kind of bookcase I wanted, and after I had told him that I had my name in for a carpenter but wasn&rsquot due to get him until late in the fall, as he was waiting for prices to go higher before taking the job on, the clerk said:

&ldquoThat&rsquos it. It&rsquos the price. You see the furniture manufacturers can make much more money out of a bookcase with glass doors than they can without. When by hanging glass doors on a piece of furniture at but little more expense to themselves they can get a much bigger profit, what&rsquos the sense in making them without glass doors? They have just stopped making them, that&rsquos all.&rdquo

So you see the American people are being practically forced into buying glass doors whether they want them or not. Is that right? Is it fair? Where is our personal liberty going to? What is becoming of our traditional American institutions?


Robert Benchley

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Robert Benchley, in full Robert Charles Benchley, (born Sept. 15, 1889, Worcester, Mass., U.S.—died Nov. 21, 1945, New York, N.Y.), American humorist, actor, and drama critic, whose main persona, that of a slightly confused, ineffectual, socially awkward bumbler, served in his essays and short films to gain him the sobriquet “the humorist’s humorist.” The character allowed him to comment brilliantly on the world’s absurdities.

A graduate of Harvard University (1912), Benchley held a variety of jobs in New York City before becoming managing editor of Vanity Fair in 1919. There he worked with Robert Sherwood and Dorothy Parker until January 1920, when both Sherwood and Benchley resigned to protest the firing of Parker. About this time Benchley, Parker, and other wits of the Algonquin Round Table—which its members referred to as the Vicious Circle—began their celebrated lunchtime meetings at Manhattan’s Algonquin Hotel. In April 1920 Benchley joined the staff of Life magazine as drama critic (1920–29). During this period he published his first collection of essays, Of All Things! (1921), and became a regular contributor to The New Yorker (1925). He was drama critic for The New Yorker from 1929 to 1940 and wrote its “The Wayward Press” column (under the pseudonym Guy Fawkes).

His monologue “ The Treasurer’s Report,” initially delivered as a skit in an amateur revue for the Algonquin group in 1922, was the basis for one of the first all-talking cinema short subjects. He subsequently acted in and sometimes wrote motion-picture short subjects—The Sex Life of a Polyp (1928), Stewed, Fried, and Boiled (1929), How to Sleep (1935 Academy Award for best live-action short film), The Romance of Digestion (1937), and The Courtship of the Newt (1938)—among them. In all, he made more than 40 short subjects and appeared in minor roles and a few supporting roles in some 50 feature films. He often played a confused, annoyed, and mildly sarcastic drunk. It was a role that suited him. He once said, “I know I’m drinking myself to a slow death, but then I’m in no hurry” he died of cirrhosis of the liver.


Robert Benchley Society

Mom was the queen of April Fool’s jokes. One time, when my sister and I were little, she told us there was no school that day. We doubted her at first. But she convinced us that it was a Saturday. “Hooray!” we cried, running about in our excitement for a few minutes. “April Fools!” she said.

Our own April Fools jokes were more primitive. “There’s an ant on your pants,” just about covered it. Or: “Your slip is showing.”

Mom’s best April Fool’s joke occurred when my brother Dave, a young Marine, was visiting. “Dave, there’s a whale at the end of the dock,” Mom said. Dave dutifully rushed out to see it. He didn’t see a whale, so he asked the neighbors. They hadn’t seen one either. So he walked to the next house, and then the next, getting a lot of sand in his shoes as he walked under dock after dock. Finally he came back empty handed. “April Fools!” Mom said gleefully.

From the Mail Bag for April Fools Day

I love the idea of the prank roundup! Here are some of my favorite pranks and writing about pranks:

Feynman taking his roommates' door (this is an excerpt from his memoir Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman), published 1985:

Many of the comic short-short stories in Saki's collections (being the pen-name of Hector Hugh Munro), including in particular my favorites, "The Unrest-Cure" from The Chronicles of Clovis (1911), "The She-Wolf," "The Open Window," "A Touch of Realism" all from Beasts and Super-Beasts (1914), and "Bertie's Christmas Eve" from The Toys of Peace and Other Papers (1919). They're a bit like P. G. Wodehouse or John Collier but with a streak of brilliant wickedness reminiscent of Oscar Wilde:

Although it is more directly inspired by Saki than by Benchley (the two were worlds apart but not entirely divorced Benchley was influenced by Leacock, and Leacock by Saki), you're also free to include this story of mine, "The He-Bear" (attached).

I don't have links but any roundup of pranksters is of course woefully incomplete without Horace de Vere Cole, who orchestrated, among many other larks, the Dreadnought hoax as well as a party where the guests, strangers to each other, eventually discovered that their names all contained the word "bottom."

The sun in her splendour shone her radiant face on all creation, thawing frozen lakes and misers’ hearts, nursing the winter wheat from the sleeping earth, turning the flowers’ heads in humble worship, and turning the back of my neck to roast beef.

I was a guest in the palatial country cottage of a Russian Countess while certain financial halma puzzles were being teased apart in London on my behalf. A simple rest cure for overtaxed nerves practically necessitated that I conduct the hassle of the trip, and force myself against my will to swallow prescriptions of Slavic sea air, the Bolshoi Ballet, and breakfasts in bed of poached Fabergé eggs.

And yet this afternoon I was not appointed in the Countess’s gingerbread villa, a glass of tea inexplicably stirred with jam in the one hand and a smartly moustachio’d hussar in another. Instead, I was stumbling through the untamed wilds of a pitiful bald little monadnock known locally as the Czar’s Pate, from which, my host assured me in the tones one might use to discreetly disclose an indiscreet item of society gossip, one could catch a glimpse of the sea.

In fact, I had already seen the sea the previous week, but I suppose the distinction arose in that from the Czar’s Pate it could be viewed from a safe distance, thus avoiding the pinches of crabs and American holidayers.

And yet I would have given all the gallimaufry and guano of the seaside my enraptured adoration in exchange for the torment I now endured in its stead—also staying with the Countess was a curly red-haired beast of a fellow who was supposed by our mutual host simply by virtue of his nation (he was German, I think, but to her all the sons of Saxony were alike in blood brotherhood) to be a perfect touring companion for me during my stay, and vice-versa. Yorick (or possibly Orrick, or York, or Ulricht) had been staying at the villa for a full week before I arrived, and it is not impossible that the Countess recommended the arrangement out of a sense of self-preservation—but to suspect that sweet old lady of such shrewdness would suggest a Slavonic capacity for torture at a degree not recognized since Ivan the Terrible.

Because I had once stolen a newspaper from my neighbor at the London Rhopalic Club, or perhaps for some other indiscretion now remembered only by my personal devil, my guide possessed, and shamelessly abused, a small Dutch melodeon which apparently permitted only two different tunes—“Ach, Du Lieber Augustin” was the first, and the second, to quote Yorick’s toothy witticism, “isn’t.” Had I the breath to retort, I might have pointed out that the first wasn’t quite, either.

My eyes assaulted by sun, my ears by the screeching squeezebox, and the rest seen to by the Sisyphean burden of my hiking-pack and the local bird of biting gadflies, I cherished the few senses I had left to me, until those too surrendered at a final onslaught by my merciless companion. Retiring for a few minutes in a small clearing that with more pleasant circumstances might have been described as idyllic (and with more pleasant company would have been ideal), I looked on in mute horror as Yorick withdrew a brown paper package from his rucksack like an Israelite priest revealing the fires of the Covenant. He had brought a string of smoked herrings for his reeking luncheon, which he unfurled as if laying out the procession carpet of some greater yet Prince of Hell.

As it happens, I do not care for smoked herrings. As it happens, some others do, chief among them being the aberration Yorick and the Russian brown bear. It was not the former hulking, hairy beast that stumbled in from the bushes at the edge of the clearing like the Turkish Knight making his grand entrance at a Christmas masque. The he-bear did not stop to offer a formal introduction, but made straight for the herrings, sniffing at the air like a ten-foot-tall bloodhound. More than anything, however, the interloper provoked uncanny resemblance to my great-aunt Lady Toopsilily, who has been known to don a fur coat of even bulkier dimensions and, at least after a certain number of flutes of champagne, lope in an almost identical manner.

The bear peeled back its black lips to bare its arsenal of teeth the size of chessmen and reared up on its hind legs to the height of a lamppost, looking hugely changed from its relatively benign appearance on the guildhall’s arms down in the village square. Even at her most fearsome, for example when she discovered the butler nipping at the port, my aunt Toopsilily did not achieve quite this level of ferocity—and, as the butler at least was still alive, albeit in a shaken and repentant state and also in Hastings, I almost wished that it were her rearing and roaring in the clearing and not the flesh-eating Russian beast before us.

The protocol for such adventures had been mentioned in passing in a penny novel I had once read set in the Canadian frontierland. “Quick!” I hissed. “I need you to unhook my pack. We mustn’t make any sudden movements. If we back slowly out of the clearing together, we run much less risk of setting off the beast’s territorial instincts.”

There came no reply, and, without taking my eyes from the beast, I tried to turn to see if Yorick had fainted dead from fright. What I saw was his hastily cast-off backpack falling to the earth as he ran at full speed through the clearing and out in an Yorick-shaped hole in the shrubs, leaving me to fend for myself.

Of course, I might have done the same thing had I been favored by fortune with such a head start. But I didn’t, and a hypothetical insult really doesn’t count for much when measured against the unmistakable reality of one.

Luckily, I am well practiced in standing very still from my days in the St. Ballyhoo College common room performing competitive tableaux vivant, and had kept my hand in after being sent down by pretending to be out of the house when the vicar came round for tea. And luckier yet, unlike anything else I had absorbed in those dim, departed days, be it Greek or green chartreuse, this talent for impersonating the statue of Nelson in Dublin had not so soon passed from me, which prevented me from resembling Nelson even further than intended by having my arm torn off at the shoulder.

After relieving our haversack of the string of herrings, the bear made a contented and leisurely path out the other end of the clearing and disappeared into the brush, leaving in his hairy wake all the bits and bobs spilt from the mauled rucksack, including Yorick’s accordion—miraculously intact in the middle of the broken, scattered supplies. Like Auntie, the he-bear’s presence and demeanor alone had constituted the bulk of the distress, and in his absence I found a sort of respect for the forthright manner in which the bear pursued his aim, without recourse to half-cloaked intimations and garden-party politics.

As Yorick had in his haste departed without his pack and thus without the benefit of our map, I set off in a direction I favored due to the pleasing coloration of the flowers along the trail. As fortune would have it, it wasn’t very long before I happened upon Yorick, eager and uneaten and sitting at the bottom of a steep run of gravel, holding his right leg. His grimace, untranslated from the Teutonic, seemed as likely to have been out of sheepishness at confronting me whom he abandoned as it was to have been out of physical pain. Like a thorough medic, though, I gave the limb a few trial blows just to be certain.

“Ah! Careful, chap! I twisted my right leg.”

“I might have gotten devoured!”

“Yes, but you didn’t. And a hypothetical injury really doesn’t count for much measured against the unmistakable reality of one. My leg will be useless, why, for days.”

I was forced to admit his argument, and reluctantly acknowledged that we were even.

When I took my leave from the Countess and Yorick the following week, holding my handkerchief to my eyes to disguise my lack of tears, he had yet to drum up the expense of a new melodeon to replace that so callously destroyed by the he-bear.


Bletchley Park

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Bletchley Park, British government cryptological establishment in operation during World War II. Bletchley Park was where Alan Turing and other agents of the Ultra intelligence project decoded the enemy’s secret messages, most notably those that had been encrypted with the German Enigma and Tunny cipher machines. Experts have suggested that the Bletchley Park code breakers may have shortened the war by as much as two years.

The Bletchley Park site in Buckinghamshire (now in Milton Keynes), England, was about 50 miles (80 km) northwest of London, conveniently located near a railway line that served both Oxford and Cambridge universities. The property consisted of a Victorian manor house and 58 acres (23 hectares) of grounds. The British government acquired it in 1938 and made it a station of the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), designated as Station X. At the start of the war in 1939, the station had only 200 workers, but by late 1944 it had a staff of nearly 9,000, working in three shifts around the clock. Experts at crossword-puzzle solving and chess were among those who were hired. About three-fourths of the workers were women.

To facilitate their work, the staff designed and built equipment, most notably the bulky electromechanical code-breaking machines called Bombes. Later on, in January 1944, came Colossus, an early electronic computer with 1,600 vacuum tubes. The manor house was too small to accommodate everything and everyone, so dozens of wooden outbuildings had to be built. These buildings were called huts, although some were sizable. Turing was working in Hut 8 when he and his associates solved the Enigma. Other new buildings were built from cement blocks and identified by letters, such as Block B.

Despite the vital importance of the work, Bletchley Park still had trouble getting sufficient resources. Therefore, in 1941 Turing and others wrote a letter directly to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who promptly ordered his chief of staff to “make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this has been done.”

Operations were carried out under an injunction of strict secrecy that was not lifted even after the war ended. Only in 1974, when Frederick William Winterbotham received permission to publish his memoir, The Ultra Secret, did the world begin to learn what had been achieved at Bletchley Park. The property is now maintained as a museum.


Watch the video: Robert Benchley - The Causes Of The Depression Aka The Caves Of Depression 1930-1931 (January 2022).