Robert Benchley

Robert Charles Benchley

Born: September 15, 1889
Died: November 21, 1945

Biography

Robert Charles Benchley, born Isle of Wight, September 15, 1807. Shipped as cabin boy on the Florence J. Marble, 1815. Arrested for bigamy and murder in Port Said 1817. Released 1820. Wrote Tale of Two Cities. Married Princess Anastasia of Portugal 1831. Children: Prince Rupprecht and several little girls. Wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin 1850. Editor of Godeys Ladies Book 1851-1856. Began Les Miserables in 1870, finished by Victor Hugo. Died 1871. Buried in Westminster Abbey.
     - (Robert Benchley, according to Robert Benchley)

When asked to describe his life, Robert Benchley offered this mock autobiographical sketch. In truth, he was born on September 15, 1889, in Worcester, Massachusetts. There is not extensive information available about his childhood, except for several facetious references in his sketches. He describes the city of Worcester in the following manner:

I lived in a New England town which nestled among seven hills. It was often compared to Rome, Italy, by public speakers, because of the seven hills, but the life that we boys led was in no way comparable to the life led in the effete civilization of Rome. We derived from the more sturdy races of the Aegean, with quite an intermingling of Swedes and people from Providence, RI.
     - (What of Our Children?, Handout from Professor Ljungquist)

Benchley's younger years were spent during a time that most called the "Gay Nineties," a period of enjoyment for many in America during that decade. This was a time period that was as anything but gay for Benchley. In his earliest recollection of the period, he was chased and stung by a bee. He goes on to describe his first memory of a Fourth of July celebration during which he was so terrified that he tried to crawl under the seats, resulting in his hands and arms slipping through the boards of the flooring and leaving a nasty cut on his chin.

He describes his early schooldays in 1895 with his first day of kindergarten. On his first day, he had his chair pulled out from under him by one of the girls in the class. He immediately went home, only to have his mother bring him back, one of the many experiences of the decade he describes as "definitely not gay." He goes on to describe the rest of his schooldays in the 1890's as being sent home by 10:30 and sent back to school by 11. The reasons for which he was sent home varied. On one such occasion he recited a poem in front of class that his brother Edmund had taught him. It was as follows:

My mother-in-law has lately died,
For her my heart doth yearn;
I know she's with the angels now,
For she was too tough to burn.

His distaste for the 1890's most likely stemmed from a tragedy that befell the family. In 1898 his older brother, Edmund, was killed in the Spanish-American War. He had been close to Edmund, having looked up to him for most of his childhood. As the elder brother, Edmund would take him out for walks and play with him. This loss had a significant impact on Benchley, and all members of his family.

Benchley attended South High School from 1904, until 1907, when he was able to transfer to Phillips Exeter Academy. This was made possible through the aid provided by Lillian Duryea, his brother's fiancée, who turned her attention to Robert after Edmund's death. While he was at Phillips Exeter he belonged to the Dramatic Club and drew illustrations for the yearbook and literary magazines. Upon graduating from Phillips Exeter, in 1908 Benchley was able to enroll at Harvard University, again with financial aid from Lillian Duryea.

While at Harvard, Benchley acted in a few plays, among them The Crystal Gazer, Ralph Roister Doister, and Below Zero. He was also elected editor of The Lampoon. He eventually received a Bachelor's degree, although it was withheld at first due to failure in one class. He had failed one class, so he did not receive his degree until 1913, although he graduated with the Class of 1912.

After receiving his degree from Harvard, Benchley went to live and work in New York City. He became managing editor of Vanity Fair, and also began working for Life. From 1920 to 1929 he ran the drama department of Life, referring to the theatre, not the genre of dramatic writing. The first issue under his direction yielded very little humor, although as the decade progressed, Benchley's love of satirical works began to surface. In 1929, when he left Life, he went to work as a drama columnist for The New Yorker, for which he wrote until January 27, 1940. While in New York, Benchley became a regular at the so-called Algonquin Round Table, a social circle of New York wits that also included such people as Harpo Marx, George S. Kaufman, and Dorothy Parker.

Benchley never wrote an entire book from start to finish; he simply organized his short stories and sketches into book length publications. Many of his short stories were also performed as short presentations, or they were given as speeches or lectures by Benchley. In 1943, Benchley announced that he had finished writing writing, for few humorists, he felt, remained funny much beyond fifty. It was in 1938, when he was 49, that he had published his last collection of original works.

Robert Benchley died on November 21, 1945 at the age of 56 of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Robert Benchley was not only a humorous writer, but also an actor, movie maker, and critic. As a professional, he brought a new sophistication to humor and stimulated others in the business to do likewise. He commanded a certain respect and inspired friendship among literary colleagues to an extent that few writers have been able to accomplish. Although Benchley was most likely influenced by the other writers of the Algonquin Round Table, it is hard to determine his real effect, as Benchley worked with many different groups of writers throughout his career.

Benchley was first famous as a humorist for his improvisational oral monologues. One of his most famous sketches was known as The Treasurer's Report, a sketch detailing, and making fun of, the report that the treasurer of an organization must give. As a writer Benchley was in demand even before he had ever been paid to write. As a senior at Harvard he was asked to write a daily humorous column for the Boston Journal.

Benchley's shift to the screen from written works came about mainly because the movie business was fun, easy, and lucrative. Writing his columns and short stories was a much more difficult task, and far less rewarding, monetarily speaking, than the screen. According to his son, Nathaniel, Benchley was "physically unable to save money," which made the higher profits of the screen much more attractive.

Robert Benchley was one of the pioneering humorists in his field. He bridged the gap between short stories and screen, and wrote comedy that could have his audience laughing out loud, or simply smiling, yet both tones were equally satisfying. His humor that required thought, something that is a rare find in today's fast paced world.

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