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LET’S BEGIN 2020 with laughs and hope they continue throughout the year. These particular tidbits come from Robert Benchley, a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table. During the 1920s, he and his lunch mates got themselves through post-war blahs, prohibition, and Warren G. Harding. May such humor help us through our times.
The Algonquin Round Table. In June 1919, theatrical press agent John Peter Toohey organized a luncheon of literary types at the Algonquin Hotel on New York City’s West 44th Street. Ostensibly its purpose was to welcome Alexander Woolcott back from his World War I Stars and Stripes stint. In fact, it was to poke fun at this returning drama critic, who took the joke so well that he and his friends decided to meet regularly.
Among regulars of this informal membership were Woolcott, columnist Franklin Pierce Adams, humorist Robert Benchley, playwright George S. Kaufman, women’s activist Ruth Hale, critic/poet/writer Dorothy Parker, The New Yorker founder Harold Ross, and playwright Robert Sherwood.
Vanity Fair Days. Coworkers at Vanity Fair, Benchley and Parker shared an office so small she said, “that an inch smaller and it would have constituted adultery.”
When told by Vanity Fair management that salaries were never to be discussed, employees Benchley, Parker, and Sherwood responded wearing placards detailing their exact renumerations. This and other antics got Parker fired; Benchley quit in sympathy, not a small gesture given that he had a family to support. Parker called this sincerely “the greatest act of friendship I’ve ever seen.”
Sherwood was 6 ft. 8 in. tall; Benchley, 6 ft., and Parker, 5 ft. 4. She once commented that together they resembled a “walking pipe organ.”
Benchley’s Humor. Benchley had a way of appearing befuddled, yet still capable of delivering wisdom: “A great many people have come up to me and asked how I manage to get so much work done and still keep looking so dissipated.”
“Most of the arguments to which I am party fall somewhere short of being impressive, owing to the fact that neither I nor my opponent know what we are talking about.”
On Non-Sobriety. Not inappropriate on this post-New Year’s Eve day, Benchley commented, “A real hangover is nothing to try out family remedies on. The only cure for a real hangover is death.”
“Drinking makes such fools of people, and people are such fools to begin with, that it’s compounding a felony.”
“I know I’m drinking myself to a slow death,” he said, “but then I’m in no hurry.” Though a teetotaler as a youth, Benchley died in 1945, age 56, of liver complications.
His Academy Award. Benchley had a successful Hollywood career, both as screenwriter and actor.
In 1935, as part of its “Miniature” series, MGM produced How to Sleep, a satiric look at a Mellon Institute study on the subject. Simmons Mattress, which commissioned it, was amused; Mellon Institute was not.
Benchley wrote the screenplay and starred as narrator and sleeper. The film won Best Short Subject at the 8th Academy Awards in 1935.
Other Benchley Achievements. He wrote, ““I have tried to know absolutely nothing about a great many things, and I have succeeded fairly well.”
One of Benchley’s Vanity Fair essays was titled ““No Matter What Angle You Look at it, Alice Brookhausen Was a Girl Whom You Would Hesitate to Invite into Your Own Home.”
“Even nowadays a man can’t step up and kill a woman without feeling just a bit unchivalrous.”
On Evolution, Human and Otherwise. Benchley said, “You might think that after thousands of years of coming up too soon and getting frozen, the crocus family would have had a little sense knocked into it.”
“A boy can learn a lot from a dog: obedience, loyalty, and the importance of turning around three times before lying down.”
“We are constantly being surprised that people did things well before we were born.”
“If Mr. Einstein doesn’t like the natural law of the universe, let him go back to where he came from.”
His Telegram to Friends upon Arrival in Venice. “Streets flooded. Please advise.”
On Matters Cultural. “Great literature must spring from an upheaval in the author’s soul. If that upheaval is not present then it must come from the works of any other author which happens to be handy and easily adapted.”
“If there is a streak of ham anywhere in an actor, Shakespeare will bring it out.”
“There is a note in the front of the volume saying that no public reading may be given without first getting the author’s permission. It ought to be made much more difficult than that.”
My Favorite Benchley. “Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said nothing.”
I’m so very glad he occasionally disregarded this. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2020