of America's greatest humorists just happened to have been an accomplished
actor, drama critic, and author, as well. Born on September 15, 1889, in
Worcester, Massachusetts, Robert Benchley seemed destined for success. In school, he built a
reputation for his creative interpretation of essay assignments. When
asked to write an essay about something practical, he penned a theme
entitled "How to Embalm a Corpse." For an assignment
dispute between the United States and Canada over Newfoundland fishing rights, he wrote
an essay from the point of view of the fish.
Upon leaving Harvard in 1912, Benchley joined the staff of the New York
Tribune. He wasn't a very good reporter, however, and his editors
soon switched him to feature writing, which served his talents better.
He wrote stories and humorous essays such as "Did Prehistoric Man
Walk On His Head?" After serving in World War I, he returned to New
York and accepted a position as managing editor at Vanity Fair
magazine, where he met fellow writer and wit Dorothy Parker, who soon became his
closest friend. The two developed a reputation as office
Once, after management asked its staff not to discuss
their salaries, Benchley and Parker had them printed on placards that they
wore around their necks.
two literary cut-ups formed the nucleus of a group of
writers, actors, and artists who met for lunch at New York's Algonquin
Hotel to share sparkling conversation, juicy gossip, and scathing insults.
Together with Alexander Woollcott, George S. Kaufman, Marc Connelly, Harpo Marx,
and others, they became known as the Algonquin Round Table. Benchley
thought so highly of Parker that he
resigned from Vanity Fair when she was fired. He took a
position as drama critic for Life magazine and The New Yorker.
But, since he knew absolutely nothing about the theater, he quickly turned his
reviews into humorous essays.
He once wrote a review of the New York City Telephone Directory. He
said it had no plot. He was also a notorious prevaricator. When asked
to provide a brief biography of himself for an encyclopedia, he wrote that he
was born on the Isle of Wight, wrote A Tale of Two Cities, married
a princess in Portugal, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Through his work in Life
magazine, as well as in books such as
Pluck and Luck (1925) and Early Worm (1927), Benchley emerged as
one of America's most popular and well-regarded writers. He had an
uncanny knack for dissecting the comic futility of society during the Roaring Twenties.
His subtle, whimsical brand of humor played well against the struggles of the common
Often his treatises spun off on whimsical, nonsensical tangents.
One of Benchley's friends, Donald Ogden Stewart (The Philadelphia Story),
described his sense of humor as "crazy." Nevertheless, it found a
receptive audience among his pre-Depression Era readers.
began working in movies in 1928, with a reprise of The
Treasurer's Report in one of the earliest short films to feature sound.
In 1932, he began writing for feature films, marking his debut with The Sport
Parade, in which he also co-starred as a broadcaster. He continued to
play comedic supporting roles in the years to come, typically cast as a
bumbling yet lovable sophisticate, a cocktail glass or cigarette-and-holder
clenched firmly in hand. In 1940, he appeared in the Alfred Hitchcock
thriller, Foreign Correspondent, a film to which he also contributed
His work was collected in many books, including From Bed
to Worse (1934), Why Does Nobody Collect Me? (1935), and
My Ten Years in a Quandary, and How It Grew (1936).
Robert Benchley, who once said, "It took me fifteen years to discover that I
had no talent for writing, but I couldn't give it up because by that time I
was too famous," died on November 21, 1945, at the peak of his fame.
Benchley's son, Nathanial, was a well-regarded novelist and children's book
author, while his grandson, Peter, later became famous as author of the book
that inspired the film, Jaws.
Discover Robert Benchley
Yourself - Check Out Today's Best-Selling