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Robert Benchley

One 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 concerning the 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 pranksters. 

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.

The 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 man. 

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. 

Benchley 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 dialogue.

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.

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