In a city renown for party animals, there have been few vivants more bon (sorry!) than Robert Benchley, the Algonquin Round Tabler who lived in the Garden of Allah Hotel in the 1930s and 1940s. Benchley and his remarkable career as a writer and editor for magazines like “The New Yorker” and “Vanity Fair,” and as screenwriter and movie actor — he won an Oscar for one of his short films — are largely forgotten these days.
But Sweet Old Bob’s fans should know that the Robert Benchley Society, based in Boston, is keeping the flame alive with a website that celebrates all things Benchley. It offers biographical information, current news, a humor competition, a list of Benchley’s books and movies and more.
One Benchleyism from the site: “Tell us your phobias and we will tell you what you are afraid of,” from “Phobias: My Ten Years in a Quandary and How They Grew,” 1936.
During his years in West Hollywood, Benchley served as the Garden of Allah’s unofficial master of ceremonies, and was often seen being shuttled from bungalow to bungalow resting in the payload of a wheel barrow, quite possibly because he was too pixelated to maneuver the pathways on foot. He was an early adopter of Angelenos’ world-famous aversion to walking anywhere. For example, to get to Schwab’s Drug Store from the hotel, he invariably called a cab, even though the drug store was literally across the street.
Here’s Christopher Buckley, in a review of a biography of Benchley, Laughter’s Gentle Soul: The Life of Robert Benchley, by Billy Altman, published in the National Review in 1997:
At Harvard he was president of the Lampoon and became so notoriously funny an after-dinner speaker that the president of the university insisted on speaking before him. An early mentor was Franklin Pierce Adams, the best-known newspaper columnist of his day. Soon Benchley was pinch-hitting at theater reviews for P. G. Wodehouse at Vanity Fair, where he eventually became managing editor. Later he became chief theater critic for The New Yorker and a humor columnist for Life, producing enough material for 12 collections. He was present at the creation of the Algonquin Round Table, or the Vicious Circle, as they called themselves. He became an accidental star on Broadway for his “Treasurer’s Report,” the eight-minute sketch that led in turn to the career in Hollywood that brought him fame, bitterness, and misery. Any life is the more fascinating for ending badly.
Benchley made 48 movie shorts, including “The Sex Life of the Polyp,” and “How to Sleep,” which won him an Oscar for best short feature in 1935. Shirley Temple asked him for his autograph. His resume bears a technical asterisk: the 1928 movie short of his “Treasurer’s Report” was the first continuous-sound picture ever made, and in 1936 he took part in the first TV program ever transmitted. He so impressed Alfred Hitchcock that the director signed him to co-write and star in Foreign Correspondent. He had affairs with, among many others, Tallulah Bankhead, who gave him rave reviews as a lover. Bob Benchley had a bigger endowment than Harvard’s.
The book’s most wrenching moment takes place one night in Hollywood at the Garden of Allah. (Benchley’s life can be divided into eras in terms of hotels: Algonquin, Royalton, Garden of Allah.) He was entertaining, among others, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his old Vanity Fair comrades Dorothy Parker and Robert Sherwood. Since their VF days, Sherwood had gone on to become one of the country’s leading playwrights and had received the Pulitzer Prize for Abe Lincoln in Illinois.
Benchley had, as usual, been knocking them back. Suddenly he caught sight of Sherwood across the room and said to Sheilah Graham, Fitzgerald’s girlfriend, “Those eyes. I can’t stand those eyes looking at me!” At first she thought it was a joke. Then Benchley began backing away: “He’s looking at me . . . and thinking of how he knew me when I was going to be a great writer — and he’s thinking, now look at what I am!” In the dark night of laughter’s gentle soul it was, to quote another writer in the room, 3 a.m.
Buckley began his review with this episode from the end of Benchley’s life in 1945. “How refreshing to read a biography of a humorist who was not, in real life, a son of a bitch,” he writes. “The worst that could be said of Robert Benchley was that he was a bit of a bounder to his wife, an absentee father to his sons, and ultimately a disappointment to himself. But for all that, his wife and sons were devoted to him, as he in his way was to them. His friends, who were legion, adored him. As he lay in the hospital, hemorrhaging to death from cirrhosis, forty people showed up to volunteer to give blood. How many writers could make that posthumous boast?”