Columbus Dispatch article

from The Columbus Dispatch, December 7, 1997

Good Humor Man
Grandson Plays Tribute to Robert Benchley

By Nancy Gilson
Dispatch Arts Editor

Nat Benchley—who has spent his life “being the grandson of, the son of or the brother of” a famous writer—pays homage to the family patriarch in Benchley Despite Himself.

The subject of the one-man show is Robert Benchley, a name that might not mean much to generations familiar with the humor of Sam Kinison and Jerry Seinfeld but a name that resonates for their grandparents.

Robert Benchley—a member of the Algonquin Round Table of the 1920s and a writer, an actor and a radio host—was a master of the one-liner, a craftsman of the short, humorous essay.

He also could party into oblivion.

“He grew up in a strict Victorian New England family, and yet he became one of the great partyers of the 20th century,” the grandson said. “He drank himself to death. He was a family man, yet he ran around with Hollywood bimbos…. He apparently had a way of not only being the center of attention in a room but making other people feel they were special and funny.”

Nat Benchley, who hadn’t been born when his grandfather died in 1945, will present an abbreviated version of his show in Columbus for the 103rd anniversary of the birth of James Thurber.

“I’ll use a lot of the running gags and non sequiturs that people haven’t heard for 50 years,” he said, “and go into the Thurber connection.”

Among many other quips, Robert Benchley is responsible for these:

“You get much more out of the theater if you sit facing the stage.” (He was theater critic for both Life and The New Yorker. )
“I feel particularly suited to speak about swing music because I can’t carry a tune, either.”
“This God-given talent which I have must be tossed aside like an old mistress—or is it mattress?”
“One way, I suppose, to improve the work ethic would be to actually do more work, but that seems a little drastic…. A person can get any amount of work done, provided it isn’t the work he’s supposed to be doing.”

The contradictions that Nat Benchley learned about his grandfather spurred him to put together his tribute. He relied upon archival materials from Boston University, the recollections of aging friends and the memories and memorabilia of his grandmother, who, “thank God, never threw anything away.”

“One of the contradictions in my grandfather certainly had to do with work,” he said. “He seemed to be the sort of person who wouldn’t work if a gun was put to his head, but he got a tremendous amount done.”

Robert Benchley wrote and acted in 48 short films, including How To Sleep, which won an Academy Award in 1936. He wrote or acted in 38 features and for three years hosted a syndicated radio show with Artie Shaw as bandleader. He worked as a drama critic and free-lance columnist and, under the pen name Guy Fawkes, wrote a column on press criticism for The New Yorker.

Yet he couldn’t meet a deadline of his own volition.

Editors at The New Yorker told him his deadline was Saturday when they didn’t need his writing until Sunday. The ruse worked until a new copy boy spilled the beans, and never again was the writer on time.

Benchley never believed in his worth or productivity.

“He was so self-deprecating, he would never give himself credit for doing any good,” his grandson said. “He helped people laugh through the Depression and the second world war.”

Benchley, who was born in 1889, was educated at Harvard University (where he edited the Lampoon), went on to become part of the infamous Round Table and hung out with Dorothy Parker, Wolcott Gibbs, Frank Sullivan and Thurber.

E.B. White admired Benchley and once worried that something he had written had been written 20 years earlier (and better) by Benchley.

“The Algonquin crowd was famous for being famous—the 10-year lunch, being funny, being seen,” Nat Benchley said. “It’s not an uncommon phenomenon today, but then it was new.”

“Actually, they could be quite sober in their work. Dorothy Parker was depressing in the extreme. My grandfather went to see her after her second or third suicide attempt and said: ‘You really have to stop this suicide stuff. One of these days you’ll ruin your health.”

His grandfather, Benchley said, wouldn’t approve of today’s New Yorker or the tone of humorous writing in general.

“He disapproved of anything prurient in print. The times have changed so much because the genteel humor they practiced is no longer in style. The whole entertainment industry has changed even in the last 15 years so that the quiet, gentle word-based humor is having a hard time even being heard. And the attention span of the average consumer these days is about half that of a hummingbird.

“There are some writers who hark back to Robert Benchley and admit it: Russell Baker, Calvin Trillin and Dave Barry. Woody Allen borrows from Benchley and sometimes admits it and sometimes doesn’t.”

Robert Benchley had two sons, Robert Jr. and Nathanial—the latter a novelist and short-story writer and the author of The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming. Nathanial also had two sons: Peter, author of Jaws, and Nat.

As a child and young adult, Nat met an aging and “irascible” Thurber as well as George Abbott and Charles Addams.

When the Benchleys recently sold their Nantucket home, they found original Addams drawings that had been received in trade for a huge, stuffed (real) bear.

Addams took the bear and delighted in placing it in his apartment elevator, sending it down solo to the lobby.

“My recollections of my grandfather came from growing up in New York City in a household of family and friends who, years after the fact, were still reeling from the shock of his death,” said Nat, 51.

“He hung out with a group that took pride in calling themselves the vicious wits, but they really were good people…. George Abbott came up to me, ironically at my father’s memorial service, and said, ‘I hate to burst your bubble, but your grandfather really was that nice.’

“To me, one of the great joys of Robert Benchley’s work is that it’s short—two- or three-page stories and essays. You can have it at your bedside, read one or two stories and go to sleep with a smile on your face.”