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Robert Benchley

Writer / Actor / Critic

Born: 15 September 1889
Died: 21 November 1945 (cerebral hemorrhage)
Birthplace: Worcester, Massachusetts
Best known as:

1930s New Yorker theater critic and witty essayist

Humorist Robert Benchley was a theater critic, essayist, and entertainer whose witty essays on the small trials of daily life made him the Dave Barry of his day. Robert Benchley grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts and attended Harvard, where he edited The Harvard Lampoon and gained a reputation as a funny after-dinner speaker (in an era when the after-dinner speech was considered something of an art form). After graduating from Harvard in 1913, he moved to New York City and eventually landed at Vanity Fair, where he shared an office with Dorothy Parker; there the pair began attending the daily lunches of writers, actors and wags at the Algonquin Hotel that became known as the Algonquin Round Table. Robert Benchley later covered the theater for Life magazine (1920-29) and wrote steadily for The New Yorker (1927-40). As one of the key writers of The New Yorker's early days, he wrote about newspapers in his feature The Wayward Press, served as chief theater critic, and wrote dozens of the offbeat casual essays for which he is best known. He also wrote a thrice-weekly humor column for Hearst Newspapers, describing his daily battles with troublesome typewriter ribbons, belligerent pigeons and persistent hiccups. His newspaper columns and magazine essays were collected in a series of popular books, including Pluck and Luck (1925) and My Ten Years in a Quandary, and How They Grew (1936). In the 1930s he began splitting his time between New York and Hollywood, where he wrote and appeared in a series of self-deprecating shorts with names like How to Train a Dog and How to Break 90 at Croquet. One short, How to Sleep, featured Benchley tossing and turning in pajamas and won the 1935 Academy Award as the year's best short subject. His reputation as a drinker and raconteur was emphasized in his comic roles in feature films, including the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Foreign Correspondent (1940), the Fred Astaire film You'll Never Get Rich (1941), and the 1946 Bing Crosby and Bob Hope comedy The Road to Utopia.

Extra credit:

Robert Benchley was married to his grade-school sweetheart, Gertrude Darling, from 1914 until his death. Their son was the author Nathaniel Benchley; Nathaniel's son Peter Benchley wrote the shark-terror novel Jaws, the basis for the 1975 Steven Spielberg film... Robert Benchley had his own radio program from 1938-40, titled Melody and Madness, with music provided by bandleader Artie Shaw... Robert Benchley's books were illustrated by his Harvard classmate Gluyas Williams; the witty pen-and-ink drawings became closely associated with the image of Benchley himself.

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More on Robert Benchley from Infoplease:

  • Benchley: meaning and definitions - Benchley: Definition and Pronunciation
  • Robert Benchley - Biography of Robert Benchley, 1930s New Yorker theater critic and witty essayist
  • Gluyas Williams - Biography of Gluyas Williams, The witty cartoonist who illustrated Robert Benchley's writings
  • John Updike - Biography of John Updike, The author of the 1960 novel Rabbit, Run
  • S.J. Perelman - Biography of S.J. Perelman, Humorist for The New Yorker and Marx Bros. writer

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