Monday, March 10, 2003

[3/10/2011] Wolcott Gibbs Tonight: "Robert Benchley: In Memoriam" (continued)


Plus: A look back at Anthony Comstock

"Robert Benchley: In Memoriam" appeared originally in the New York Times of Dec. 16, 1945, and was eventually included in the Gibbs anthology More in Sorrow, of which the author had an advance copy literally in hand the day he died in 1958.

Robert Benchley:
In Memoriam


One afternoon about two years ago, Bob Benchley dropped in at my home for a drink. It was at a time when my life had got more or less turned around backward, something apt to happen to a drama critic, and as usual I was still in my pajamas, though it was about six o'clock in the evening. The idea of not dressing till nightfall seemed rational enough to me, since I had nowhere in particular to go in the daytime, but it was a matter of some concern to my son, who was just eight, and attending a school where, it seemed, the other boys' fathers performed respectably, and suitably clothed, in their offices from nine to five. Apparently, the jocular explanation among my son's classmates who came to call on him from time to time was that I was a burglar by profession, and it caused him intense embarrassment. When Benchley finally got up to go, and I went to the door with him, it was more than the child could peaceably bear.

"Gee, Dad, you're not going to start going out in the street that way, are you?" he cried in dismay.

"No," I said. "I'll try to spare you that final humiliation."

It was hardly a notable remark, but it seemed to amuse my guest, who chose to regard it as somehow typical of my domestic life, and he laughed very gratifyingly thereafter whenever he happened to think of it. This anecdote, dim and aimless in itself, is illuminating only in that it shows how politely anxious, how delighted he really was to promote his friends, and I certainly wasn't an especially old one, to the pleasant company of fellow-humorists.

When you were with him, in the wonderful junk shop he operated at the Royalton in "21," or in less fashionable saloons which had the simple merit of staying open all night, you had a very warm and encouraging feeling that you were a funnier man than you'd previously suspected, the things you said sounded quite a lot better than they really were and, such was the miracle of his sympathy and courteous hope, they often actually were pretty good. He wanted his guests to feel that they were succeeding socially and he did his best to make it easy for them. The truth, of course, was that Benchley himself maneuvered these conversations, tactfully providing most of the openings for wit, but the effect was that people were mysteriously improved in his company, surprisingly at home on a level of easy charm of which nobody would have dreamed they were capable. This willingness to play straight man to amateur but hopeful comedians is rather rare in the world he inhabited, where it is not customary to give very much away, but he did it instinctively.

I have used the word "courteous" before, but it seems inevitable. He was one of the most courteous men I ever knew, in the sense that whenever he was aware of a feeling of insecurity or inadequacy in anyone he met, he was automatically their genial, admiring ally against the world. It committed him to a great many bores and some men and women who used him rather shamelessly, and he knew it all right, but he was helpless. Perhaps it was a price he had agreed with himself to pay for the luxury of knowing that he had failed very few people in kindness.

Most of the available anecdotes about Benchley have recently been put through the giant mangle operated by the gossip columnists, coming out in the form of an extremely depressing hash, and I have no intention of adding to them here. Anyway, his humor didn't fall very easily into formal patterns. He was enchanted once when a young woman employed to grapple with his wildly tangled affairs remarked quite unexpectedly, "Sniff. Sniff. Somebody in this room has brown eyes" (I have probably butchered that one as cruelly as the genius on The Post), and most of the things he said or wrote himself that reflected his personality most accurately had the same quality of almost-logic, the same chilly, fascinating little skid off the hard road and right to the edge of the swamp, where the mind goes down and doesn't come up.

Though a great many earnest students have tried, the nature of humor has never been very satisfactorily defined -- there are too many tastes and nothing is terribly funny to everybody -- and it is a reckless thing to try to put any writer into a neat and permanent compartment. It is especially hard for me with Benchley, because the extra fact of known personality inevitability gets into it, too. Rereading his pieces, that is, my judgment is influenced by a clear picture of how he would have looked telling the same story, punctuating it with the abandoned laughter that used to be so famous at opening nights, and assisting himself with gestures of quiet desperation.

It is also conditioned by another absurdity not apparent in the text. For the most part, he wrote about his own polite New England bafflement in the face of strange but negligible crises; the actual fact was that he led one of the most insanely complicated private lives of our day and did it, on the whole, with extraordinary composure. It is possible that this secondary information makes his stories seem funnier to me than they really are, so that my estimate of his talent may be a little high. I can t honestly say that he made me laugh more than any other humorist writing in his time -- some of Thurber's maniacal experiences in Columbus, Ohio, still seem to me incomparable as examples of comic genius operating on what must have been an extremely favorable environment -- but I think he was, by far, the most brilliant and consistent of the school, originating with Leacock, who performed such dizzy miracles with parody, non sequitur, garbled reference, and all the other materials of off-center wit.

He avoided with a very acute instinct the monotony that can come from a reiterated comic device and the disaster that comes from crossing the strict line which divides high comedy from awful foolishness. He was sure, wonderfully resourceful, and his style, really based on a lifelong respect for good writing, would have been admirable applied to anything. It was no secret, I guess, that his later appearances in the movies and on the radio bored and depressed him, though he was enormously successful at it, for he was dedicated to writing, and he suffered bitterly when, mistakenly or not, he decided that he couldn't do it any more, and never did.

In commenting on him as a critic, an editorial note in The New Yorker said:
His reviews had a quality now largely missing in criticism in that they reflected a complete personality, genial, sensitive, informed, too mature and tolerant to care about the easy, rather discreditable reputation for wit that can come from hasty and intemperate ridicule. It was a weapon he didn't need anyway; his disapproval was all the more effective because it always seemed clear that his kind heart was far more anxious to admire and praise.

That was true of all his work and, in a sense, of all his life. His death was a sad loss to thousands of people who never knew him; to his friends it still seems almost incredible. He took up so much room in so many lives.


As you know, Sunday night we're going to have Wolcott Gibbs's "The Mantle of Comstock." Happily, I'm not sure many of us have much idea who or what a "Comstock" was. It all goes back to one Anthony Comstock, in whose, er, "honor" a whole bunch of appalling laws came into existence dubbed "Comstock laws." Here's some of what Wikipedia has to say about the "founder":

Anthony Comstock (March 7, 1844 – September 21, 1915) was a former United States Postal Inspector and politician dedicated to ideas of Victorian morality. . . .

In 1873, Comstock created the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, an institution dedicated to supervising the morality of the public. Later that year, Comstock successfully influenced the United States Congress to pass the Comstock Law, which made illegal the delivery or transportation of both "obscene, lewd, or lascivious" material as well as any methods of, or information pertaining to, birth control. George Bernard Shaw used the term "comstockery", meaning "censorship because of perceived obscenity or immorality", after Comstock alerted the New York police to the content of Shaw's play Mrs. Warren's Profession. Shaw remarked that "Comstockery is the world's standing joke at the expense of the United States. Europe likes to hear of such things. It confirms the deep-seated conviction of the Old World that America is a provincial place, a second-rate country-town civilization after all." Comstock thought of Shaw as an "Irish smut dealer." The term comstockery was actually first coined in an editorial in The New York Times in 1895. . . .

Comstock's ideas of what might be "obscene, lewd, or lascivious" were quite broad. During his time of greatest power, even some anatomy textbooks were prohibited from being sent to medical students by the United States Postal Service.

Comstock aroused intense loathing from early civil liberties groups and intense support from church-based groups worried about public morals. He was a savvy political insider in New York City and was made a special agent of the United States Postal Service, with police powers up to and including the right to carry a weapon. With this power he zealously prosecuted those he suspected of either public distribution of pornography or commercial fraud. He was also involved in shutting down the Louisiana Lottery, the only legal lottery in the United States at the time, and notorious for corruption. . . .


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