Robert Benchley (1889-1945) was a supremely talented, deeply flawed, and contradictory American writer, best known as a member of the famous Algonquin Round Table of wits. Benchley tried hard to present himself as a University Wit (to use a term of the day), but his own Harvard degree was delayed when he failed French and economics. He also presented himself as the family man—married to Gertrude, his grade-school sweetheart, and the kids at home in Westchester—but he had affairs with actresses, prostitutes, store clerks, a teenage showgirl, and the wife of an associate. During WWI, while working with his friend Ernest Gruening (later one of two senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution) at the New York Tribune he took a stand against segregation in the armed forces and lynching in the South. Management worried that the paper might be charged with sedition. Gruening was fired, and Benchley resigned in protest. Two years later, the scene repeated itself. He and Robert Sherwood walked out of their jobs at Vanity Fair in support of Dorothy Parker—the magazine’s drama critic, who they believed had been fired for correctly panning Billie Burke, the actress wife of powerful producer Florenz Ziegfeld. Benchley needed the job. He was married with two small children at the time. Parker would call his resignation “the greatest act of friendship I’d known."
Benchley also marched for Sacco and Vanzetti and supported the Loyalists in Spain, but he considered himself to be nothing but a “confused liberal,” who registered Republican and voted Democratic. He drew on his own contradictions to establish a persona that would become influential and immensely popular—the Little Man. The Little Man was a well-meaning middle-class suburbanite who, though modern, felt out-of-step with his time. He was a literate new professional—educated, but not over-educated—who usually found himself a step behind his hip children and stylish wife, and always at the mercy of a tyrannical boss, merciless bureaucracy, and a never-ending stream of new and mystifying gadgets. He would populate comic strips from Casper Milquetoast to Dagwood Bumstead, and situation comedies from Ozzie Nelson and Dick Van Dyke to Bob Newhart and Ray Romano. Sadly, in real life the contradictions had darker results. Benchley pretty much quit writing when he went to Hollywood in the late 1930s, where he made a series of funny and popular short films. A hopeless alcoholic, he died of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 56. // Ned Stuckey-French
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