Books about the Life and Times of Robert Benchley

Adler, Elmer (ed.). Breaking into Print. Simon and Schuster, 1937.

    The full title of the work is Breaking in print, being a compilation of papers wherein each of a group of authors tell of the difficulties of authorship and how such trials are met: together with biographical notes and comment by an editor of The Colophon. Over a five-year period beginning in 1929 The Colophon, a literary quarterly, gathered these “confessions” from twenty authors.

    Robert Benchley’s contribution, "Why Does Nobody Collect Me?” appeared in Part Eighteen of The Colophon with special designs by William Steig; September, 1934.

    From the cover letter accompanying RB’s essay, we learn that he invariably composed at the typewriter; sent his copy directly to the printers with no one retyping it; and seldom required more than one proof and seldom made changes in the proof. A facsimile of RB’s typed copy is reproduced illustrating his idiosyncratic practice of single-spacing his copy with a large left margin for writing in changes.

    His essay, "Why Does Nobody Collect Me?" will be to interest to anyone curious about autographed copies of RB’s books. It also relates humorous anecdotes regarding RB and Ernest Hemingway.

    196 pages (with index), illustrated with facsimiles of the authors' original copy. (DT)

Adler, Polly. A House is Not a Home. Rinehart & Company, Inc., 1953.

    According to Miss Adler, New York's most famous madam, "...customers did not always come to my house for sex. Polly's also was a place to meet friends, play cards, arrange a dinner party, kill time--a sort of combination club and speakeasy with a harem conveniently handy." Adler knew Benchley as both customer and friend, and said, "Robert Benchley was the kindest, warmest-hearted man in the world."

    288 pages (no index). (DT)

Altman, Billy. Laughter's Gentle Soul: The Life of Robert Benchley. W.W. Norton and Company, 1997.

    Largely a reprise of previously published matter. Has more detail about RB's Hollywood period than other biographies. Unfortunately, lack of proofreading and fact checking undermines the work. See the errata sheet prepared by William Hyder founder of The Lost Locomotive chapter of the Robert Benchley Society.

    382 pages (with index), with 19 pages of (poor quality) reproductions of photographs. Poor quality reproductions of Gluyas Williams illustrations head each chapter. List of books and movie appearances of Benchley. Selected bibliography. (DT)

Benchley, Nathaniel. Robert Benchley, A Biography. McGraw-Hill, 1955.

    Written by Benchley's eldest son only a decade after RB's death and with heavy use of RB's own diary, this biography appears to be the foundation on which later works are built.

    258 pages (no index), with eight pages of black and white photographs, list of books by RB, and list of motion pictures in which RB appeared. (DT)

Ernst, Gordon E., Jr. (compiler). Robert Benchley: An Annotated Bibliography. Greenwood Press, 1995.

    This excellent bibliography is a comprehensive listing of Benchley's books, essays, newspaper writings, and drama criticism, as well as main secondary sources and archives of Benchley material. It also contains a publishing chronology, filmography, and discography. Ernst writes, "Just about everything in this bibliography was verified by the author by actually looking at the item, and anything not found is so noted."

    An invaluable reference aid. 312 pages.(PS)

Gaines, James R. Wit’s End: Days and Nights of the Algonquin Round Table. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.

    Drawn from interviews, memoirs, and biographies, Wit’s End (called by its author an “interpretive biographical essay”) is an overview of the Algonquin Round Table and its influence on the lives of its members and on the intellectual climate of the period. The book proceeds chronologically but frequently jumps from topic to topic, making it difficult to read at times. Perhaps reflecting the temperament of the 1970s, it emphasizes the shortcomings, regrets, and failures of Round Table’s members. Still, Wit’s End is worth reading as an introduction to the Round Table’s players and historical context. While references to Benchley appear on nearly every page, his life and work are not very fully developed here.

    252 pages (with index) with many black & white photographs. (PS)

Gehring, Wes D. "Mr. B" or Comforting Thoughts About the Bison: A Critical Biography of Robert Benchley. Greenwood Press, 1992.

    In the first new book-length study of Benchley in twenty years, Gehring uses Benchley's diaries and letters in his biographical profile.

    288 pages, with annotated bibliography, a selection of Benchley letters, and a selection of Benchley columns for Life. (GE)

Harriman, Margaret Case. Vicious Circle, The. Rinehart and Co., Inc., 1951.

    Written by the daughter of Frank Case, operator of the Algonquin Hotel during the time of the Round Table, this chatty book is chock a block with anecdotes from one who, although not a member of the Round Table, was there and heard it all. The book, written very informally, is not intended as a scholarly, researched history. In recounting RB's involvement in the Sacco and Vanzetti trial persons and facts which are very pertinent from a legal perspective are conflated, but without injuring the story, the point of which is to illumine RB's character. RB is not as prominent as other members of the Table. Contains reprints of reviews of first public performance of The Treasurer's Report.

    310 pages (with index of names). Illustations by Al Hirschfeld. (DT)

Kriendler, H. Peter (with H. Paul Jeffers). "21" Every Day was New Year's Eve: Memoirs of a Saloon Keeper. Taylor Publishing Company, 1999.

    Peter Kriendler --younger brother of Jack Kriendler, cofounder of "21"-- paints a spellbinding portrait of this famous restaurant frequented by Robert Benchley, whom Kriendler characterized as "the man I recall as most fun to be with."

    282 pages (with index). Illustrations. (DT)

Redding, Robert. Starring Robert Benchley. University of New Mexico Press, 1973.

    This book explores the reasons some Benchley fans would agree with critic Edward Galligan that "Benchley did his finest work in the movies." Redding examines the similarities and differences between Benchley's humor as manifested in his essays and in his films and also analyzes the difficulties of translating humor from one medium to the other. The book focuses mostly on the short subjects but also treats Benchley's feature films. Especially useful is the survey of all of Benchley's motion picture work, which gives the titles, directors, studios, release dates, the characters played by RB, and, where relevant, the essays on which the films were based. Well researched with a nice interweaving of Benchley's film work with other aspects of his life and work.

    209 pages (with index). (PS)

Rosmond, Babett. Robert Benchley His Life and Good Times. Doubleday and Company, 1970.

    Interview with Benchley's widow (who has some rather uncomplimentary things to say about the members of the Round Table) adds to our knowledge of Benchley's life, which is put in a context of people he knew on both coasts. The 23 pages of photos and drawings (including Benchley's early work for the Harvard Lampoon) fill in gaps in earlier biography.

    239 pages (with index), with black and white photos and illustrations and lists of RB's books and movie appearances. (DT)

Yates, Norris W. Robert Benchley. Twayne, 1968.

    This volume in the Twayne's U.S. Authors Series is a critical analysis of the themes and techniques that characterize RB's humor. Interesting comparisons between RB's work and that of other American humorists of the period such as Thurber and Perelman. Useful bibliography of critical writings on RB.

    175 pages (with index). (PS)

Reviewers: DT=David Trumbull, GE=Gordon Ernst, PS=Pamela Siska.