“Art in Politics: A Cubist Secretary Might Not Be Out of Place Among Other Squareheads” (E22)

  • Originally printed: Vanity Fair, March 1919
  • First reprinted in: Never reprinted
  • Original Byline: Robert C. Benchley


Taking his cue from a then-current push to create a Federal Department of the Fine Arts, complete with a cabinet level Secretary, the young Benchley takes the reader on a wild ride through the inevitable high culture war implications of such a step. Where would such a creature fit into the line of Presidential succession? And how soon would it be before some southern dominated Senate sub-committee, alerted to the rich possibilities of political conflict beyond the confines of “states’ rights” and the tariff, began shutting down metropolitan museums?

RCB envisions the grim advent of a new rhetorical hybrid plagued by all of the inadequacies of the undergraduate Art History essay and the machine stump speech, while possessing none of their virtues (if they in fact have any virtues). The resultant Fourth Party System, organized around a contest between an airy “Avant-Gardism” and hidebound “Americanism”, actually bears some passing resemblance to the state of affairs one observes in U.S. political discourse today, although, of course, it is not quite as stupid as that.

Favourite Moment:
“Vote for John A. Ossip! He kept us out of post-impressionism!”

“Anatol Revisited: The Devious Ways of a Man With a Maid, in the Present Servant Market” (E15)

  • Originally Published: Vanity Fair, November 1919
  • First Reprinted: Never reprinted
  • Original Byline: Robert C. Benchley, with a slight nod to Mr. Schnitzler


A spoof of Arthur Schnitzler’s Anatol, transplanting the Viennese play’s vexed quest for perfectly reciprocated love under patriarchy into the more prosaic (but equally impossible, by definition) task of attracting unalientated help around the kitchen. In the original, Schnitzler’s callow lothario heads off his own hedonism at every turn by faint-heartedly fixating on questions that he does not really want answered – i.e. do the objects of his feeble flirtations feel an all-consuming passion for him?

Frustrated by an unprecedentedly tight New York servant market, Benchley’s Anatol doesn’t even get that far in his financialized philandering, failing to get a single domestic conquest across the threshhold of his country estate. Unaccustomed to the short end of the negotiating stick, the would-be employer finds himself unable to satisfy any of his prospective pick-ups, despite eventually going so far as to suggest that he will explore the possibility of rearranging the solar system as part of the benefits package.

Brilliant in conception, the piece doesn’t quite live up to its potential on the page, but thought-provoking stuff, nevertheless.

Favourite Moment:
“Why should you face the east? And even if it [the servant’s room] did, we could easily change it… I mean the sun doesn’t have to rise in the east, does it? … I know it always has, – but, my God, Agnes, I can’t lose you now!… Something can be done… Something must be done!”