“The Bridge of Don Gene’s Nose” (E57)

  • Originally printed:  The Bookman, October 1928
  • First reprinted in:  Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea; or, David Copperfield (1928)
  • Original Byline:  Robert Benchley



A slight piece occasioned by a trio of 1928 pop culture headlines: 1. Gene Tunney’s retirement from boxing as heavyweight champion of the world; 2. Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize for The Bridge of San Luis Rey; and 3. The European walking tour undertaken by this supposedly unlikely pair. Already celebrated by the media as “The Thinking Man’s Pugilist,” especially after ensorcelling slugger Jack Dempsey with sweet science in back-to-back bouts, Tunney’s eagerness to express his thoughts on Shakespeare and other aspects of literary history made irresistible copy. News of the boxer’s friendship with novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder was music to editorial ears everywhere, and their plans to ramble across rural France and Germany got nearly as much coverage as a Trans-Atlantic Flight or a Polar Expedition. What would these extraordinary men talk about? What magnificent epiphanies awaited them? Wouldn’t it be amazing if Gene Tunney guided Thornton Wilder to a new understanding of The Iliad? And if Thornton Wilder enlightened Gene Tunney on a fine point of feint and jab? Wouldn’t that be wonderfully counterintuitive?! Well, possibly it would it have been. But in Benchley’s account, we get the bro version of “dog bites man”.

Favourite Moment:

To all of these, and many more problems, Don Gene turned an ingenuous attention. And, in the meantime he lived immaculately, read much, and punched a large, harassed leather bag.

Reprint Notes:

  • Reprinted under the title: “The Bridge of Sans Gene”

“Back To Journalism” (E33)

  • Originally printed: The New Yorker, February 11, 1928
  • First reprinted in: Never reprinted
  • Original Byline: Guy Fawkes


An appropriately wide-ranging edition of the Wayward Press, with Guy Fawkes providing a generally favourable (or, less unfavourable than usual) survey of the New York media scene as it appeared to him during the fledgling weeks of 1928. He begins by noting that many of the inky inanities that had served as this column’s wellspring seemed to be drying up. Hardly any animal interest stories in The World? New York Times throttling back a little on the aviation exploits and circumpolar portraiture? Herald Tribune holding the line against a relapse into the follies that forced its antecedent components to seek mature completion in one another? What’s a media critic to do? (How much influence do these periodic protests against print culture piffle have, anyway? The writer wonders).

Fortunately for Fawkes, The World is still doing weird things like relegating Thomas Hardy’s death announcement to the agricultural news section, and the NYT still shows signs of a contractual obligation to publicize the minutiae of George Palmer Putnam’s life, despite his withdrawal from the Arctic. On the other hand, RB expresses genuine admiration for the Times’ irreverent take on the vicissitudes of molecular theory, taking particular delight in an anonymous report from the physics front entitled “Atom Theory Upset; Now ‘Wave System’” (possibly planting the seeds for E28?)

The rest of the column deals mainly with the fleeting furor over the execution du mois – of Ruth Snyder and Henry Judd Gray, who each paid the ultimate penalty on January 12, 1928. RCB pores over a media concordance of reports-cum-tone poems poured forth by troupes of terse réalitterateurs. Compiled by Andrew McClean Parker, the overview exposes a fourth estate unable to agree upon even the most basic details of the gruesome scene, from the time the switch was thrown to the clothes the murderers wore to their respective rendezvous with doom. What’s the point of applying so much effort and poetic distortion to accounts that will be wrapped around a fish before nightfall? If you want to catch The Saturday Evening Post’s attention with your stark impressions, write fiction! James M. Cain did just that, a few years later, taking Snyder and Gray as anthropological Exhibits A and B.

Oh yes – and Fawkes concludes by chiding The World for currying favour with Eugene O’Neill by taking Alexander Woollcott off the opening night coverage of the Theatre Guild’s production of Strange Interlude, just because Woollcott hadn’t liked the play in manuscript.

Favourite Moment:
“…Thomas Hardy made the front pages of both The Times and The Herald Tribune, but The World considered him worth two-thirds of a column on page five, along with ‘Iowa Attorney Named for Commerce Board.’ That Death itself is not considered news-less by The World is shown by the fact that William Barton French made the front page on February second. The fault must have been with Thomas Hardy.”

“Back For the Big Game” (E31)

  • Originally printed: DAC News, November 1928
  • First reprinted in: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; Or David Copperfield
  • Original Byline: Robert C. Benchley (with drawings by Gluyas Williams)


Benchley’s addressee in this anti-nostalgic excursion (“Weekins, 1914”) never makes it anywhere near the big Harvard/Yale game. A lifelong fan of the contest himself, RCB examines the role of the national media in helping to preserve the solidaristic totems of America’s collegiate stratum. As is so often the case with Benchley, the author both buys into and bitterly questions America’s accepted pieties – and during the late 1920s, you weren’t likely to find any piety further up there in the sky than the Ivy League’s autumnal ascendancy.

By no means born to the Crimson, RCB found his way to the Yard through a series of unlikely events kicked off by the death of his beloved older brother Edmund in the Spanish-American War. Reeling from this terrible misfortune, Edmund’s wealthy fiancée Lillian determined to stake the younger Benchley (only 9 at the time) to every advantage that she could, as a feat of Emersonian compensation. (She may also have half-wanted to groom the boy to take his sibling’s place in her romantic plans, although this is strictly a matter of conjecture among his baffled biographers.)

Knowing that he’d reached Harvard – and the incredible social network (I’m not talking about Facebook) it gave him an entrée to – on a tragedy-tainted fluke goes a long way toward explaining the author’s inimitably affable absurdism. Coming of age amongst America’s most favoured citizens – and coming to understand them in their utter ordinariness as human beings – helped to demystify the country’s repressed class arrangements, gifting Benchley with the power to burlesque the bourgeois without resorting to the stridently moralistic critiques offered up by many of his contemporaries. It may also have made him a little too comfortable with the system, or, at any rate, a little too dubious of any possibility of changing it.

What does all of this have to do with three well-to-do old sports page partisans who make tracks back to New England in search of lost homecomings and find themselves ejected from a frat house festooned with irrational numbers? Not much perhaps, except: the fourth estate is a lot more solicitous of its valued customers’ feelings than the fourth dimension is.

Favourite Moment:
“You go to the fraternity house (another concession on my part to my Middle West readers) and announce yourself as “Weekins, 1914.” (My class was 1912, as a matter of fact. I am giving myself a slight break and trying to be mysterious about the whole thing.) … The old place looks about the same, except that an odd-looking banner on the wall says “1930,” there being no such year.”

Reprint Notes:

  • Reprinted under the title “Back to the Game” in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; Or David Copperfield
  • Only one change to the text in the reprint, with slight softening of the language:
  • “I remember you,” says Feemer, “you certainly were an awful ass.” (original text)
  • “I remember you,” says Feemer, “you were an awful pratt.” (reprint)