“Bring Needle Beer Back!” (E61)

  • Originally printed:  The New Yorker, April 22, 1933
  • First reprinted in:  Never reprinted
  • Original Byline:  Robert Benchley



Famously an ardent Prohibitionist until the moment the law came into effect (at which point he took up drinking with the liver-curdling zeal of a Bizarro Blue Legislator), Benchley now doubles back upon his youthful track – arguing for a repeal of Repeal.  Noting the tepid qualities of the welcome back parties for 3.2% beer in April 1933, Benchley avers that the government sanctioned suds currently on tap haven’t a drop of creditable carousal in them. By restoring a veneer of respectability (or, at the very least, legality) to the imbiber’s art, those reverse-psychologizing killjoys down in Washington have robbed Depression weary drinkers of their last gulp of freedom. If we’re all going to have to suffer anyway, Benchley argues, is it too much to ask to be allowed to do it in subterranean speakeasies, where the acoustics are better for hiccoughs and harmonizing?

Favourite Moment:

Has beer brought back The Home? Has it restored American Womanhood to anything? Has it revived part-singing?

“A Brief Study of Dendrophilism” (E60)

  • Originally printed:  The New Yorker, February 18, 1933
  • First reprinted in:  From Bed to Worse (1934)
  • Original Byline:  Robert Benchley



Always a dicey proposition when an early 20th century writer dabbles in mock-anthropological and/or mock-psychotherapeutic discourse. Here, Benchley essays both, with results that fail to justify the gamble. Sprouted from the unimpeachable (although by now axiomatic) kernel of a connection between the aficionado and the fetishist, the piece soon gets lost in the thorny underbrush of the Eurocentric unconscious, projecting all manner of outré tree trysting upon the usual targeted demographics before doubling back to take stock of the photosynthetic perversions being practiced “right here where we live”. I always want to give Benchley the benefit of the doubt when he slips into these callow catalogues of counterfeit cultural relativism. Certainly, the wild sociology of the period required caustic pruning back, but when an author resorts to mere ridicule by reproduction, the roots of the enterprise are blighted.

Favourite Moment:

In America, dendrophilism has not gained much headway, owing to there being so many other things to take up people’s minds, although Kiernan, in the Detroit Lancet, does mention a case of  a woman who was under suspicion of going pretty strongly for an old elm, which she claimed had been in the family for a hundred years and which she wanted to have brought into the house just to keep her company.

Reprint Notes:

  • Illustration not reprinted

“The Big Coal Problem” (E44)

  • Originally printed: Liberty Magazine, February 18, 1933
  • First reprinted in: Benchley Lost and Found
  • Unable to compare reprint with original text – Liberty Historical Archives not available at Toronto Public Library
  • Original Byline: unknown


Benchley returns to the primal scene of his domestic frustrations – the suburban cellar. He begins with some topical discussion of rising coal prices and collapsing purchasing power during the infernal months between the November 1932 election and FDR’s forthcoming inauguration (the final one held in March). Okay, the author admits, this is a serious problem. Too serious for a Liberty humour piece. So, Benchley says, let’s talk about how coal doesn’t work even when you can afford it.

After more than 15 years of vain stoking, Benchley appears to have given up blaming his heating troubles on the Scarsdale furnace. In this piece, he places the onus for his failure directly upon the coal. Benchley’s lifelong feud with the mechanical world has passed into legend, but neither did he scruple to engage in hostilities with raw materials. The remainder of the essay lays out the details of his controversy with the unruly fuel. By 1933, it seems unlikely that the Biographical Benchley ever went near a furnace (he scarcely made it to Scarsdale), but the proto-Joe Doakes persona remained in the trenches, battling an implacable foe bent on gas lighting him with an assortment of carboniferous cantrips.

Favourite Moment:
I remember one night back in 1926 when I went down into the cellar to fix the furnace for the night (and what a misleading phrase that “fix the furnace” is!)

“After the Deluge” (E8)

  • Originally printed: The New Yorker, March 25, 1933
  • First reprinted in: Never Reprinted (for practical purposes)
  • Original Byline: Guy Fawkes


Writing in his Guy Fawkes persona, RB catches up with the New York papers as they struggle (and fail) to produce coherent coverage of the Banking Crisis of March 1933, often described (in retrospect) as the absolute nadir of the Depression.

The piece begins with a blanket statement on the Press’s subservient role vis-à-vis the government. This was all well and good, Fawkes says, from the point of view of efficiency, during the summer of 1917, when the Wilson government knew exactly what they wanted in the headlines (and what they’d throw you in jail for saying against the War Effort). When Robert Benchley references the July 4th holiday (the day the family learned that beloved eldest son Edmund had been killed in the Spanish-American War), you know he’s got some skin in the game… and when he yokes those comments to militaristic misadventures, you know he’s boiling! So… the Press stands ready to reinforce norms and manufacture consent, but what happens when the patriotic puppeteers lose the plot? During the first few days of March, the New York papers were presenting financial ruin as a minor problem affecting OTHER states (and the middle strata of the newspaper). Certainly nothing to get up a headline about.

Roosevelt’s March 4th inauguration, and the passage of the Emergency Banking Act, triggered a truly dizzying week of pronouncements and retractions from all of the city’s most trusted organs. Without any point of view to sell, these ink merchants opted for perpetual motion in lieu of “spin”. Hey, it helps to calm babies. Ultimately, Fawkes concludes, the city’s opinion leaders may have meant well, but there’s no way they did any good. He adds: “It might have been well if they had placed a moratorium on newspapers during that crucial period.”

The lengthy column goes on to ask whether the press will come down on “FR” or “FD” as their shorthand term for Franklin Delano Roosevelt (apparently no one had yet thought to go “TR” one letter better – but this would come shortly!) Fawkes also glances across the ocean to take in the London Daily Express’ errant coverage of February’s abortive pre-inauguration assassination attempt. The Express appears to have gotten the wrong Florida woman on the phone and then just allowed her to take solo credit for saving FDR’s life. He hopes a similar mistake in a more sensitive matter of international diplomacy won’t create a transatlantic incident someday. Finally, Fawkes tosses a rare bouquet the New York Times’ way for sending a competent progressive reporter to cover the ongoing travesty of the Scottsboro trials – and from a quick perusal of the copy he sent back, F. Raymond Daniell does appear to have done his best to ensure that justice was properly served (of course, that would have to wait until 2013).

Despite a lifelong love of Benchley’s humour, I had actually never read a Wayward Press column before. Terrific stuff – really looking forward to the rest of them!

Favourite Moment:

“What acute stage was that? What Depression? Certainly not the ‘protective action’ in roughly two thirds of the country’s banks announced on page 19?”