“Broadway By Candlelight: Simple Games For Young and Old to While Away the Long Dark Nights” (E63)

  • Originally printed:  Vanity Fair, March 1918
  • First reprinted in:  Never Reprinted
  • Original Byline: Robert C. Benchley 


Benchley makes light of the somber state of affairs on the Faint White Way during the darkest days of World War One energy rationing. With the United States Fuel Administration, headed by the name-checked Doctor (Harry Augustus) Garfield, on an austerity rampage in early 1918, our author proposes a passel of pre-electric pastimes to the flaming youth of the soon-to-be-lost generation. Who knows? They may very well have lost themselves playing Blindman’s Buff in a blacked out alley back of Brown’s Chop House.

As with many of RB’s early Vanity Fair pieces, the title is way too long and the essay itself feels a trifle distended in its quest to elaborate upon a one-joke premise, which is essentially that it’s tough for a modern human-about-town to get around in the Great War gloom; but it certainly has its pleasurable aspects. It also provides an early glimpse of Benchley’s lifelong distaste for bureaucratic officiousness and the cant of expertise (would that be “Expertese” – a particularly obnoxious relative of Esperanto?). These objections are exacerbated in this case by his well-known opposition to the war itself.

We also get a palpable feel for his deep-seated resistance to anything that keeps people from leaving their homes. One shudders to imagine how RB would have reacted to some of the measures adopted during the COVID era. Fortunately, the march of time has spared your humble annotator from having to deal with the unwelcome image of our dinner-jacketed Diogenes hitching a ride on any kind of “freedom” vehicle.      

Favorite Moment:

But, gloomy as the situation may appear, our indomitable American sense of humor (which leads us through a six-day bicycle race every year without mob-violence being done to the promoters) should guide us in this crisis and help us to improve each shining kilowatt-hour.

“The Autocrat of the Modern Breakfast-Table: Showing Just How Far Oliver Wendell Holmes Would Get Today” (E30)

  • Originally printed: Vanity Fair, December 1917
  • First reprinted in: Never Reprinted
  • Original Byline: Brighton Perry


Another early Benchley effort published under the Brighton Perry moniker (an alter-ego necessitated by Vanity Fair’s official policy of one-item-per-issue for its writers). Here, the author imagines the fate of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.’s Yankee Sage figure when transplanted from his Mid-Victorian boarding house to an analogous establishment during the go-go war year of 1917. Despite every intention of imposing his brand of pseudo-philosophical monologue upon the new century, the Autocrat finds himself, not deposed, but rather lost in a dissonant swarm of similarly single-minded speakers sloughing their own half-baked thoughts all over the morning meal.

Doing his level best to elevate the conversation by seizing upon the various bits of chaff for thought offered by his media-conspiracy, inflation, and alcohol-addled tablemates, the Autocrat is thwarted time and time again by some new eruption from another untoward quarter. Finally, the commuter train and the telephone clear the room, leaving him alone with thoughts that a new generation (Autocrats all!) doesn’t even have the attention span to ignore.

Favourite Moment:
“How often that is the case in this life,” I began again. “The man who has influence, wields it, and the man who has no influence, has none to wield. There used to be an old proverb that whoever ate of the tree of the magnesia-berry—”

“The Art of Being a Bohemian: After All, It’s Perfectly Easy If You Can Give the Time to It” (E23)

Originally printed: Vanity Fair, March 1916
First reprinted in: Never reprinted
Original Byline: Robert C. Benchley


When Benchley’s early freelance pieces came back return to sender – and they did so with depressing regularity for a while there – they generally bore the scars of editorial disdain for their excessively “collegiate” nature. This one pager displays many symptoms of that core defect before leaving the Harvard Yard entirely during its final paragraphs. For the majority of the essay, RCB affects a tone that will be readily recognizable to anyone who has read a Twitter thread or Substack squib by a Young Person who hates Young People. You know the way that goes: “These damned hipsters are always already part of the Bourgeois system that they claim to oppose and their aestheticization of life on the margins amounts to nothing more revolutionary than a frilly frame around their parents’ society page photos. Besides, they probably aren’t even actually enjoying themselves.”

It’s a dead-end critique we’ve all heard a million times, and it wasn’t any great sociological shakes in 1916, either. Ah, but instead of pursuing his entirely extraneous inquiry to its bitterly foregone conclusion, RCB pulls up his stake in this toothless skewering and lays his literary dance card on the table. Then, to paraphrase Sam Spade, he is dangerous! He has no settled thoughts on “la vie de Bohème”, but he does have a good idea of what Vanity Fair will publish, and isn’t that what it’s all about?

Favourite Moment:
“The only trouble with this pitiless exposé of Bohemia is that I know practically nothing about the subject at all.”

“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!”

“All About Relativity: Einstein’s Theory Explained for The Lay-Mind in Simple Terms” (E11)

  • Originally Published: Vanity Fair, March 1920
  • First Reprinted: Never
  • Original Byline: Robert C. Benchley


Nothing earth-shattering here, as Benchley bends Einstein’s bolts from the blackness of space into a set of light goofs on gravity. RB mocks the incongruously chummy obscurantism that characterizes so much popular scientific discourse, laying a miserable crumb trail of the theory’s most easily digestible minutiae that leads absolutely nowhere. Promising to open up a worm hole between the lay reader’s mind and the core concepts of cutting-edge 20th century physics, RB then tosses the low hanging fruit of his obtuse inquiry aside without so much as an existential frisson. The author’s quarrel is not with Einstein, or with any of his fellow pioneers in the vanguard of space-time research, but rather with the newspaper and magazine hacks who come off like the half-assed evangels of a new cosmic theory whose power to illuminate never glimmers onto the page.

Published a couple of months after Benchley’s resignation from Vanity Fair in protest against the dismissal of Dorothy Parker and Robert Sherwood, this could very well be the erstwhile Managing Editor’s final piece for the magazine (I guess I won’t know that for sure until I complete my alphabetical survey). If so, he went out on a fittingly futile note.

Favourite Moment:
“When the professors have got this far in their explanation of Einstein’s Theory, they say that, of course, the whole thing is difficult to explain to the lay-mind, and that the best and most loyal thing to do is simply to take the scientists’ word for it and let it go at that.”

“A Bas the Military Censor: The Ride of Paul Revere — As It Would Be Featured in Washington Today.” (E1)

  • Originally printed: Vanity Fair, May 1918
  • Reprinted: Chips Off the Old Benchley
  • Original Byline: Brighton Perry


Written under the pseudonymous Brighton Perry byline, Benchley winces waggishly in the gloved grip of Great Wartime public discourse. The piece opens with a knowing nod toward the three thousand war correspondents whose most insightful writing on the conflict will remain under intellectual quarantine until accessed by future scholars looking to find out what the hell actually happened. Benchley gets in a jab at topical super patriot James M. Beck and teasingly begs Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson not to ban Vanity Fair from the mails just for daring to have a little fun with the concept of soft news during hard times.

The remainder of the essay presents an alternate history of the Revolutionary War in which Paul Revere’s wild midnight ride is replaced by a Sunday section puff piece on picturesque stops for Redcoats on a walking tour of New England and George Washington’s trip across the Delaware is stage managed by military police who function like (21st century) movie location security guards.

Research note:
Benchley worked as a military aircraft information censor for the U.S. Government in early 1918, so he knew whereof he joked.

Favourite moment:
“…the great (numerically speaking) American public..”

Reprint Notes:

  • Major excisions from topical preamble on World War One Censorship
  • Topical reference to jingoistic blowhard James M. Beck removed
  • Teasing request not to be banned by the Postmaster General removed
  • Favourite moment (above) was a casualty of the excision process and does not appear in Chips Off the Old Benchley – too anti-patriotic for the HUAC era?