“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.

“Back in Line” (E32)

  • Originally printed: Liberty Magazine, November 22, 1930
  • First reprinted in: No Poems; Or Around the World Backwards and Sideways (1932)
  • Unable to compare reprint with original text – Liberty Historical Archives not available at Toronto Public Library
  • Original Byline: unknown


Your postage may vary on this one, which has been reprinted no less than 5 times. An anti-systematic thinker in every sense of that term, Benchley’s pen could sometimes stumble a little too stolidly into the American grain, producing flaccid, Paul Harvey style kvetching about bureaucracy, taxation and the government. I’m sure many readers appreciate the respite from cosmic irony afforded by these hard headed little salvos against the temporal tyrannies of the Leviathan state, but I could do without them.

This particular piece takes on the “Simon Says” sadism of post office parcel regulations, and while RB gets in a few decent jabs against the machine, the litany rarely rises very far above the level of imaginative amplitude one associates with a vindictive Yelp poster.

Favourite Moment:
“Although bundles of old unpaid bills are about all anyone will be sending this Christmas, it doesn’t make any difference to the P.O. Department. A package is a package, and you must suffer for it.”

“As I Understand It” (E25)

  • Originally printed: DAC News, October 1932
  • First reprinted in: The Athletic Benchley
  • Original Byline: Robert Benchley


Benchley concluded a very profitable twelve year run in the pages of the Detroit Athletic Club News with this disinterested observer’s guide to the 1932 Presidential election. The only trouble with “As I Understand It” is that, unlike the 1924 iteration of the rite (see E5), the Hoover/Roosevelt face-off actually promised to have consequences. RB is having none of that in this article, which, it must be said, was never intended to influence anyone to do or think anything. What does come across, however, is the author’s very real mistrust of representative democracy, at least insofar as it had been practiced up until his time, and his scorn for bureaucratic “expertise” (always synonymous in the Benchleyan imagination with abject incompetence traveling under the cover of incomprehensible bar charts).

Benchley correctly identifies the two main points of contention between the Democrats and the Republicans that political season – 1. The Depression, and 2. Prohibition. He goes a little over the line into smugness in his discussion of taxes and the inadvisability of pushing “soak the rich” programs in a nation newly shorn of plutocrats (ha ha). But perhaps this was inevitable, given the upscale readership of the DAC News. He shows more investment in the grand task of freeing the country’s parched throats from ol’ Volstead’s killjoy grip, but here too, he sees little evidence that America’s deliberately obstructionist institutions will be able to crank out an anti-amendment any time during the remaining years allotted to him.

Favourite Moment:
“If I have diagnosed Currency Inflation correctly, the same thing if practiced by a little group of individuals is called ‘counterfeiting’…”

“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?