“Boost New York!” (E51)

  • Originally printed: The New Yorker, August 24, 1929
  • First reprinted in:  Chips Off the Old Benchley (1949)
  • Original Byline:  Robert Benchley



Here, RB examines the deranged reasoning processes which afflict the Chamber of Commerce set. Arguing that his burg has more than enough to contend with, without an uptick in plenty-crazed pilgrims peregrinating in from the provinces, Benchley takes exception to the very concept of civic boosterism. But, he argues, if the thing has got to be done, is this really the way to do it? The “this” in question is a stat-stuffed pamphlet put forth earlier that year by the New York Merchants’ Association. To hear the author tell it, this stirring call to farms relies heavily on a barrage of factoids concerning the city’s gross consumption rates, reproductive figures, working animal population, and telephony network. Certainly, as the saying goes, there is strength in numbers. But is there tourist appeal?

Benchley comes down squarely on the negative side of that question – indeed, he is banking on a lack of method in the merchants’ madness to keep the throngs off the sidewalks that fall. As ill fortune would have it, the imminent Wall Street Crash and its attendant dislocations probably made the whole project a moot point, at least for a little while, and one shudders to consider its effect on the city’s egg consumption.   

Favourite Moment:

It is hard to imagine a man who has never been out of Des Moines picking up his newspaper and saying to his wife: ‘Marion, get out your good clothes – we’re going to New York. It says here that people there eat three and a half million tons of food a year.’ Or his wife saying: ‘But how many eggs a day do they eat?’ and, on hearing that it is seven million, replying: ‘Good! That’s all I want to know. We’re off!’

Reprint Notes:

  • Reprinted in full, with no amendments.

“Bad News for Synura” (E34)

  • Originally printed: Life Magazine, February 9, 1922
  • First reprinted in: Never reprinted
  • Original Byline: R.C. Benchley


Here R.C. Benchley takes up the cause of the single celled synura, whose only transgression has been to impart a slight aftertaste of cucumber to the city’s water supply. Objecting to numerous public pronouncements by county officials concerning their efforts to isolate the little fellows in the Kensico reservoir (with a view toward eradicating them entirely), Benchley asks his readers to consider the underdog’s point of view. Okay, sure, some people think their oil savors more of strychnine, and maybe that’s a point against them, but the important thing is, they are not strychnine! And the synura have rights, too. To elicit sympathy from his bourgeois audience, RCB dwells primarily on those upwardly mobile algae who’ve spent long hours at night school prepping to catch a current down into the metropolis, where dreams come true.

To call this piece “slight” would be to ascribe far too much importance to it, but the author shows admirable commitment to his one-joke premise and carries it through to a final appeal for a filibuster of these filtration machinations.

Favourite Moment:
“And then came the official edict. The reservoir gates are to be closed. The open road to New York is to be barred. And in the rural fastnesses of Kensico there is at least one synura who swims idly about, with his life’s ambition thwarted.”

“At the Corner of 42nd St. and Hollywood B’v’d” (A Reporter At Large) (E27)

  • Originally printed: The New Yorker, May 4, 1929
  • First reprinted in: Never Reprinted
  • Original Byline: Robert Benchley


This one was personal for Benchley, who got in on the ground floor of the talkie revolution with 1928’s smash hit short The Treasurer’s Report and then spent the next 7 years or so doing his best to stave off the lucrative consequences of his screen success. By all biographical accounts, the acid assessment of Hollywood he presents here remained with him for the remaining 16 years of his life, despite the accelerating tilt of his time and energies toward the sunset after 1935.

The piece was intended as a rebuke to media prognosticators who claimed they saw fertile soil in Southern California for the emergence of a culture capital to rival (and eventually surpass) New York. Benchley expresses no opinion on the relative aesthetic merits of American cinema and theatrical drama, although of course his opinions on this subject were pretty generally known (and none too flattering toward the newer art form), but he does deliver an airtight indictment of LA’s ability to nurture the creative spirit after “working hours”.

For Benchley, Hollywood combines the worst features of two of the greatest blights upon the American social landscape – the company town and the health resort. With all movie industry personnel living in desperate fear of violating their clause-heavy contracts by virtue of some overly frank remark or of waking up on the wrong side of a close-up shot, the majority of them, even the most formerly free-spirited Broadway denizens, wind up spending their off-hours cowering under a blanket. The bedder part of valor, and all that.

Yes, lured by the new media gold rush, great hosts of New Yorkers will continue to make the trek across the continent (no one knew this better than Benchley), but they will always pass a countervailing caravan of sickened cinemaphobes en route. More than enough to populate Broadway’s playbills. And no matter what anyone tells you, Benchley says, don’t expect any Algonquin Round tables or movable feasts to spring up in a studio commissary.

Favourite Moment:
“For you can’t be a man-about-town without a town to be about in, and Hollywood is not a town but a wayside camp of temporary shacks inhabited for the most part by people who are waiting to see if their options are going to be taken up at the end of six months.”