“The Brave Illusion” (E55)

  • Originally printed:  Collier’s, May 20, 1922
  • First reprinted in:  Never reprinted
  • Original Byline:  Robert C. Benchley (with illustrations by Ray Rohn)



Sooner or later, every Benchley fan, biographer, and encomiast must reckon with a defining aporia in the humorist’s life – the moment he reinvented himself as exactly the same person he had always been. During the past couple of hundred years, thousands – probably millions – of men have morphed from budget-conscious, maritally faithful, teetotalers into financially reckless debauchees. No other human being has ever made this transition without the slightest change in the quality of their humour, their sense of commitment to other people, and their basic stance toward the cosmos.  

Only Robert Benchley.

Even if he’d never written a word, Benchley would’ve made an irresistible subject for an inquiry into the possibilities and limitations of wry good humour raised to a Transcendental value; but it is impossible to conceive of Benchley without his words – the pixelated exoskeleton that held his genial essence intact once he crossed the alcoholic Rubicon in 1920.

What does any of that have to do with this piece from Colliers? Not much, probably, although this is a very early (pre-emptive?) formulation of the thesis that still makes its way into many bullet-pointed accounts of his baffling trajectory – i.e. after opposing the consumption of alcohol on moral grounds throughout the 1910s, Benchley reversed himself after the passage of Prohibition laws and took up residence in a bottle on a contrarian lark. This essay likens the impulse behind that act (attributed to Benchley’s friend “Lou”) to the naturally libertarian whims of irresponsible youth – whims that the author deems “a bore”. Writing in 1922, Benchley could not have known what the next 23 years held in store for him, but from our perspective we can infer that, regardless of the specific reason for his decision to take that first drink, his decision to continue down that road long past Prohibition’s expiration date may have had a great deal to do with his sense of himself as a bore.

We know he was no such thing – but that doesn’t help much, does it?          

Favourite Moment:

Better a stolen raw potato passed from hand to hand than the cookies of respectability.

“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’…”

“Advice To Gangsters” (E4)

  • Originally printed: Unknown (presumably the roaring twenties)
  • First reprinted in: Chips Off the Old Benchley
  • Original Byline: Unknown


A piece of unknown provenance selected by Gertrude Benchley for inclusion in the posthumously issued Chips Off the Old Benchley (1949). With apparently topical references to bootlegging and tommy guns, it must have been composed during Prohibition – but when? And for what brave periodical? If Gordon E. Ernst, Jr. doesn’t know, none of us dilettantes are likely to prise the secret from the arthritic jaws of lost time. Our author boldly enjoins the nation’s criminals to knock off knocking each other off and begin working together toward some worthwhile common goal – like improving the quality of liquor on offer. RB deplores the wasted materiel and man hours invested in all of these madcap massacres, when any illicit imbiber knows there is real work to be done on the production end of the business. Inspired no doubt by an abject cowardice RB is only too eager to own up to, the piece abandons its trenchant critique somewhere around page 3 in favour of a few homiletic lessons in limited boy gang warfare learned on the snowball strewn streets of turn-of-the-century Worcester, Mass.

Favourite moment:
“A man can’t buy a good glass of beer for his little boy today without having the fear that the child will be going around the house all the next day moaning and holding onto its head and snapping at its parents.”