“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.

“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.”