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Archive for Thursday, January 22, 1998

LIFE

January 22, 1998

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Laughter's Gentle Soul: the Life of Robert Benchley

Billy Altman

Celebrated American humorist Robert Benchley feared that he had made a career as a "clown, a comic, a cheap gag man." While it's true he never wrote that "serious" book on Queen Anne as he planned, he is still remembered as one of the seriously great humorists of the 20th century.

Benchley's life was a bit of a wild ride and makes for a fascinating read. As a fledgling writer in New York he numbered among the founders of the Algonquin Round Table, an infamous group of New York's best and brightest young wits, whose members included Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woolcott and George S. Kaufman. During this period, Benchley solidified his career by writing for Vanity Fair, Life and The New Yorker.

The group with which Benchley was associated worked hard, but played even harder. They were everything young things of the '20s were supposed to be. Speakeasies, parties, affairs -- Altman records it all.

Lured by Hollywood's money more than its glamour, Benchley began writing for film, starring in a series of enormously popular and funny short films, and eventually appeared as a character actor in numerous films of the '30s and '40s.

In the end, he did more acting than writing for film, but took more pride in his work as a drama critic for The New Yorker.

Journalist Altman, who has also written for The New Yorker, blends the facts of Benchley's life with a good mix of anecdote and quotation to provide a good overview of the life of one of our great humorists.

-- Sherri Turner is assistant head of references services and interlibrary loan librarian at the Lawrence Public Library.

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