Laughter's Gentle Soul: The Life of Robert Benchley

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9780393038330: Laughter's Gentle Soul: The Life of Robert Benchley

A definitive portrait of Robert Benchley examines his diverse roles as humorist, author, actor, and leading light of the Algonquin Round Table, discussing his relationship with his fellow members of the Round Table and analyzing the man behind the myth.

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Review:

While he lived, Robert Benchley was a household name--writer, actor, critic, and wit, Benchley was lionized in the pages of the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and the New York Tribune and appeared in countless Hollywood films, some of which he wrote himself. Fifty years after his death, Benchley has become something of a footnote to the likes of Dorothy Parker, Alexander Wollcott, and other luminaries of the Algonquin Hotel Round Table. Most of Benchley's books are out of print, as are the two previous biographies about him. Thus, Billy Altman's Laughter's Gentle Soul comes at a good time to reawaken interest in this forgotten funnyman.

Altman's biography chronicles Benchley's life from his birth in Worcester, Massachusetts, his schooling at Harvard, and early writing career in New York through the heady days of Hollywood and the Algonquin Hotel to his untimely death from cirrhosis in 1945. The stories are all here: Benchley's practical jokes, his legendary drinking, his strict separation of suburban family life and urban adultery. What is not in Laughter's Gentle Soul is any critical analysis of the stories, the writing, or the reasons for Benchley's self-destruction. Why, for example, was Benchley so admired by fellow humorists? Why did he not drink until the age of 31 and then apparently fall immediately into incurable alcoholism? Fans of Robert Benchley won't find anything in Laughter's Gentle Soul that they haven't read before; for those who are unfamiliar with the man, however, Altman's book provides a good first introduction.

From the Back Cover:

Benchley was a best-selling author of a dozen hilarious books chronicling the comic futility of the human condition, and one of the most influential humorists not only of his own generation but of successive ones as well. A sharp-witted theater critic whose reviews graced the pages of Life and The New Yorker for nearly two decades, he was a much sought after radio personality. Besides appearing in character roles in scores of feature films, he starred in his own series of nearly fifty, often side-splittingly funny, comedy shorts. And he was the life of a thousand parties from Park Avenue to Sunset Boulevard. Small wonder, then, that more than a half-century after his death, Benchley continues to occupy a very special place in the legend and lore of twentieth-century American life. In this sympathetic and engrossing biography, Billy Altman explores the man behind the mirth. He recounts Benchley's journey from straitlaced New England schoolboy to mischievous international boulevardier, and from the glittering lights of Broadway, as well as the dim ones in the rollicking speakeasies of New York during Prohibition, to the infamous Garden of Allah apartments and the glamorously decadent Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s. Spiced with illuminating glimpses of such notable literary figures as Parker, Sherwood, Ross, Marc Connelly, Donald Ogden Stewart, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Thurber, as well as motion-picture celebrities including Jean Harlow, Fred Astaire, Shirley Temple, Charles Butterworth, Sheilah Graham, and Alfred Hitchcock, Laughter's Gentle Soul is a vivid portrait of an extraordinary period in America's cultural history - and of one extraordinarily talented and complex man who helped to make much of it happen.

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