During Prohibition in the 1920s, you could buy a drink at every building along 52nd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in New York City.
For every legitimate bar that closed once the Volstad Act was enacted, a dozen speakeasies took its place. It is estimated that New York City had anywhere between 50,000 to 100,000 speaks. New York City was considered the wettest town in the country.
The famous “21 Club” in Manhattan boasted five secret doors behind which liquor was stashed, and four alarm buttons, one at each entrance, to be triggered by staff in the event of a raid through any one door. In that way, all the other sections of the restaurant could be alerted to secure the liquor caches.
To this day, there is a plaque on the wall above the table where Robert Benchley always sat. It reads: Robert Benchley, His Corner, 1889 -1945
When Harold Ross and Jane Grant announced their engagement, Aleck Woollcott insisted on arranging the wedding, right down to choosing Jane’s wedding ring. Off he went to Tiffany’s with Jane in tow. After picking out the ring that met with his satisfaction, he was asked by the clerk what was to be inscribed on the band? “Nothing,” said Aleck, “she may want to use it again.”
Sportswriter, theatre critic and columnist, Heywood Broun, loved the new Marx Brothers’ show, Coconuts, so much that he saw it more than twenty times. He wanted his epitaph to read: Killed by getting in the way of some scene-shifters at a Marx Brothers’ show.
When Robert Sherwood was hired as an editor at Vanity Fair to work in the office alongside Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, he appeared to them a peculiar, reticent sort, and at a hulking six-feet-seven inches, the War veteran, who’d been shot in both legs and suffered lung damage from being gassed at The Front, had a sickly, scowling countenance which threw a pall over the high antics of Parker and Benchley. They just didn’t like him at all.
Then one day, as they were going out for lunch, the two spotted Sherwood waiting outside for them with a plea for each to walk on either side him. He was terrified by what lay in wait down the street at the Hippodrome, the huge arena built by the Shubert Brothers to present their theatrical extravaganzas. Seems a troop of midgets were performing in one of the shows there, and every day, the dozen would gather on the sidewalk in front of the theater, half a block down from the Conde Nast offices, waiting for the giant Sherwood to dare pass them. They’d bait and tease and yell out insults and generally harass the oversized new editor on his way to lunch. So Parker, at four-feet-eleven, and Benchley at five-feet-nine, sympathetic to his plight, would flank the beanpole every noontime upon leaving the building until the show closed. Their friendship was struck!
Robert Benchley was never the critic to be cruel in his reviews, and he rarely singled out any actor’s inadequate performance, as did the droll, if cutting, Parker in her theatre and book reviews—“the affair between Margot Asquith and Margot Asquith will live as one of the prettiest stories in all literature,” or Alexander Woollcott—“The leading man should have been gently, but firmly, shot at sunrise.” But bad taste was bad taste, and he said as much. And prejudice under a guise of comedy he would never tolerate. And Abie’s Irish Rose was intolerable to Robert Benchley.
Abie’s Irish Rose, by Ann Nichols, opened on Broadway in May, 1922. Generally panned by the critics, Robert Benchley had to reconsider his assessment of the play that opened the evening before, The Rotters, which he claimed was “just about the worst show of the season,” to bring to the forefront the offending Abie’s to top the list.
One of his duties as theatre editor at Life was to list all the plays on the boards in the section called The Confidential Guide, and briefly comment on each show. His first entry under Abie’s title was, “something awful”, and he expected Abie’s to close any day. A week later, the show was still running, so Benchley wrote, “among the season’s worst.” And thus began five years of weekly commentary including these:
People laugh at this every night, which proves why a democracy can never be a success.
We refuse to answer on advice of council.
The management sent us some pencils for Christmas, so maybe it isn’t so bad after all.
This department will not be printed next week, owing to the second birthday of this comedy, on which occasion we plan to become ossified.
There is no letter “W” in the French language.
For the best comment to go in this space, we will give two tickets to the play.
Contest for the best line closes at midnight on January 8. At present, Mr. Arthur Marx is leading with “No worse than a bad cold.”
They have leased the theater for another year; applications for the job of Confidential Guide will be considered in order of their receipt.
Closing soon. (Only fooling!)
The movie people who have just bought this are now making overtures to this department to influence our bitter opposition to the picture. It ought to be worth at least $250,000 to them and that is our asking price. We will oppose it half-heartedly for $100,000.
In another two or three years, we’ll have this show driven out of town.
All right if you never went beyond the fourth grade.
Where do people come from who keep this going? You don’t see them out in the daytime.
Probably the funniest and most stimulating play ever written by an American. (Now, let’s see what that will do.)
Four years old this week. Three ounces of drinking-iodine, please.
We may as well say it now as later. We don’t like this play.
See Hebrews 13:8.
After five years running strong, news came that the show would be closing: “We are panic-stricken over the possibility of this play closing soon. What will we have to write about?”
In preparation for the play’s final week, Benchley used most of his theatre page for a fancily printed announcement:
The Dramatic Department of Life takes great pleasure in announcing the successful culmination of its campaign to close Abie’s Irish Rose. On August 6th this comedy will end its nominal run of two-hundred and seventy-one weeks. We rest on our sword and await the tocsin for a fresh crusade.
But the show didn’t close. Benchley wrote:
From now on we refuse to commit ourselves to this play. It can run forever, for all we care.
Some months later, Ann Nichols, the author of Abie’s Irish Rose wrote a new play that opened on Broadway. Benchley deliberately gave it a glowing review and ended it with:
You don’t catch us again, Miss Nichols.