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Laughter's Gentle Soul: The Life of Robert Benchley

"I was a keen consumer of popular culture when Benchley was part of it.... Popular culture was then more compact and less dumbed-down; it is hard to imagine any contemporary literary figure becoming such a media celebrity. Benchley represented something to the masses, and as a member of those masses, more than a half century ago, I fell betrayed in reading how careless a custodian he was of his health and his talents. He died at 56. Altman's biography, more vividly than the others, gives the details.... [and] Altman is excellent on Hollywood. He has looked at most of the footage, most of it distinctly workaday."

--New Yorker, John Updike (04/07/1997)

Writing That Special Book
Billy Altman, '73, UB's first pop culture graduate, examines the life of a fabled American humorist

by Thomas Putnam

If you ever read Robert Benchley, you will find that he is a great solace. (Reading Robert Benchley may be less fun, however, if you are already solaced.) Benchley is one of those writers i please, don't ask me to name any others i who have the great gift of distracting us from destruction.

Billy Altman views his subject, Robert Benchley as "many men in one cheerful guise."

Now what a nice thing it is to learn that UB alum Billy Altman, B.A. '73, has come along and written a wonderfully readable book about the great American humorist -- and not just about Benchley the humorist -- he has written about the man's many facets. (If Benchley had been a plumber, of course, we would not have used the word facets.)

Altman's book has the title Laughter's Gentle Soul, it is published by Norton, and it has earned good reviews. While he is very pleased, Altman is not about to take on another biography. In fact, the writer is not a big fan of biographies, although he does enjoy browsing their indexes.

And that is another wonderful thing about Altman's Benchley bio -- the index. Altman's index will direct you back to passages you want to reread, or, if you've been a naughty skimmer, to subject matter you skimmed.

The book weighs 1 lb., 9.6 oz. (without its jacket), so you might say it's a heavy book.

Speaking from his home, Altman said that it took "mountains of research" to write. The research was the easy part -- anyone with a Ph.D. degree of intelligence can collect facts i but it takes a real writer to apportion them throughout a text and make it readable.

Altman's book is readable, and that is what pleases him about it. He has a direct way of saying what he wants to say. He sprinkles his conversation with quick little laughs, in an engaging aren't-we-having-fun manner.

The book was, for a long time, on the back burner. "Writing it was a long process," says Altman, who, all the while that he was working on his Benchley, pursued a range of journalistic writing projects, including pieces on music and sports, as well as pop culture, his degree field.

Altman's bio sheet is heady: writer for such publications as the New York Times and Creem, Rolling Stone and the New Yorker (one of whose great writers of the past was Robert Benchley); curator for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland; creative director of the RCA Heritage Series from 1987 to 1993; author of liner notes for such artists as Chuck Berry, the Blues Breakers, and Buddy Holly.

He is a little proud that his degree in pop culture from UB was the first of its kind. He was here in the heyday of student radicalism, and it takes very little to get him going about the Norton Rat, etc.

So why a biography of Benchley?

"Early on, I started using humor in my writing as a critic," Altman says. "I admired the style and rhythm of his writing."

Researching his subject, it wasn't long before Altman discovered what readers of Laughter's Gentle Soul will, too: that Benchley was many men in one cheerful guise i actor as well as writer, theater critic, and bon vivant; a suburban homeowner; a man of both the East and the West Coasts.

"He was a man of endless friends and circles," Altman says, adding the telling observation, "His friends all saw him the same way - he was consistent."

The book is full of stories, such as the one that has Jean Harlow in Hollywood asking Benchley for his autograph. The two were together in the movie China Seas, which starred the beautiful Harlow with Clark Gable. And Benchley? "Benchley was drunk for the entire movie," Altman says. "He was comic relief."

A reader of Benchley cannot help but sense the kindness of his soul. There is nothing malicious about his wit, and it is this that may distinguish him from, say, Dorothy Parker, a friend and fellow wag at the famous Algonquin Round Table in Manhattan.

"He was a wit, a humorist - but he would make you feel like you were the funniest," Altman says.

Not satisfied with the previous Benchley biographies - "I could not find a book that pulled it all together," he says - Altman got a great assist from Norton and is particularly grateful for the design of the book. It incorporates a good number of wonderful Gluyas Williams drawings, which Altman selected to sit like jester's crowns at the start of chapters.

While he was at UB, Altman wrote for the Spectrum, where a colleague was Tom Toles, the political cartoonist who went on to work for the Buffalo Courier-Express and then the Buffalo News. The Spectrum gave Altman his start as a pop critic, work that led to his stringing for the Buffalo Evening News.

He eventually wrote pop music reviews for the News, where he was taken under the wing of the much-admired classical music critic John Dwyer. "He was wonderful to me," Altman said, "a real mentor."

Altman still remembers a review he wrote for the News of a concert by the band Chicago. Chicago was not to be unliked, perhaps, but Altman unliked it; he even likened it to a song about the city. What he remembers saying in his review i and what the paper, to his surprise, supported his saying i was that "Chicago may be Sinatra's kind of town but it's not mine." That witty critical comment had the double impact of repositioning Chicago on the pop music chart, and reminding readers of the singer who made you realize the wonder of dancing with your wife.