The Wayward Press

Robert Benchley is remembered today as an American humorist, and his funny side was on display in his New Yorker theater reviews and other contributions. It was his background as a journalist, however, that shown through in his column “The Wayward Press.”

Oct. 10, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt.

Benchley’s more serious side as a reporter (though still sprinkled with wit) demonstrated his ability to expose the conspiratorial nature of the 1930s press — which seemed to be in bed with moneyed interests — and decry its insatiable appetite for sensationalism. His October 10 column took aim at the coverage of the death of banking heir Benjamin Collings, who was murdered on Long Island Sound while aboard his yacht, Penguin. The investigation went on for weeks with scant developments, but that didn’t stop the newspapers from trying to squeeze every ounce of blood from this turnip.

The New York Daily News milked the incident for all its worth, the heading of this first article featuring photos of the slain Benjamin Collings (far left), his widow (and briefly a suspect) Lillian Collings, as well as an image of their five-year-old daughter, Barbara. According to Lillian, all three were sleeping aboard the family yacht Penguin when two men paddled a canoe up to their boat. When Ben went on deck to confront the pair, these “pirates” (as she called them) seized control of the boat, and threw Ben overboard. According to Lillian, the men forced her into the canoe, then cut the Penguin’s anchor and set it adrift with little Barbara still on board. While the girl was quickly rescued by another yachtsman, the “pirates” deposited Lillian in a moored motorboat on Oyster Bay before disappearing into the night. The Suffolk County DA found Lillian’s account unbelievable, and newspapers subsequently described her story as bizarre and illogical. The Daily News headline below indicates Lillian’s family wanted her interrogation to end…

…lacking any other details, the Daily News nevertheless kept the story alive with features such as this one below that described Five Stages in Life of Mrs. Benjamin Collings, Widowed by Yacht Murder

…and in case readers still wanted more, the paper rehashed the whole thing in photos in its Sept. 12 edition…

A few days after the yacht incident the body of Ben Collings washed up on the North Shore, his hands bound and his skull bashed in. The Suffolk County DA then began hauling in pairs of suspects who somewhat matched Lillian’s description — a 50-year-old man with gray hair and a skinny teenager — but none were quite right. The crime has never been solved.

Benchley concluded his column with some quotations which he “did not believe”…

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And Now For Something Ironic…

In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White teased New York Stock Exchange President Richard Whitney for blaming the market crash on “human vanity and selfishness,” when it was indeed those qualities that drove the markets in the first place. Before the decade was out Whitney would succumb to the very vices he named, and would serve three years and four months at Sing Sing for embezzlement.

HE DID TIME, THEN HE DID SOME MORE TIME…Richard Whitney made the cover of the Feb. 26, 1934 issue of Time magazine for his work as president of the New York Stock Exchange. At left, Whitney in 1937. He was sentenced to five to ten years for embezzlement, but was released early from Sing Sing for good behavior. He went on to a simpler life, managing a dairy farm and then a textile company before his death in 1974 at age 86. (Wikipedia/Time)

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The What Goes Up Department

E.B. White also commented on the latest edition of the Goodyear Blimp, christened Columbia, which he spotted hanging around the Empire State Building. Note E.B. White’s last line

Columbia was flying around the Empire State Building because Goodyear was running a sightseeing service in which passengers paid $3 for a 15-minute flight around Manhattan. The blimp also performed publicity stunts such as delivering newspapers to a man standing on the Empire State’s mooring mast — that particular stunt was supposedly a test to see if airships could anchor on the mast for passenger loading and unloading (and as we know, they couldn’t and wouldn’t).

Just four months after White watched Columbia hover over Manhattan, the airship would indeed bust into a thousand pieces, meeting its demise near the Queens airport (today’s LaGuardia). Caught in unexpected high winds, Columbia dipped into the ground, tearing off its landing gear and bending its propellers. The ground crew tried to secure the blimp but an updraft ripped the airship from their hands and sent it sailing over Flushing Bay.

As Columbia once again drifted back over land, the 23-year pilot Prescott Dixon ordered his chief mechanic, John Blair, to pull a rip cord that would release most of the air from the blimp. As Blair reached from the cabin for the cord the blimp shifted, and Blair fell to his death. Columbia then knocked two men off a warehouse roof (injuring them), then struck a factory and some power lines before crashing along the tracks of the Long Island Railroad. Dixon survived after being extricated from the crumpled gondola.

CHRISTENED WITH A BOTTLE OF LIQUID AIR, the Goodyear Blimp Columbia was readied for its inaugural flight over Akron, Ohio, in July 1931.
A SHORT LIFE…Just seven months after its inaugural flight, Columbia crashed near Flushing Bay on Feb. 12, 1932. (

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When Bridges Were Crowd-Pleasers

“The Talk of the Town” announced the imminent opening of the Jeffreys Hook Bridge, to be known thence as the George Washington Bridge:

GET OUT YOUR TOP HAT…New Yorkers turned out in droves to mark the official opening of the George Washington Bridge on Oct. 24, 1931. Gov. Morgan F. Larson of New Jersey, left, and Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York, right, did the ribbon honors at the dedication. (New Haven Register/AP)

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They Couldn’t Say ‘Hooters’ Either

In these coarser times it is hard to believe that 89 years ago the word “bosom” was a “no-no” on the nation’s airwaves, per this “Talk” item…

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An Actor’s Actor

Theater critic Robert Benchley wasn’t the only one who noticed the talents of newcomer Charles Laughton in his New York stage debut — Hollywood would immediately come calling for the 32-year-old English actor:

WE’LL KEEP HIM…Cicely Oates as Annie Marble and Charles Laughton as William Marble in the 1931 play Payment Deferred. (Museum of the City of New York)

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Kinda Long For Being Short

Humorist Frank Sullivan claimed to be following the trend for shorter short stories by turning in this piece with an editor’s note longer than the story itself:

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Lurid Lit

Our dear Dorothy Parker is back with another of her entertaining book columns, and in this installment we have her taking on the world of literary and not-so-literary sex romps. Excerpts:

DIRTY LITTLE BOOKS?…The three books featured in Dorothy Parker’s column included, from left, Young and Healthy by Donald Henderson Clarke (issued here under a different title in a pulp 1948 Novel Library edition); Theodore Wilde’s Moonblind, which featured a hermaphrodite character and homosexual encounters; and although attributed to Anonymous, Lady Chatterley’s Husbands was actually written by Anthony Gudaitis, aka Anton Gud, who often wrote anonymously for erotica publisher Samuel Roth. Although it was publicized as a sequel to D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Gud’s book actually had less sex than the Lawrence original. After all, in the sequel Lady Chatterley gets tired of horny old Mellors. (Goodreads/Amazon)

…and before we leave Dorothy, please note her last line in the review, where she quotes Carl Rose’s famed 1928 cartoon (with caption by E.B. White)…

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From Our Advertisers

Just a couple quick ones (I will have more in the next installment)…Lord & Taylor showed young New Yorkers how to look smart for the fall (Lord & Taylor, the oldest department store in the United States (founded 1826), recently closed all 38 of its stores due to the pandemic, and it was announced in August that Lord & Taylor would be liquidated. Apparently its name will continue as an online-only business…

…and Helen Hokinson offered this illustration of one of her “girls” shilling for Frigidaire refrigerators…

…and two more from Helen in the Oct. 10 cartoons…

…exploring men’s attitudes toward the opposite sex…

Garrett Price visited a seemingly unappetizing banquet…

Kemp Starrett gave us a man looking at life on the bright side…

William Steig explored home decor…

Barbara Shermund found some bedtime gossip…

…and recalling our earlier “Talk” item regarding bosoms, here’s Peter Arno

Next Time: Monkey Business…



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David O

I read and write about history from the perspective that history is not some artifact from the past but a living, breathing condition we inhabit every moment of our lives, or as William Faulkner once observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I read original source materials, such as every issue of The New Yorker, not only as a way to understand a time from a particular perspective, but to also use the source as an aggregator of various historic events. I welcome comments, criticisms, corrections and insights as I stumble along through the century.

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