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Nathaniel Benchley
November 07, 1955
Nobody was more enthusiastic about exercise (for others) than the late Robert Benchley, who gloried in Harvard football from his couch
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November 07, 1955

Sportsman Benchley

Nobody was more enthusiastic about exercise (for others) than the late Robert Benchley, who gloried in Harvard football from his couch

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My father's aversion to athletics verged on the psychotic. It wasn't that he wasn't strong, or reasonably healthy; it was just that he had a distaste for any unnecessary motion. He claimed that he was saving his energy against the time when he might need it suddenly for something really important, and that any form of athletics would only stir up all the poisons and be a drain on this precious, someday-to-be-needed reserve of power. He once broke his left kneecap by the simple method of walking off a porch where stairs should have been but weren't and although the break eventually healed, it left him with a trick knee and with what he happily considered a perfect excuse for not doing anything he didn't want to do.

One day, I remember, he bought a rowing machine, but he put it under his bed the day it was delivered and never took it out again. He also rented a sun lamp (and eventually paid more than the purchase price in rent), and with the rowing machine and the sun lamp and his couch, he settled down to a healthy urban existence. He referred to his couch as "the track," and before hurling himself down for a nap would say, "I guess I'll take a couple of turns around the track," which gave a slightly sporty air to the proceedings.

He became, in short, a full-fledged spectator sportsman, and remarked that jai alai was his most strenuous game, because of the steepness of the Hippodrome stairs.

He became so well-known as an anti-exercise man that friends were shocked to see him entering the gymnasium on a Hamburg-American liner, and were incredulous until he explained that the only reason he went in was to practice his German with the attendant, which he did while riding the electric horse at a slow walk.

Cavalier though he may have been about his own exercise, he was nevertheless quite interested in other people's sports, especially football and horse racing. He had no interest in baseball, and the only baseball game he ever attended was a girls' soft-ball game in Los Angeles. (His chum John McClain, who went with him, remarked at one point that it was the first time in his life he had ever wanted to kiss a third baseman, which so paralyzed my father that the game, as a game, lost all its interest.)

Without question, his favorite sport was football. A spectacularly faithful alumnus of Harvard, he followed the fortunes of the Crimson team with great interest, either attending the games in person or listening to them on the radio or reading about them in the papers. When listening to a Harvard game on the radio, he always wore a fireman's hat, presented to him by his native city of Worcester, Mass., which he considered a good-luck token of considerable potency. When, as it sometimes happened, the cause was irretrievably lost, he would put the hat away in the closet, not wanting to strain its powers against obviously hopeless odds, and would content himself with listening to the Harvard band.

When actually attending a game, he watched the field with fierce intensity, working little-known forms of necromancy and magic in support of the team. If he was sitting in a certain position or doing anything in particular when Harvard made a good play, he would continue to do whatever it was throughout the rest of the game, on the theory that it might be of some help. Thus he once sat through a whole half with one foot tucked uncomfortably under the other, because it had happened to be that way when Harvard made a touchdown; and another time he had to chew on a dead pipe throughout most of a game, because his pipe had gone out at the precise moment that a Harvard man had made a long run. (This form of superstition he inherited from his mother, who once was eating horehound candy when Harvard beat Yale. From then until the year she died, she ate horehound candy on the day of every Harvard-Yale game, often sickening herself in a useless cause but never giving up hope that it might be the thing to turn the trick. She had originally bought the candy on a trip to her milliner, so every year she repeated the trip, going over the same route and seeing the milliner on some trumped-up excuse, then taking the candy home and forcing her husband to join her in eating it. Her husband developed a distaste for horehound candy that verged on loathing, but it did him no good. When Harvard played Yale, he ate horehound candy.)

The other sport, as I said, that he enjoyed was horse racing, although he had no particular knowledge of horses and a horse, as such, left him pretty much unmoved. He had, however, a strange kind of luck that followed him, and he was often able to violate the established rules of horse playing and come up with a profit. It was his custom to bet on any horse with a name reminiscent of Harvard—either by color or by some similar clue—and consequently, one day at Del Mar he selected a horse named Puddin, suggestive of the Hasty Pudding Club. The form sheet showed this to be a ludicrous choice, but my father nevertheless went to the $5 window and asked for one ticket for Puddin to win. It turned out that he was at the $5-across-the-board window, but he was too embarrassed to admit his mistake, so he put up another $10 and then slunk away from the window, not daring to tell anybody what he had done. Puddin came in, and paid 24-1 on the win ticket alone.

Once, and very briefly, my father owned a horse—or, rather, he co-owned one with John McClain. It was 1940, and he and McClain were rooming together at a bungalow hotel in Beverly Hills named, for no discernible reason, the Garden of Allah. One day at the Hollywood track, they ran into their friend Jock Whitney, who had brought his trainer and a few of his horses with him. One of the horses, a beast named Sharpy, showed so little promise that Whitney told the trainer to get rid of him. Suddenly, both McClain and my father saw something in Sharpy that appealed to them; they were never able afterward to define it, but they knew that the horse was for them. My father turned to Whitney.

"How much will you take for Sharpy?" he asked.

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