The age of being earnest


THERE IS an old story that Ernest Hemingway once saw Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald cavorting in the fountain outside New York's Plaza Hotel and felt challenged.

Being intensely competitive, Hemingway cried, "I can do a fountain cavort twice as good as Scott's and, what's more, I can do it without even getting my knees wet."

With which he leaped into the fountain and started to do the classic cavorter's veronica, which Manolete had taught him in the fountains of Andalusia.

Zelda, who never had any use for Hemingway anyway -- or "Hemingway eningway," as she once wrote in Bullfight Digest -- tripped him in mid-cavort. Hemingway came up soaked from toe to crown, including the famous gun arm that had terrified the entire animal population of the Serengeti.

Stumbling out of the fountain, he started to dry himself on the suit of the first man he encountered, who happened to be Robert Benchley. Struggling out of Hemingway's embrace, Benchley headed for the Plaza bar saying, "I've got to get out of this wet Ernest and into a dry martini."

This oft-told story is nonsense, of course. I tell it here only to show what a silly age we end-of-the-century Americans have put behind us. It is appalling to realize that our country was once so lighthearted that people told and re-told stories like this, stories with no moral weight and, worse, stories about people who drank -- pardon the term -- dry martinis.

Luckily we have survived and come safely to the present age of total earnestness, where we enjoy the governance of an earnest president and his earnest wife on whom earnest Republicans keep a piously earnest eye with the indispensably earnest aid of an earnest clergy, while our oppressed multitudes demand redress with tireless earnestness.

The above story about Robert Benchley was widely told in the 1940s by a generation that enjoyed belittling earnest Americans.

The punning punch line -- "get out of this wet Ernest and into a dry martini" -- was meant to be a sneer at those who earnestly sought to make a Depression-and-war-besotted America realize that life was no laughing matter.

These, remember, were people who actually drank dry martinis. No wonder they had world wars and dreadful depressions. Since jokes were told constantly without regard for the sensitive feelings of earnest people, it's not surprising that vulgarians among them might have joked about dry martinis.

In some versions of the dry-martini story Robert Benchley is supposed to have said he had to "get out of these wet clothes" instead of "out of this wet Ernest" and into his dry martini.

Who cares? No true citizen of the earnest age. That's why it is sad to find this Benchley nonsense surfacing in the New York Times, a very Everest of earnestness, which recently said the "wet-clothes" line may have been Alexander Woollcott's.

How remarkable that so many people should once have known -- and cared! -- who Robert Benchley and Alexander Woollcott were. The explanation is that they were considered funny and that funniness was thought to have a value.

If Benchley and his associates lacked earnestness, they did not lack interest in money. After many years of writing funny for small pay, Robert Benchley tried making some short funny films in Hollywood, proved to be good at it, and, having found where the money was, never came back to writing.

Among others in Hollywood about the same time were Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner. Both were famous drinkers. So were so many other writers of the time that medical treatises argued that prose composition led inexorably to the bottle.

Here in the age of earnestness that argument seems doubtful. Here in the age of earnestness, recoiling before the thought of a dry martini and lifting a white wine spritzer, we can be pretty sure that what leads to the bottle is not writing, but lack of earnestness.

Russell Baker is a syndicated columnist.

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