Sally Benson 1900–1972
(Born Sara Mahala Redway Smith; also wrote under the name Esther Evarts) American short story writer, novelist, playwright, nonfiction writer, screenwriter, and critic.
Throughout her career Benson's most characteristic attributes remained her wit and concise style. She began by writing short stories for the New Yorker magazine which were subsequently published as People are Fascinating and Emily. In these works she showed an elegant sarcasm in her sketches of a certain type of upper-middle-class woman. These stories are as bitingly accurate now as then, but they do not exhibit much of the sympathy evident in her later work.
Junior Miss signaled a change. It was another collection of New Yorker stories, but in relating the events in the life of her 12-year-old heroine Judy Graves, Benson instilled the humor inherent to her subject with new warmth. Judy is charming and infuriating, a puzzle to the adults in her world who are equally a puzzle to her. The book proved very popular: it was later dramatized and became a long-running radio play and a successful film. Benson's skill in portraying young people was again displayed in the autobiographical novel Meet Me in St. Louis. Six-year-old Tootie Smith was based on Benson herself at that age; her memories were aided by her sister's diary documenting their family's activities during the World's Fair in St. Louis. The novel, a loving picture of her family, appealed to critics and readers alike. Its adaptations for the stage and screen also contributed to her fame.
Although Benson never adapted any of her own work, from the mid-1940s to the end of her career she worked steadily writing screenplays and dramatizations. The stage plays, Seventeen and The Young and Beautiful, each of which describe a different facet of the torments of adolescent love, were much more highly esteemed by critics than movies for which she wrote screenplays. The general public, however, did enjoy these movies, which included National Velvet, Anna and the King of Siam, and The Singing Nun. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20, obituary, Vols. 37-40, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1, and Something about the Author, Vol. 1.)
It has been clear for some time now that Sally Benson is one of the best of The New Yorker writers…. Like John O'Hara, however, who was formed in the same school, Mrs. Benson's work [collected in "People are Fascinating"] has more substance to it and a more cutting edge than the average wraith-like New Yorker piece. Her satire has point, force, venom; she is seldom guilty of rarefied whimsy; only her poorest sketches are tepid and over-elusive….
To compare this one and that one with Dorothy Parker is a dodge which few reviewers are able to resist. In Mrs. Benson's case the comparison is unavoidable. Though her angle is different, and fractionally more humane, she is an impishly discerning about the frailties of her fellows. She has an equally merciless ear for the fatuous speech, an eye as deadly for the foolish, betraying gesture. Less brilliant, possible, she has an advantage over Mrs. Parker in that she is not so apt to be seduced by a wisecrack, nor so inclined to subscribe to the tradition of hard-boiled gallantry….
[For] the most part it is rootless urban folk whose vanities and frustrations she exposes….
By their very nature Sally Benson's stories are slight; they are built around a conversation or a single illuminating incident, and their suave brevity is half the secret of their charm. About half a dozen of them, however—and those the best in the book—manage to achieve real pithiness and to compress significance into a few telling pages….
If she is to make a permanent name for herself, it is this vein which Sally Benson must continue and develop. Mean-while she has written any number of lighter more trivial pieces which glitter with gayety and wit.
Edith H. Walton, "'People Are Fascinating'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1936 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 5, 1936, p. 7.
People are indeed fascinating to Miss Benson. It would seem that scarcely anyone with whom she comes in contact is safe from her keen appraisal of weaknesses and her ironic exposure of them. The amateur aesthete, the ornamental but deceitful wife and her equally culpable opposite, dowdy, dull and faultfinding, are the recipients of most of Miss Benson's gibes. In one form or another, they appear in a majority of the stories [in "People Are Fascinating,"] and along with the bachelor girl and the misunderstood husband, they bear the brunt of the author's slightly malicious wit.
Pity is reserved for a select few, and the stories in which this gentler emotion is concerned are among the best, in that they show an understanding which goes beyond shallow exposure to genuine sympathy….
Miss Benson's stories often seem trivial and shallow, but there is so much between the lines that they repay study. Her ability to leave equally as much unsaid, when she writes a few paragraphs on someone, renders her work especially provocative. Miss Benson is too good a technician to clutter up her work, and too much an artist to underline her meaning. The resultant restraint and subtlety are admirable qualities. It is to be hoped that some day her subject matter may be more worthy of them.
M.W.S., "Sally Benson Vignettes," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1936 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), July 29, 1936, p. 10.
And horrifying, Miss Benson might have added [to her title People are Fascinating]. A dreadfully veracious picture of humanity emerges from one of the wittiest collections of stories I have read for some years. The author possesses what so many more pompous talents lack, an attitude…. Although Miss Benson retains in her style and method a beautiful detachment, her choice of subject and detail is controlled by a passion of distaste. The stories qualify each other. This is how human beings appear to her; it is her individual expression of the life, nasty, brutish and short. Very occasionally the horror deepens.
Graham Greene, "Books of the Day: 'People Are Fascinating'" (copyright © 1937 by Graham Greene; reprinted by permission of Laurence Pollinger Limited), in The Spectator, Vol. 158, No. 5668, February 12, 1937, p. 280.
[Every one of the stories in People Are Fascinating] introduces a new collection of real and unromantic people. There is not much point in comparing Miss Benson with anyone else because her work is something new. She is brilliantly malicious, astonishingly economical as a writer and unusually guiltless of intellectual clichés, but that doesn't describe her work. Her characters are nearly all ordinary middle-class Americans, and one might complain that the range of emotions she deals with is narrow, but everybody in People Are Fascinating seems to have been drawn with the eye on the object. Miss Benson is a superb natural historian. She is also an artist with an austere sense of form and quoting her would be rather like cutting a square inch from a Daumier and exhibiting it as a sample of his work.
Frederick Laws, "New Novels: 'People Are Fascinating'," in The New Statesman & Nation © 1937 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. XIII, No. 315, March 6, 1937, p. 378.
Sally Benson is a gentle satirist. She deals no brutal blows that leave ugly bruises, but with greater art strips her subject of all pretences and affectations and lets her stand naked, not as God made her but as time and friends and circumstances have made her. Sometimes the creature that remains is likable, sometimes not, but always she is human and understandable. "She" is used advisably, for Sally Benson is concerned almost exclusively with the female of the species. The male, to be sure, is an important figure in the background, but he plays a secondary role.
In "Emily" …, Mrs. Benson again produces an interesting gallery of female portraits, running in range from that of a girl 16 … to that...
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[Mrs. Benson] is light of touch, neat without being thin, deft in construction, and quick to perceive pathos as well as absurdity. Her dialogue [in "Emily"] is so skillful that you can't resist the temptation of reading it aloud; her epigrams so satisfying that you catch yourself trying to work them into your own coversation.
She has the keenest possible eye for the small change in which women demand back the gold of their lives. She is not anti-feminist—most of her women are not bad at heart, but she knows just why they drive their men wild, and just when. In spite of her skill and wit, she preaches as stern a moral for the woman of her day as did Maria Edgeworth for her contemporaries....
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[This delightful book, "Stories of the Gods and Heroes," based on "The Age of Fable" by Thomas Bulfinch] fills a real need. Boys and girls will thoroughly enjoy it, older readers will find it a pleasant way of brushing up their mythological knowledge and will take satisfaction in giving it to young people in whose reading they are interested.
Some of the stories have been rewritten, others have been cut, edited and clarified, but the flavor of the older book remains, for the dialogue, as Miss Benson explains, is in most cases the dialogue of Mr. Bulfinch, which he carefully translated from Greek and Latin legends or from Virgil and Homer. As stories of mythology are not simple, the author has made no...
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The one unsatisfactory thing about [Junior Miss, the] series of stories concerning young Judy Graves …, is that there are not enough of them. Judy is a terror and a delight and she is habit forming for the reader. She gets hold of your emotions and won't let go, and she very certainly divides your personality because you suffer with her, as you read, the nostalgic misery of having your every young motive misunderstood by a practically moronic adult world, and you suffer with her elders the sense of fury and frustration at the optimistic but only occasionally controlled energy of youth so damaging to the smugger middle years. You will be amused almost continuously through these adventures with Judy but you...
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[Any one] who is familiar with Sally Benson's work will know how deft and subtle and amusing "Junior Miss" is. Though she has forsworn the sophisticated wit and irony for which she is so noted, these seemingly simple sketches still bear her hallmark and are no less adroit than her earlier stories. In writing of Judy Graves's minor adventures, Mrs. Benson is as pithy and concise as ever, as much a master of the perfect phrase, with an added quality of warmth and gentleness which, until now, she has rather conspicuously lacked. "Junior Miss" is, needless to say, a very slight book and even perhaps a trivial one, but it is written with an artistry which one cannot sufficiently admire. On its own tiny scale it is almost...
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["Meet Me in St. Louis"] is a collection of frivolously pleasant fragments about the Smith family of St. Louis which adds up to a shrewd and accurate bit of not-too-early Americana….
In effective presentation of a bygone period the whole book seems greater than the sum of its dozen installments. Taken separately the parts were clever, humorous pieces of writing. Like many New Yorker pieces, they left the admiring reader with an embarrassed feeling of being up in the air and having missed the point—or wondering if there really was one. In this collection the cumulative effect is to build up a happy acquaintance with the whole Smith family and an enviable picture of their pleasant way of living—a...
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[A] lively sense of humor is the pervading quality of [Sally Benson's] method of setting [the characters of "Meet Me in St. Louis"] down in print. She has an unmistakable affection for the members of the Smith household … but she also is amused by them. And the reader comes to share her feelings….
The book covers a year, divided into episodes according to months, in the last half of 1903 and the first of 1904, about the time of the St. Louis World's Fair.
Her stories are slender in narrative but rich in descriptive detail. She is concerned with the incidents of daily domestic life as they might have occurred in a family about the turn of the century. But she is concerned with...
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["Women and Children First"] is an arrangement of short contes dedicated to the modish principle that the action of human character is best revealed by a lack of character and of action…. [Most] of the stories are counterparts of one kind of New Yorker cartoon: the kind that points out the ego and idiocy of middle-class ladies…. [Miss Benson's] denouements are … one-line captions, and her neatly worded pictures have all the detail and accuracy of pages torn from telephone books….
Moving and diverse entertainment is to be found in Miss Benson's story about the brief vacation of a colored maid, her discussion of the marital fate of a terrible-tempered Mr. Bang and her nice account of the...
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The anguish of a young wife who discovers that her husband is a Soviet spy becomes an occasion of torment for all of us before ["Conspirator"] runs its course….
As topical drama dealing with a situation that is especially meaningful at the moment, "Conspirator" is singularly devoid of conviction. In its … writing the film represents a standard exercise in romantic espionage. The deadly conventional attitude of the film is established right at the start when … a wide-eyed innocent from America meets a handsome British Army major at an elaborate military ball in London. At any rate the scenarists … do not deviate from pattern and the traitorous officer finally blows out his brains....
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In its song-and-dance trappings ["Seventeen"] runs through the agonies of the dress suit and the fraternity pin with more eager accent on youth and less real sparkle than other recent comedies about high school America…. "Seventeen" is a flimsy satire, even for a summer show….
The more intimate details arranged by Miss Benson have to do with Willie's affection for Miss Lola Pratt, a blonde and babytalking summer visitor, with a Yale man thrown in late in the first act when the teen-age joke has been hammered to exhaustion. It is all much too bouncy to believe, and without enough keenness or variety of humor to gain any great comic validity….
"Seventeen" is a breezy show, but...
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Mr. Tarkington's humorous and touching story of adolescence ["Seventeen"] has retained its charm and vitality through the years, and [the adaption for the stage written by Sally Benson] is thoroughly enjoyable….
Puppy-love is almost unbearable for the adults who have to survive these epidemics of madness that infect the adolescents. But Mr. Tarkington had the grace to realize that puppy-love is almost unbearable for the adolescents, as well….
[Sally Benson has not] violated Mr. Tarkington's taste. Although "Seventeen" is uproarious, it is also kind. There is very little show hokum anywhere in the production.
Brooks Atkinson, "Theater...
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About half way through the evening "The Young and Beautiful" … settles down to work and becomes an interesting play.
Sally Benson has written it from some of F. Scott Fitzgerald's short stories. The place is Chicago; the time is forty years ago. Her major problem is how to make a vain, frivolous adolescent girl a dramatic character…. Josephine Perry is an irritating flirt for about an act and a half. Her charm is small compensation for her scheming, cheating, lying and her greediness about men.
But Miss Benson has something more in mind than another comedy of adolescence. Presumably taking her point of view from Scott Fitzgerald, she mixes a little gall with the romance....
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Mrs. Benson [in "The Young and Beautiful"] is clearly attempting something a little more ambitious than a study of a shallow adolescent egocentric. I should say, without being precisely sure, that she thinks of Josephine as a victim of a time of peculiar spiritual chaos for the young (the action of the play takes place in 1915), and that she believes there is a small but authentic tragedy in the story of a girl whose enormous vitality might have found some satisfactory outlet under almost any other social conditions but who is now condemned to a series of easy conquests that she finds dismayingly empty without quite knowing why….
The fact that it never comes through very clearly or convincingly [on...
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It may be that you will find Miss Benson's single-minded concentration [in "The Young and Beautiful"] on a difficult girl's mannerisms too unrelieved. It may be that you will find this girl herself too special, too enigmatic, too insistent. But the play is a piece of genuine observation, it is written with a shrewd and unsparing hand, and I think that Scott Fitzgerald might well have been pleased with it.
Walter F. Kerr, "Theater: 'The Young and Beautiful'," in New York Herald Tribune (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), October 3, 1955 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Review, Vol. XVI, No. 17, October 10, 1955, p. 269)....
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["The Young and Beautiful"] has economy and wit and a penetrating astringency of mind. Miss Benson brings off her scenes and cameo portraits with a flinty, chiseled touch; affectionately, but without condescension, she records the flavor of the period. I like, too, her critical attitude towards American experience…. If there is any fault in "The Young and Beautiful," it lies perhaps in the nature of the material. The knowledge of self to which Josephine comes, however dramatic, is essentially a novelist's insight, or the 'epiphany' of a short story: it demands a fullness of comment the coarser stage cannot supply. We take leave of Josephine at the very moment her real drama of consciousness begins, and for Miss...
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Of the shows which have already closed this season, [The Young and Beautiful] is the only one that I shall (or would wish to) remember. I suppose it is not a good play, but it has some very witty scenes, and the humor is far superior to the standard Broadway article.
Eric Bentley, "Theatre: 'The Young and Beautiful'" (originally published in The New Republic, Vol. 134, No. 1, January 2, 1956), in his What Is Theatre? (reprinted by permission of Atheneum Publishers and the author; copyright © 1968 by Atheneum Publishers), Atheneum, 1968.
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