I.—THE BENCHLEY-WHITTIER CORRESPONDENCE
Old scandals concerning the private life of Lord Byron have been revived with the recent publication of a collection of his letters. One of the big questions seems to be: Did Byron send Mary Shelley's letter to Mrs. R.B. Hoppner? Everyone seems greatly excited about it.
Lest future generations be thrown into turmoil over my correspondence after I am gone, I want right now to clear up the mystery which has puzzled literary circles for over thirty years. I need hardly add that I refer to what is known as the "Benchley-Whittier Correspondence."
The big question over which both my biographers and Whittier's might possibly come to blows is this, as I understand it: Did John Greenleaf Whittier ever receive the letters I wrote to him in the late Fall of 1890? If he did not, who did? And under what circumstances were they written?
I was a very young man at the time, and Mr. Whittier was, naturally, very old. There had been [pg 004]a meeting of the Save-Our-Song-Birds Club in old Dane Hall (now demolished) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Members had left their coats and hats in the check-room at the foot of the stairs (now demolished).
In passing out after a rather spirited meeting, during the course of which Mr. Whittier and Dr. Van Blarcom had opposed each other rather violently over the question of Baltimore orioles, the aged poet naturally was the first to be helped into his coat. In the general mix-up (there was considerable good-natured fooling among the members as they left, relieved as they were from the strain of the meeting) Whittier was given my hat by mistake. When I came to go, there was nothing left for me but a rather seedy gray derby with a black band, containing the initials "J.G.W." As the poet was visiting in Cambridge at the time I took opportunity next day to write the following letter to him:
Cambridge, Mass.November 7, 1890.
Dear Mr. Whittier:
I am afraid that in the confusion following the Save-Our-Song-Birds meeting last night, you were given my hat by mistake. I have yours and will [pg 005]gladly exchange it if you will let me know when I may call on you.
May I not add that I am a great admirer of your verse? Have you ever tried any musical comedy lyrics? I think that I could get you in on the ground floor in the show game, as I know a young man who has written several songs which E.E. Rice has said he would like to use in his next comic opera—provided he can get words to go with them.
But we can discuss all this at our meeting, which I hope will be soon, as your hat looks like hell on me.
ROBERT C. BENCHLEY.
I am quite sure that this letter was mailed, as I find an entry in my diary of that date which reads:
"Mailed a letter to J.G. Whittier. Cloudy and cooler."
Furthermore, in a death-bed confession, some ten years later, one Mary F. Rourke, a servant employed in the house of Dr. Agassiz, with whom Whittier was bunking at the time, admitted that she herself had taken a letter, bearing my name in [pg 006]the corner of the envelope, to the poet at his breakfast on the following morning....