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Benchley, Robert (15 September 1889–21 November 1945), humorist, drama critic, and actor, was born Robert Charles Benchley in Worcester, Massachusetts, the son of Charles H. Benchley, the mayor’s clerk, and Maria Jane Moran. After the death of his older brother Edmund in the Spanish-American War, an event that stunned Benchley’s family, Edmund’s fiancée, Lillian Duryea, largely financed Robert’s education. Benchley attended Phillips Exeter Academy, where his bent for satire early revealed itself when his assigned essay on “a practical subject,” embalming, earned an ...

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Harris, Joel Chandler (09 December 1848–03 July 1908), journalist and author, was born near Eatonton, Georgia, the son of Mary Harris. His father was apparently a young itinerant Irish day laborer who lived with Harris’s mother until the child was born and then deserted her. The Harrises moved to a cottage on the Andrew Reid plantation, where the boy was exposed to the major components of mid-nineteenth-century Georgia society—poor white farmers; the social and economic upper-class, plantation-owning elite; and black slaves. At this time Harris began thinking about becoming a writer. Recalling his early life in ...

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Lardner, Ring (06 March 1885–25 September 1933), writer and journalist, was born Ringgold Wilmer Lardner in Niles, Michigan, the son of Henry Lardner, a prosperous businessman, and Lena Bogardus Phillips, a poet. Lardner’s childhood was idyllic. He grew up in a comfortable, upper-class home where nursemaids and other servants supplemented the indulgent, loving care of his parents. As a young child, Lardner, along with the brother and sister nearest him in age, wrote and performed in dramatic recitations, plays, and musical programs in the family home....

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Read, Opie Percival (22 December 1852–02 November 1939), novelist and humorist, was born in Nashville, Tennessee, the son of Guilford Read, a carriage manufacturer, and Elizabeth Wallace. Read enjoyed a peaceful, comfortable childhood, dividing his time between attending school and helping out in the fields. While Read was still quite young, his father moved the family to Gallatin, Tennessee, a small town northeast of Nashville....

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Rogers, Will (04 November 1879–15 August 1935), entertainer and social commentator, was born William Penn Adair Rogers near Oologah, Oklahoma, in what was then the Cooweescoowee District of Indian Territory, the son of Clement Vann Rogers and Mary America Schrimsher, Cherokee ranchers. Rogers County, which contains both Oologah, site of the historic Rogers home, and Claremore, site of the Will Rogers Memorial and Museum, is named after the prominent father, not the prominent son. “Uncle Clem” was a major player in Oklahoma politics before and after statehood (1907), serving as a judge, as a member of the Dawes Commission (to distribute Indian lands prior to statehood), and as the first local banker. Will’s loving wife, the former Betty Blake, whom he married in 1908, later remembered that “Will had everything he wanted. He had spending money and the best string of cow ponies in the country. No boy in Indian Territory had more than Uncle Clem’s boy.” (Yet being “Uncle Clem’s boy” could have its downside, too.)...

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Smith, Thorne (27 March 1891–20 June 1934), author and screenwriter, was born James Thorne Smith, Jr., at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, the son of Commodore James Thorne Smith, who later commanded the Port of New York during World War I. His mother’s name is unknown. Smith attended the Locust Dale Academy in Virginia, followed by St. Luke’s School in Wayne, Pennsylvania. Upon completing his secondary education he studied at Dartmouth College from 1910 to 1912 but left before earning a degree. He began work at an advertising agency in New York and during the following years became acquainted with the artistic and literary circles of Greenwich Village. When the United States entered World War I, Smith enlisted in the navy and rose to the rank of boatswain’s mate. While in the navy he edited ...

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Thurber, James (08 December 1894–02 November 1961), writer and cartoonist, was born James Grover Thurber in Columbus, Ohio, the son of Charles Leander Thurber, a political clerk, and Mary Agnes Fisher. In 1901 the Thurbers moved to Falls Church, Virginia, near Washington, where Thurber’s father had a job as secretary for a congressman. The next year, Thurber was blinded in his left eye by an arrow in a game of William Tell with his two brothers. That year, Thurber’s father lost his job when his employer was not renominated, and the family returned to Columbus. Thurber attended local schools and was elected president of his senior class at East High, from which he graduated with honors in 1913. He enrolled at Ohio State University but dropped out in his sophomore year “just to read.” He returned in 1915, became an editor of the college daily newspaper and editor in chief of the humor monthly magazine, acted for the drama club, and formed a close friendship with classmate ...

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Twain, Mark (30 November 1835–21 April 1910), author and lecturer, was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in Florida, Missouri, the son of John Marshall Clemens, a lawyer, and Jane Lampton. Though he would intimate in good faith that his father descended from the gentry, his paternal grandparents were slave-owning farmers in Virginia, and his maternal grandparents in Kentucky, while better educated and more prosperous, were not wealthy. His father, having moved to Kentucky, was licensed to practice law in 1822. His parents moved in 1823 to Tennessee, where John Clemens accumulated a huge tract, perhaps as much as 75,000 acres, that would for decades figure in family councils as a potential fortune. He had minimal success as an attorney and speculator. In 1835 he embarked on various ventures in tiny Florida, Missouri, the home of John Adams Quarles, a capable farmer and storekeeper married to Jane Clemens’s younger sister....