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Carroll's life and letters; Benchley novel

Nathaniel Benchley takes us back (or attempts to take us back) no further than prohibition days with his novel Speakeasy (Doubleday, $15.95). But even the use of actual people (John Barrymore, Humphrey Bogart, Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott) never brings the story to life. Though in real life they were friends of his father, Robert Benchley, Nathaniel Benchley never lifts them above the cliche. The atmosphere of those witty gatherings that made The New Yorker a symbol of the city in the '20s is never recaptured.

I must say, however, that when the novel sent me back to firsthand accounts written nearer the time, I found my memory had tricked me, and neither the books nor the characters were as brilliant as I thought. But those earlier books confirmed my feeling about the way ''Speakeasy'' treated Dorothy Parker. It conveyed neither her wit nor her tragedy, and I suppose she will continue to be remembered for her ''Men seldom make passes/At girls who wear glasses'' and forgotten for her poems, as bitter-sad, and lemon-sharp as anything that came from the pen of A. E. Housman.

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I intend to forget that Nathaniel Benchley ever wrote ''Speakeasy'' and remember instead that by writing ''The Off-Islanders'' he gave us the basis for a delightful film (''The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming'').

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