Meanwhile, Benedict's father, David, had created the character of Baby Snooks for Fanny Brice, written a Broadway hit, and was head writer of Eddie Cantor's radio show. When, at age 13, Benedict needed a date for a school dance, his father tried to fix him up with the burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee (who, informed of the boy's predicament, responded, "Well, for Dave's son..." and flipped a breast out of her bra; Benedict did not pursue the opportunity).
David died when Benedict was 16, leaving gambling debts that bankrupted the family. They left their tower apartment in Manhattan's swank Beresford building (the unit is now owned by tennis star John McEnroe), and Benedict, the eldest of three, dropped out of school to help support the family. He worked for an actuary by day, and wrote scripts at night and on weekends. Eventually, he snagged a job as a junior writer on the Marx Brothers' film At the Circus and headed off to Los Angeles. He wrote gags for Mickey Rooney, Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante. He spent 12 years with The Red Skelton Show, moving with it from radio to television, and wrote episodes of My Favorite Martian and The Andy Griffith Show. He and Nancy collaborated on writing eight books. They still spend hours a day working side by side, Benedict on his humanitarian manifesto and Nancy on a novel.
"Tell her about the time you met Howard Hughes," Nancy said during that first visit, and I listened, rapt, to how the famous eccentric instructed Benedict to shower, sponge himself off with rubbing alcohol, then shower again before their meeting. It was a fine anecdote, but I was more impressed that, at 44, with three kids and a wife to support, Benedict had walked away from his Hollywood paycheck—with Nancy's blessing—to pursue an early dream, the one he'd abandoned when his father died: studying advanced mathematics. He enrolled at UCLA, eventually earning a PhD in mathematical logic and teaching for 35 years at Occidental College in Los Angeles. The man had the courage to reinvent himself at midlife, to refuse to be ruled by regret. Maybe, I thought, I could do that, too.