January 7, 2014
NEW YORK CITY — If you can imagine a place today that would extend credit to struggling but brilliant journalists, novelists and theater people, where, say, Donna Tart and Jon Stewart and Tina Brown might convene daily for lunch and drinks, then there might be a contemporary equivalent of The Algonquin Round Table.
I cannot imagine. The world has turned. Famous writers and actors don’t need credit. Hotels don’t extend it. Actors worry over their portfolios. Writers hire personal trainers. Everyone rushes home to water his ferns.
But I love to visit the elegant Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street and stare at the portrait of a dozen of this country’s most celebrated wits and pretend that such a hard-drinking, take-no-prisoners convention might still be possible. I’d gladly buy a ticket.
First of all, it wasn’t exactly a round table but two tables pushed together. After the first World War, a few doors away from Vanity Fair magazine where they all worked, writers Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Robert Sherwood ate lunch almost every day in the Algonquin Hotel.
They were the core of a group of 20-somethings in the Roaring ’20s who enjoyed free celery and popovers, their own table and waiter and, most importantly, the company of one another. They quickly attracted other members you’ve heard of, including Alexander Woollcott, Edna Ferber, Franklin P. Adams, George S. Kaufman, Heywood Broun and Marc Connelly.
They were critics, most of them, sometimes quite vicious, often of each other. Their strong opinions and ideas often found their way to print — print being their business — and influenced other writers, like Fitzgerald and Hemingway.
Harold Ross was a friend of the Round Table, and at this hotel he secured funding for The New Yorker magazine, which made its debut in 1925. Algonquin guests still get a free copy upon arrival.
How did such a beehive start its buzz? Algonquin owner Frank Case began it all with his friendliness toward actors and writers. Some of his favorites even drank on the house. He attracted personalities like Douglas Fairbanks Sr., John Barrymore and H.L. Mencken.
And he welcomed women. Gertrude Stein, Marian Anderson, Simone de Beauvoir, Helen Hayes and Eudora Welty all eventually made the scene.
Three Nobel laureates visited on a regular basis, including William Faulkner, who is said to have drafted his famous Nobel Prize acceptance speech at the hotel in 1950.
I envy those dozen or so writers their 10 years of banter and booze, their daily breaks from the most solitary task in the world. I would love to have been a coaster beneath a chair leg when Dorothy Parker said something like: “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”
Writers still stay at the Algonquin, of course, make pilgrimages to this Holy Land of wit and wicked humor. And with a squint, a drink and a strong imagination, one can return to the days of glory when there was romance to the sport of writing and camaraderie within its ranks. Or, as Dorothy Parker wrote: “If I didn’t care for fun and such/I’d probably amount to much./But I shall stay the way I am/Because I do not give a damn.”
To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.