Wednesday, October 11, 2006
Literary Ghosts of the Algonquin Hotel
The Algonquin, New York's landmarked hotel of literary fame, at 59 West
44th Street, fits very well in the club country, surrounded as it is by the Harvard, Penn and New York Yacht Clubs and the New York Bar Association. Through the 1920s it was home to the famed Algonquin Round Table, literary tastemakers depicted in at least two books (The Vicious Circle by Margaret Case Harriman, and Wit's End by James R. Gaines, 1977) and two movies (The Ten Year Lunch, by Aviva Slesin, 1987 Academy Award, and Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle, by Robert Altman, 1994).
The oak-paneled lobby, to the left of the entrance of the Hotel, is a well-known midtown meeting place, as the Clock of the Biltmore hotel used to be. You sit on oldfashioned brocaded banquettes and chairs and ring the brass bell to order oldfashioned drinks brought by elderly waiters from the bar. We were there to meet old friends, Harold and Joan from Louisville, and I nearly ordered a mint julep in their honor, but the time of year was wrong. Harold is a major dentist and shared with us some dental intelligence, e.g. the legally required extra precautions against infections (multiple latex glowes and the sterilising of such instruments as the head of the drill) has added $23,000 to the expense of the average dental office, against $1,000 forecast by the health people, and guess who pays. He thinks that the single case that brought this on, the Florida dentist who ostensibly deliberately caused AIDS infections, is blown out of proportion. He also tsk-tsked when I told him what we pay for root canal and crown work; their charges are less than half, commensurate with local pay and rental scales. So, if youre going South for the Derby at Churchill Downs anyway... By the way, the Downs is a nice oldfashioned (I seem to be stuck on this word today) racetrack, with flower beds, magnolias, whitewashed wooden buildings and polite crowds, or at least it was last time we looked.
Back to the Algonquin. From where we sat one sees the Rose Room, the main dining room, and Timothy Demetrakos, the maitre d', explained to me that the round central table, under the chandelier and directly against the mirror, was the location of the much larger legendary round table, the daily meeting place of the Wits. Instead of the mirror there was a service bar, to facilitate the stilling of their legendary lunchtime thirsts ("Get me out of these weth clothes and into a dry martini," were Dorothy Parker's first words when coming in from a rainy street).
The Round Table was founded by three Vanity Fair (not New Yorker) writers in 1919, la belle Parker, the humorist and actor Robert Benchley and playwright Robert E. Sherwood. The first occasion was to give a wry wlcome to the New York Times drama critic Alexander Woolcott, who had spent the war (that's WWI) writing "from the theater of war" stories for Stars and Stripes while safely ensconced behind a desk. That started the "ten year lunch," which first met in the Oak Room and were promoted to the Rose Room as their fame grew. The regulars who called themselves the Vicious Circle were, as depicted clockwise, starting from the lower left, in the Al Hirshfeld drawing, Parker, Benchley, stage stars Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontane, Frank Croninshield the publisher of Vanity Fair (the latter three were satellites), Woolcott, Heywood Brown, curly-haired Radical columnist of the World, playwright Marc Connelly, columnist Franklin P. Adams, whose Conning Tower in the New York Tribune made the sayings of the wits world-famous, and authors/dramatists Edna Ferber, George S. Kaufman and Robert Sherwood. Frank Case, the Algonquin's manager who was there since the hotel opened its doors in 1902 and became its owner after 1927, is hovering in the background.
The New Yorker magazine came into the picture in 1925. Some of the wits were poker players - Brown was one - and a parallel, not so public group, the Thanatopsis Literary and Inside Straight Club met, less conspicuously, on the 2nd floor, in all-night poker sessions. Harold Ross, another Stars and Stripes editor, came up with the idea of publishing a sophisticated, literary and humor magazine, "not for the old lady of Dubuque," (luckily for him, he was wrong and the old lady loved it). He talked another player, Raoul Fleishmann of the yeast family, into providing the seed money, $25,000, and another legend was started. Some of the wits became contributors, and the New Yorker editorial people made the Algonquin their home. A copy of the mgazine is placed in every one of the 165 guest rooms, to this day (along with three newspapers).
The New Yorker greats who lunched at the Algonquin extended its fame after the demise of the wits (they got bored around 1929). The Algonquin archives list editors Elwyn Brooks White and William Shawn (1952-87; he lunched on cornflakes) and writers S. J. Perelman, John Updike, Calvin Trillin among the regulars from the magazine.
In 1946 Ben Bodne, a South Carolina oilman realized his life long ambition and purchased the hotel, reputedly for some $975,000. In 1987 it was sold to the Aoki Corporation's Caesar Park subsidiary, reputedly for over $30 million, with a lifetime suite for Mrs Bodne. But the legend carried on. The archives qoute John F. Kennedy to the effect that when he was growing up, he wanted to be a hero of the Charles Lindbergh type, learn Chinese and be a member of the Round Table. The Nobelists came - William Faulkner had a regular suite where he wrote his acceptance speech in 1950; Sinclair Lewis, who wanted to buy the hotel, and Derek Walcott. Frederick Loewe had a suite where he and Alan Jay Lerner wrote My Fair Lady; playwrights Noel Coward, John Osborne, Peter Ustinov and Brendan Behan were Algonquin afficionados, though Behan is best known for his Chelsea Hotel affiliation (that's another article, as is the story of S.J.Perelman's residence at the Gramercy Park Hotel). The Algonquin has been the favorite of famous women - Evangeline Booth, Lady Gregory, Gertrude Stein, Marian Anderson, Simone de Beauvoir, Helen Hayes, Nadine Gordimer, Erica Young, and Southerners, - Eudora Welty, Maya Angelou, Shelby Foote, Reynolds Price. The critical H.L.Mencken called the hotel "the most comfortable in America."
As to the promised ghosts, they are only symbolic, and do not haunt the halls. Alas, being ghost-free is is an important attribute of a first-rate hotel.
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