Algonquin Round Table


Algonquin Round Table

The Algonquin Round Table was a celebrated group of New York City writers, critics, actors and wits. Gathering initially as part of a practical joke, members of "The Vicious Circle," as they dubbed themselves, gathered for lunch each day at the Algonquin Hotel from 1919 until roughly 1929. At these luncheons they engaged in wisecracks, wordplay and witticisms that, through the newspaper columns of Round Table members, were disseminated across the country.

Daily association with each other both at the luncheons and outside of them inspired members of the Circle to collaborate creatively. The entire group worked together successfully only once, however, to create a revue called "No Sirree!" which helped launch a Hollywood career for Round Tabler Robert Benchley.

In its ten years of association, the Round Table and a number of its members acquired national reputations both for their contributions to literature and for their sparkling wit. Although some of their contemporaries, and later in life even some of its members, disparaged the group, its reputation has endured long after its dissolution.

Origin

The group that would become the Round Table began meeting in June 1919 as the result of a practical joke carried out by theatrical press agent John Peter Toohey. Toohey, annoyed at "New York Times" drama critic Alexander Woollcott for refusing to plug one of Toohey's clients in his column, organized a luncheon supposedly to welcome Woollcott back from World War I, where he had been a correspondent for "Stars_and_Stripes". Instead Toohey used the occasion to poke fun at Woollcott on a number of fronts. Woollcott's enjoyment of the joke and the success of the event prompted Toohey to suggest that the group in attendance meet at the Algonquin each day for lunch. [cite book
last =Herrmann
first =Dorothy
authorlink =
coauthors =
title =With Malice Toward All: The Quips, Lives and Loves of Some Celebrated 20th-Century American Wits
publisher =G. P. Putnam's Sons
date =1982
location = New York
pages =17–18
url =
doi =
id =
isbn = 0399127100
]

The group first gathered in the Algonquin's Pergola Room (now called The Oak Room) at a long rectangular table. As they increased in number, Algonquin manager Frank Case moved them to the Rose Room and a round table. [Hermann, pp. 19–20] Initially the group called itself "The Board" and the luncheons "Board meetings." After being assigned a waiter named Luigi, the group re-christened itself "Luigi Board." Finally they became "The Vicious Circle" although "The Round Table" gained wide currency after cartoonist Edmund Duffy of the "Brooklyn Eagle" caricatured the group sitting at a round table and wearing armor. [Herrmann, p. 20]

Membership

Charter members of the Round Table included:

* Franklin Pierce Adams, columnist
* Robert Benchley, humorist and actor
* Heywood Broun, columnist and sportswriter (married to Ruth Hale)
* Marc Connelly, playwright
* George S. Kaufman, playwright and director
* Dorothy Parker, critic, poet, short-story writer, and screenwriter
* Harold Ross, "The New Yorker" editor
* Robert E. Sherwood, author and playwright
* John Peter Toohey, publicist
* Alexander Woollcott, critic and journalist [cite book
last =Meade
first =Marion
authorlink =
coauthors =
title =Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell is This?
publisher =Penguin Books
date =1987
location =New York, NY
pages =75
url =
doi =
id =
isbn =0140116168 (paperback)
]

Membership was not official or fixed so many others moved in and out of the Circle. Some of these included:

* Tallulah Bankhead, actress
* Edna Ferber, author and playwright
* Jane Grant, journalist and feminist (married to Ross)
* Ruth Hale, journalist and feminist
* Beatrice Kaufman, editor and playwright (married to George S. Kaufman)
* Harpo Marx, comedian and actor
* Neysa McMein, magazine illustrator
* Donald Ogden Stewart, playwright and screenwriter
* Deems Taylor, composer [cite book
last =Altman
first =Billy
authorlink =
coauthors =
title =Laughter's Gentle Soul: The Life of Robert Benchley
publisher =W. W. Norton & Company
date =1997
location = New York
pages =167–8
url =
doi =
id =
isbn = 0393038335
]

Activities

In addition to the daily luncheons, members of the Round Table worked and associated with each other almost constantly. The group was devoted to games, including cribbage and poker. The group had its own poker club, the Thanatopsis Literary and Inside Straight Club, which met at the hotel on Saturday nights. Regulars at the game included Kaufman, Adams, Broun, Ross and Woollcott, with non-Round Tablers Herbert Bayard Swope, silk merchant Paul Hyde Bonner, baking heir Raoul Fleishmann and Ring Lardner sometimes sitting in. [Meade, pp. 76–7] The group also played charades (which they called simply "The Game") and the "I can give you a sentence" game, which spawned Dorothy Parker's memorable sentence using the word "horticulture": "You can lead a whore to culture but you can't make her think." [Herrmann, p. 23]

Members often visited Neshobe Island, a private island co-owned by several Round Tablers, located on several acres in the middle of Lake Bomoseen in Vermont. [cite web
last =Bailey
first =Craig C.
authorlink =
coauthors =
title =Famous Vermonters, Part II
work =
publisher =Business Digest
date =August 1998
url =http://www.vermontguides.com/1998/profil74.htm
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accessdate = 2007-09-19
] There they would engage in their usual array of games plus croquet.

A number of Round Tablers were inveterate practical jokers, constantly pulling pranks on one another. As time went on the jokes became ever more elaborate. Harold Ross and Jane Grant once spent weeks playing a particularly memorable joke on Woollcott involving a prized portrait of himself. They had several copies made, each slightly more askew than the last, and would periodically secretly swap them out and then later comment to Woollcott "What on earth is wrong with your portrait?" until Woollcott was beside himself. Eventually they returned the original portrait. [Hermann, p. 28]

"No Sirree!"

Given the literary and theatrical activities of the Round Table members, it was perhaps inevitable that they would write and stage their own revue. "No Sirree!", staged for one night only in April 1922, was a take-off of a then-popular European touring revue called "Le Chauve-Souris". [cite book
last =Kunkel
first =Thomas
authorlink =
coauthors =
title =Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of The New Yorker
publisher =Carroll & Graf Publishers (paperback)
date =1995
location = New York
pages =81
url =
doi =
id =
isbn = 0786703237
]

"No Sirree!" had its genesis at the studio of Neysa McMein, which served as something of a salon for Round Tablers away from the Algonquin. Acts included: "Opening Chorus" featuring Woollcott, Toohey, Kaufman, Connelly, Adams and Benchley with violinist Jascha Heifetz providing offstage, off-key accompaniment; "He Who Gets Flapped," a musical number featuring the song "The Everlastin' Ingenue Blues" written by Dorothy Parker and performed by Robert Sherwood accompanied by "chorus girls" including Tallulah Bankhead, Helen Hayes, Ruth Gillmore, Lenore Ulric and Mary Brandon; "Zowie, or the Curse of an Akins Heart"; "The Greasy Hag, an O'Neill Play in One Act" with Kaufman, Connelly and Woollcott; and "Mr. Whim Passes By - An A. A. Milne Play." [Altman, p. 203]

The only item of note to emerge from "No Sirree!" was Robert Benchley's contribution, "The Treasurer's Report". Benchley's disjointed parody so delighted those in attendance that Irving Berlin hired Benchley in 1923 to deliver the "Report" as part of Berlin's "Music Box Revue" for $500 a week. [Altman, p. 208–9] The "Report" was later filmed in 1928 [cite web
last =Internet Movie Database
first =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title =The Treaurer's Report
work =
publisher =
date =
url =http://imdb.com/title/tt0019491/
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accessdate = 2007-09-03
] and kicked off a second career for Benchley in Hollywood. [cite web
last =Internet Movie Database
first =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title =Robert Benchley
work =
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date =
url =http://imdb.com/name/nm0070361/
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accessdate = 2007-09-03
]

With the success of "No Sirree!" the Round Tablers hoped to duplicate it with an "official" Vicious Circle production open to the public with material performed by professional actors. Kaufman and Connelly funded the revue, named "The Forty-niners". [Altman, p. 207] The revue opened in November 1922 and was a failure, running for just 15 performances. [Meade, pp. 104–5]

Decline of the Round Table

As members of the Round Table moved into ventures outside New York City, inevitably the group drifted apart. By the early 1930s the Vicious Circle was broken. Edna Ferber said she realized it when she arrived at the Rose Room for lunch one day in 1932 and found the group's table occupied by a family from Kansas. Frank Case was asked what happened to the group. He shrugged and replied, "What became of the reservoir at Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second Street? These things do not last forever." [Meade, p. 320] Some members of the group remained friends after its dissolution. Parker and Benchley in particular remained close up until his death in 1945, although her political leanings did strain their relationship. [Altman 314] Others, as the group itself would come to understand when it gathered following Woollcott's death in 1943, simply realized that they had nothing to say to one another. [cite book
last =Case
first =Frank
authorlink =
coauthors =
title =Tales of a Wayward Inn
publisher =Garden City Publishing Co
date =1938
location = New York
pages =60
url =
doi =
id =
isbn =
]

Public response and legacy

Because a number of the members of the Round Table had regular newspaper columns, the activities and quips of various Round Table members were reported in the national press. This brought Round Tablers widely into the public consciousness as renowned wits.

Not all of their contemporaries were fans of the group. Their critics accused them of "logrolling," or exchanging favorable plugs of each others' works, and of rehearsing their witticisms in advance. [Hermann, p. 29] James Thurber was a detractor of the group, accusing them of being too consumed by their elaborate practical jokes. H. L. Mencken, who was much admired by many in the Circle, was also a critic, commenting to fellow writer Anita Loos that "their ideals were those of a vaudeville actor, one who is extremely 'in the know' and inordinately trashy." [Hermann, p. 30]

The group showed up in the 1923 best-seller "Black Oxen" by Gertrude Atherton. She sarcastically described a group she called "the Sophisticates":

Groucho Marx, brother of Round Table associate Harpo, was never comfortable amidst the viciousness of the Vicious Circle. "The price of admission is a serpent's tongue and a half-concealed stiletto." [cite web
last =Randall
first =David
authorlink =
coauthors =
title =Dorothy, the Algonquin hotel and how the legend just kept growing
work =
publisher =The Independent (London)
date =2002-06-30
url =http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4158/is_20020630/ai_n12628142
format =
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accessdate = 2007-09-16
] Even some members of the Round Table disparaged it later in life. Dorothy Parker in particular criticized the group.

Despite Parker's bleak assessment, and while it is true that some members of the Round Table are perhaps now "famous for being famous" instead of for their literary output, Round Table members and associates did contribute significantly and enduringly to the literary landscape, including Pulitzer Prize-winning work by Circle members Kaufman, Connelly and Sherwood (who won four) and by associate Ferber, and the continuing legacy of Ross's "New Yorker". Others made lasting contributions to the realms of stage and screen, not least of which are the films of Harpo and the Marx Brothers and Benchley, and Parker herself has remained renowned for her short stories and literary reviews.

The Algonquin Round Table, as well as the number of other literary and theatrical greats who lodged there, helped earn the Algonquin Hotel its status as a New York City Historic Landmark. The hotel was so designated in 1987. [Citation
last =Heller Anderson
first =Susan
author-link =
last2 =
first2 =
author2-link =
title =City Makes It Official: Algonquin is Landmark
newspaper =New York Times
pages =
year =1987
date =09-20
url = http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B0DE6DE1E38F933A1575AC0A961948260
accessdate = 2007-10-21
] In 1996 the hotel was designated a national literary landmark by the Friends of Libraries USA based on the contributions of "The Round Table Wits." The organization's bronze plaque is attached to the front of the hotel. [cite web
last =Friends of Libraries USA
first =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title =1996 dedications
work =
publisher =
date =
url =http://www.folusa.org/outreach/landmarks-year/1996.php
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accessdate = 2007-09-13
] Although the Rose Room was removed from the Algonquin in a 1998 remodel, the hotel paid tribute to the group by commissioning and hanging the painting [http://www.algonquinhotel.com/pop_roundtable.html "A Vicious Circle"] by Natalie Ascencios, depicting the Round Table, and also created a replica of the original table. [cite web
last =Iovine
first =Julie V.
authorlink =
coauthors =
title =Algonquin, at Wits' End, Retrofits
work =
publisher =New York Times
date =1998-05-28
url =http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C00E1DC1238F93BA15756C0A96E958260&sec=travel&spon=&pagewanted=print
format =
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accessdate = 2007-09-13
] The hotel also occasionally stages an original musical production, "The Talk of the Town", in the Oak Room. Its latest production started September 11, 2007 and ran through the end of the year. [cite web
last =Algonquin Hotel
first =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title =Algonquin Round Table Musical "The Talk of the Town" Returns to Original 1919 Oak Room Setting
work =
publisher =
date =
url =http://www.algonquinhotel.com/press_roundtablemusical.html
format =
doi =
accessdate = 2007-09-03
]

A film about the members, "The Ten-Year Lunch" (1987), won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. [cite web
last =Internet Movie Database
first =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title =Awards for The Ten-Year Lunch
work =
publisher =
date =
url =http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0094119/awards
format =
doi =
accessdate = 2007-09-03
] The dramatic film "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle" (1995) recounted the Round Table from the perspective of Dorothy Parker. [cite web
last =Internet Movie Database
first =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title =Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle
work =
publisher =
date =
url =http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0110588/
format =
doi =
accessdate = 2007-09-03
]

References

External links

* [http://www.algonquinhotel.com/al_round_table.html Algonquin Hotel official Round Table site]
* [http://www.algonquinroundtable.org Algonquin Round Table online history]
* [http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/database/algonquin_round_table.html Page at PBS's American Masters website]
* [http://www.dorothyparker.com/ The Dorothy Parker Society]
* [http://www.robertbenchley.org/ The Robert Benchley Society]


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