By Pat Springer
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Before the late 20th century social media onslaught of Twitter, Facebook, Tik Tok and Instagram, The Algonquin Roundtable in New York City served as the influential seat among the period’s cultural elite of daily banter and gossip. Headquartered in the legendary hotel on West 44th Street during the early 1900s, The Roundtable, owes its fame to the writers, actors and playwrights who ate, drank and held court there.
Its most famous members, Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, among others, were the influencers of their day, dispensing wit and wisdom through their newspaper and magazine columns. Wielding power and prestige, they had the power to shape public opinion. The Roundtable was its own Twitterverse.
A recent stay at the century-old hotel, situated in the heart of the Times Square theater district, allowed me to relive its history – to imagine a time when meaningful communication was driven entirely by face-to-face conversations. I asked myself if a group of friends – talking, writing, laughing and meeting every day still mattered in this digital age. I wondered if a 2022 tweet, after 100 years, will be as relevant as a screenplay by George S. Kaufman.
According to author Kevin Fitzpatrick in “The Algonquin Round Table New York,” a history guide, “The Algonquin had operated for close to 20 years before the Round Table took up residence in 1919. Its roots went back to Paris. Eight of the future friends served in uniform during WWI; several others were in France as civilians. The shared experiences of the group – working together, sharing meals, playing cards – transferred back to Manhattan when the war ended.”
That very first lunch in 1919 was a result of a scheme to give one of its future members, Alexander Woollcott (a sergeant who finagled a transfer to the newspaper office in France) a coming home luncheon at the hotel. It featured a who’s who of writing and acting in New York City.
No one wrote what was said or discussed at that very first lunch but the mood and fun struck a chord with the young and talented New Yorkers. As they walked into the daylight of West 44th Street, one asked, “Why don’t we do this every day?” A ritual and a legend were born – and they did just that for the next 10 years.
After that day in June 1919, playwrights, actors, humorists, publishers and writers met as many as six days a week to discuss the issues of the day. They were between 27 and 40 years of age and represented all that was racy, refined and romantic during this Jazz Age era.
The Roundtable featured the best and the brightest of its time. Other notable names included: Robert Benchley, one of the funniest writers of the 20th century; Heywood Broun, the quintessential newspaperman; Harold Ross, founder of the New Yorker; and New York Times drama critic Alexander Woollcott.
Parker was the table’s poster girl and her fame was enormous. She was quoted around the country; magazines and newspapers clamored for her short stories. In the ’20s, New York City had more than 15 daily newspapers, with many people reading both a morning and evening edition. Journalists were some of the most widely read writers of the era. Parker’s wit had found its home.
I love a martini –
But two at the most.
Three, I’m under the table;
Four, I’m under the host.
She and The Algonquin hotel are inseparable.
Throughout its storied history, the Gonk boasts a list of firsts. It was the first hotel to use electronic room keys, the first to market exclusively to women, and the first to use a red rope for crowd control.
In 1902, the lobby bar was a stand-up only operation. Gentlemen were welcome but ladies could not enter by themselves. Cigars and cigarettes were permitted and brass spittoons lined the room.
On St. Patrick’s Day 1917, the owner of the hotel closed its bar ahead of the passage of prohibition. As a result, Roundtable members, after lunch at the hotel, moved on to many of the neighborhood speakeasies.
When the bar reopened 16 years later, actor John Barrymore, a frequent patron, suggested all its lights be changed to blue since the color was far more flattering to him. Hence, the Blue Bar, where one can still order a cocktail of choice, came into being.
Although its human patrons form the basis of The Algonquin’s legend, Hamlet the cat contributes greatly to its lore. The hotel’s first cat, Billy, resided there during the 1920s Roundtable days. But in 1933 the Algonquin manager rescued a stray he named Rusty. John Barrymore argued, though, that the cat should be named after his greatest stage role – Hamlet. Thus, the tradition of the Algonquin cat was born.
Following his celebrated predecessors – eight Hamlets and three Matildas, the hotel’s current resident, Hamlet VIII, appeared on a luggage rack when I checked out.
So – does the spirit of Dorothy Parker live on in the hotel? It does in the mural that hangs over patrons in the famous restaurant. It does in the rooms that feature Parker quotes on their doors. And it does in the remembrance of a legend.
Parker – like most of The Roundtable members – would have been huge on today’s social media, with millions of followers and fans.
Their talent and legacies endure without it.
Pat Springer is a free lance writer. She publishes a blog, SpringerSoftTails.com.