When he was growing up, John Fitzgerald Kennedy had three wishes. He wanted to be a hero like aviator Charles Lindbergh, to learn Chinese and to become a member of the Algonquin Round Table, a legendary literary landmark that made a hotel at 59 W. 44th St. in New York City famous.
The Algonquin Hotel opened in 1902 and was so named because the land on which it stands is said to have been inhabited by Algonquin Indians. Ever since, its oak-paneled lobby has been the place to be to watch the comings-and-goings of famous actors, musicians and writers.
Famous guests of the Algonquin have included J.D. Salinger, the Irish dramatist Lady Augusta Gregory, and William Faulkner, who wrote his 1950 Nobel Peace Prize speech in his hotel suite. Gertrude Stein, H.L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis all lived at the hotel for a time. Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford honeymooned at the Algonquin; while promoting Robin Hood in 1922, Fairbanks showed off for reporters by shooting arrows from the hotel’s roof. Orson Welles wrote his book, Everybody’s Shakespeare, there, then returned to propose to his future wife; the couple had their honeymoon dinner in the hotel’s restaurant. In 1956, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe composed My Fair Lady in Suite 908, working 24 hours while writing “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Maya Angelou began to write the screenplay of her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, on Algonquin stationery.
Actor John Barrymore often stayed at the Algonquin while performing at the neighboring Hippodrome Theater, the largest theater in the world. Often, Barrymore breakfasted with Frank Case, who bought the hotel in 1927 and owned and managed it until his death in 1946. He also frequently borrowed Case’s shirts, since they wore the same size. When Prohibition ended, Case reopened the hotel’s bar, located in an annex that began in 1878 as a carriage house and stable for trotting horses owned by William H. Vanderbilt and John D. and William Rockefeller. Recognizing that people look more attractive under blue lighting, Barrymore persuaded Case to place blue gels over the lights in the bar. The Blue Bar has been a popular feature of the hotel ever since.
“All my life I have wanted an enormous house far beyond my means in which there was one wing reserved for myself, while the rest of the house was kept filled with excellent company,” wrote Louis Bromfield, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who owned Malabar Farm in Mansfield, Ohio. “I shall never own such a house because in these times it is impossible, but the Algonquin is just as good. At noon, at cocktail time, at dinner, or late in the evening one only has to go downstairs to find the best and most stimulating company in the world….For me the Algonquin supplies virtually everything I ask in life….”
The Algonquin is equally famous for its feline mascot. Its first cat was named Billy and was followed by Rusty, who was eventually renamed Hamlet when John Barrymore suggested the cat needed a more dignified name. Ever since, male hotel cats have been named Hamlet, and female cats are called Matilda. The current cat, Matilda, presides in the lobby, resting on her personal chaise longue, behind the computer on the front desk, on a baggage cart, or in her very own Pet Tree House, made especially for her.
One day in the summer of 1919, a group of struggling writers who worked nearby came to the Algonquin for lunch because it was inexpensive and convenient. To keep the group coming back, Case seated them at a large round table in the center of the dining room and provided complimentary popovers and celery. For the next 10 years, they returned for lunch every day, and the group came to be known as the Algonquin Round Table. The ideas and opinions that they shared during those lunches would eventually influence writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Visitors can still dine at that very same round table.
The original Algonquin Round Table members included Franklin Adams, who contributed to the New York Tribune, New York World and New York Evening Post and was best-known for his columns,“Always in Good Humor” and “The Conning Tower.” Robert Benchley, the first managing editor of Vanity Fair, went on to work for Life and then became an actor. His short film, How to Sleep, won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject in 1935. Robert Sherwood first worked as editor at Vanity Fair and Life, then as a Pulitzer Prize- and Oscar-winning playwright. Alexander Woollcott, theater critic for The New York Times, wrote his reviews in a third-floor room at the Algonquin. George Kaufman was a columnist before becoming a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. Heywood Broun was a sports writer for the New York Tribune and the New York World.
But it is Dorothy Parker who may be the most well-known member of the Round Table. She began her career as a theater critic for Vogue and Vanity Fair; then, she wrote for Life, becoming known for the witty phrases that she incorporated into her short stories, poems and screenplays. If terms like “birdbrain,” “pain in the neck,” “scaredy-cat,” “wisecrack” and the expletive, “Shoot!,” are in your vocabulary, thank Dorothy Parker for introducing them into the American vernacular.
Many of the Algonquin Round Table’s members helped launch the career of a caricaturist named Al Hirschfeld. We arrived just in time to see “The Hirschfeld Century,” an exhibit of artwork in the hotel’s lobby based on The Hirschfeld Century: A Portrait of an Artist and His Age, a book by David Leopold. The exhibit included Hirschfeld’s drawings of Mary Martin in Peter Pan (1954); Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding (1951); Zero Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof (1964), Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly! (1964), and other Broadway and Hollywood stars drawn by Hirschfeld during his nearly century-long career.
After a big win in a Round Table poker game, Harold Ross used his earnings to create a magazine called The New Yorker in 1925. Its first office was located at 25 W. 45th St., from 1925 to 1935; that year, it moved a block away to 28 W. 44th St. and stayed there for almost 60 years, until 1991.
For more on the Algonquin Hotel and the Round Table, see Tales of a Wayward Inn; Do Not Disturb; and Feeding the Lions: An Algonquin Cookbook, all by Frank Case; Algonquin Cat: A Story, by Val Schaffner, with drawings by Hilary Knight of Eloise fame; A Journey into Dorothy Parker’s New York, by Kevin C. Fitzpatrick; The Algonquin Round Table New York: A Historical Guide, by Kevin C. Fitzpatrick; and Bon Mots, Wisecracks and Gags: The Wit of Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table, edited by Robert E. Drennan. A Friendly Game of Murder; You Might As Well Die; and Murder Your Darlings are all “Algonquin Round Table Mysteries” by J.J. Murphy.
For more on the New Yorker, check out The Receptionist: An Education at the New Yorker, by Janet Groth; Cast of Characters: Wolcott Gibbs, E.B. White, James Thurber, and the Golden Age of the New Yorker, by Thomas J. Vinciguerra; Covering the New Yorker: Cutting-edge Covers From A Literary Institution; About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, by Ben Yagoda; Ross and the New Yorker, by Dale Kramer; and The Years With Ross, by James Thurber. E.B. White, who started his writing career in New York during the 1920s, returned to the city during the summer of 1948 to lend a hand at the short-handed New Yorker. While he was there, he wrote Here Is New York, which captures the essence of the city at that time.
Mary Norris, a copy editor at the New Yorker, talked about her book, Between You And Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, on All Sides with Ann Fisher on March 31, 2016. Click here to listen to it.