Algonquin Round Table
- Rob Morris
The Algonquin Round Table refers to a place, a group, a sensibility, and an era. The place was indeed a round table, near the center and toward the back of the Rose Room in the Algonquin Hotel, on West 44th Street in Manhattan, in New York City. The group was a rotating cast of writers, critics, actors, and hangers-on, most in their twenties and thirties, who for a decade or more met at the table for lunch, sometimes every day. The group's sensibility was witty, urbane, and sophisticated, but also depressive and parochial. The era was the twenties, the decade when America became the center of the world and New York City became the center of America.
A Seat at the Table
The origins of the Round Table, like much of its history, are shrouded in legend. This much is known: on a summer day in 1919, a press agent named John Peter Toohey invited Alexander Woollcott, the drama critic of The New York Times, to lunch at the Algonquin. They were or were not joined by Murdock Pemberton, another, more established press agent. Toohey tempted Woollcott with a confection made by the Algonquin's pastry chef—either angel cake or deep-dish apple pie. Toohey's aim was either to encourage Woollcott's interest in a new playwright, Eugene O'Neill, or to satisfy his friend's sweet tooth.
The lunch quickly became a performance, as any gathering with Woollcott eventually did. Woollcott regaled his friends with tales of his time as a war reporter in Paris. Woollcott's blustery, oft-repeated stories, at this or another lunch, led Pemberton and Toohey (or Pemberton and another friend, Bill Murray) to plan a joking luncheon in honor of Woollcott's return from the war. They invited the city's drama critics and editors, a group that numbered in the several dozens and included most of the men and women who would become members of the Round Table.
The luncheon was held in the Algonquin's Pergola Room, at a long table bedecked with a banner mocking Woollcott's service. Guests received a typed agenda that listed twelve speeches, all to be given by Woollcott, each Woollcott spelled a different way. The tone of the event is hazily recalled by the attendees (affectionate teasing? worshipful tolerance?), but the upshot is clear: the establishment of a daily lunch at the Algonquin. How it was established—who suggested it, who agreed to it—this, too, has been forgotten.
What seems clear is that the principals had no clear sense that they were establishing anything. They simply began to meet every day at one o'clock for lunch—because they worked nearby, because they worked in the same fields (media, public relations, performing arts), because they were young and vaguely ambitious and satisfied with each other's company. They met at first at the long table in the Pergola Room. Soon the hotel's manager, Frank Case, moved them to a round table in the Rose Room, not only because they needed the space, but because their presence drew a crowd. Eventually, Case blocked off the room with a velvet rope to hold back gaping lunch-hour star watchers; by 1928, when the members' achievements had made them famous, Case moved them back to the more private Pergola Room.
Who were they? Even this essential fact has softened with time. Certainly they included Woollcott, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Robert Sherwood, Marc Connelly, George S. Kaufman, Franklin P. Adams, Heywood Broun, and Harold Ross. Other, less familiar names associated with the group include Deems Taylor, Art Samuels, Toohey, Pemberton and his brother Brock, Murray, Jane Grant, and Ruth Hale. Harpo Marx became a standing member in 1924; Edna Ferber (who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1925 for her novel So Big) maintained a tenuous relationship with the group; and Ring Lardner, whom many of the regular members admired greatly, was often linked to the group but spent little time at the table.
Wit for Wit's Sake
What did they do? As a group, of course, they ate lunch—a meager lunch at first, when they were relatively poor and unknown. Within a year or two of their first meeting, some of the men formed a poker group that claimed a second-floor room of the hotel on Saturdays and Sundays. The Thanatopsis Poker and Inside Straight Club (called by many other names; thanatopsis is Greek for “contemplation of death”) drew yet more members, who played with considerable venom for increasingly high stakes. Also, within a year or two of their first meeting, the Round Table began to spend weekday afternoons at the studio of Neysa McMein, a painter who became a favorite of Woollcott's. In the evenings they would find each other at speakeasies like Tony Soma's. In time they would spend weekends together at Woollcott's Vermont retreat or the country estates of friends. They played croquet, charades, and word games. They drank, many of them to excess. They tried and failed to maintain marriages, sometimes to one another.
They also nurtured their careers. When the Round Table began, Franklin P. Adams (known as F.P.A.) was the group's elder statesman at thirty-eight; his column, “The Conning Tower,” a miscellany of droll observation, light verse, and mild opinion, had established itself in the New York Tribune. “The Conning Tower” would last for three decades, moving first to the New York World, then to the New York Post. Adams's Saturday column, “The Diary of Our Own Samuel Pepys,” became a running tally of the Round Table's activities. For a time F.P.A., Woollcott, and Broun were all writing for the World and served as tastemakers for their sizable readership. Woollcott achieved significant fame not only as a literature and drama critic but also as a spokesperson and a radio personality. Broun became increasingly political, and in 1928 he split with the World over his columns defending Sacco and Vanzetti, two immigrants accused, on questionable grounds, of murder. In 1933 Broun helped found the American Newspaper Guild.
In 1919 Parker, Benchley, and Sherwood worked for Vanity Fair; in 1920 Parker was fired (for writing an unflattering review of a play produced by one of the magazine's advertisers), and Benchley and Sherwood quit in protest. Sherwood became an editor at Life (then a humor magazine) and wrote roughly a play per year; Benchley joined him as the magazine's drama critic, and gained renown as a performer, first of comic monologues, then in short comic films. Parker wrote poems, stories, and reviews for Esquire, The New Yorker, and other magazines; her first collection of poems, Enough Rope (1926), became a best-seller.
Kaufman and Connelly collaborated on several successful plays; Kaufman worked with the Marx Brothers on The Cocoanuts (1925) and Animal Crackers (1928), wrote The Royal Family (1927) with Edna Ferber, and in 1932 won the Pulitzer Prize for Of Thee I Sing. Connelly won the Pulitzer in 1930 for The Green Pastures. Ross founded The New Yorker in 1925, with an editorial board hastily assembled from his Round Table friends. Woollcott and Parker became closely associated with the magazine, Woollcott for his “Shouts and Murmurs” column and Parker for her stories and reviews, but the board made its influence felt mostly in the form of an attitude, an ethos. The promotion of that attitude is the Round Table's real achievement.
What defined the Round Table's ethos? First, a respect for the hard, cold facticity of life and language. The Round Table prized precision and scorned vagueness. They came together in the aftermath of World War I, a time when exalted feeling and soft sentiment seemed a betrayal of what the war had shown. Their conversation was a sport in which the winner showed the sharpest tongue. Their word games were fiercely contested; language mattered to them, not because it transcended the real but because it deflated it. The New Yorker's prospectus promised that the magazine would “hate bunk”; this is a neat crystallization of the Algonquins' pose.
Paired with precision was wit. Although they were given to pranks and puns and verbal nonsense, and though they behaved at times like vaudeville hams, the Round Table's humor was more profound than slapstick. This is not to say that their humor was political or philosophical. The humor of the Round Table stood against many things—dullness, conformity, carelessness with language—but all it stood for, in the end, was itself. It was wit for wit's sake. Its positive function was anesthetic: it allowed the members of the group to think of nothing more than the next punchline.
Precision and wit implied sophistication—the ability to discriminate between fine and false. The Round Table served as a barometer of taste in a time when the cultural atmosphere was chaotic. The decade saw the expansion of radio, the beginning of the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Literary Guild, and the birth of the talking motion picture. New York City saw a surge of theatrical productions on Broadway, a booming newspaper business, and an explosion in advertising. The Round Table sat, quite literally, at the center of this. In their columns and criticism, in their plays and performances, in their stories and humorous essays, they satirized the burgeoning American popular culture—its conformity, its routine, its bloodless love of business.
Such was the public face of the Round Table. Yet each characteristic—the razor wit, the cultivated taste—demands closer scrutiny. Much of the Round Table's humor was self-directed. The name they gave themselves soon after they met—the Vicious Circle—was apt: their humor was whip-smart and easily turned against them. Much of their gossip, published or passed along, was about each other. When they reviewed plays or books, they were often reviewing their friends. Often they were kind (they were frequently subject to charges of logrolling); sometimes they were not. Two of the most prominent members, Parker and Benchley, were notorious for their masochistic humor. Parker's poems and stories are colored by self-loathing; the premise of her reviews is typically that her presence is an accident and her qualifications are nil. In his humorous essays and short films, Benchley plays the role of the bewildered duffer, the pale, bumbling modern-day male who would just as soon wake up the next morning in the nineteenth century, when life was so much simpler.
Their taste, too, suffered from parochialism. F.P.A., Broun, and Woollcott—whose reach was enormous, whose columns were read by millions, who were, for at least two decades, as popular and respected as any cultural commentators—cast no shadow on American letters through their opinions. Woollcott and Broun championed F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, but as a whole their criticism offered no vision and made no lasting impression. Parker developed an abject admiration for Hemingway, but her most famous review is a one-sentence put-down of A. A. Milne, the author of the Winnie the Pooh stories. As critics, the Algonquins are best known for puncturing middling work for the entertainment of middle-class readers—or for writing about themselves.
As artists, the Algonquins left a meager legacy. Parker and Benchley are the only writers whose work is still in active circulation. Both were acutely conscious of having failed in their artistic ambitions. A selected volume of Benchley's work confirms the narrow scope of his talent; he played one note exceptionally well. Parker's selected work is at once bracing and depressing—we feel the sting of her wit, and then we sense the hollowness of its purpose. Several of Kaufman's plays are routinely revived. Ross's New Yorker is perhaps the Round Table's most enduring contribution to American letters—the magazine itself, but especially the aura around it: the obsessive concern for factual accuracy, the habitual tone of detached wit, the bemused evaluation of literature and the arts.
The Round Table ended in 1932. The members drifted away, as they had drifted together. The Great Depression had taken hold and the Roaring Twenties had come to a crashing end—but some members had drifted long before that. Ross became consumed with his magazine soon after it began. Connelly moved to Hollywood in 1926; around the same time, Sherwood abstained from the table at Ferber's urging. (He was more productive as a result.) Few of the members talked about the group in later years; when they did, their comments tended toward bitterness.
Something to Write About
Today the Algonquin Round Table is used as a romantic term by anyone with literary ambitions and a desire to be surrounded by smart, funny, cultured people. There is something heroic about the Round Table's attempt to survive only on wit in the face of a swarming mass culture. That they were part of this culture—that their work was widely circulated, that their readers were as often middle-class folks aspiring to sophistication as actual sophisticates—dims only slightly the glow of their legend.
The Algonquins were, for a time, as visible as any clutch of Hollywood stars today. One of their legacies is the public memory of an active literary culture—even of writers as celebrities. They were known, talked about, admired, feared. They mattered. We know them now because they came of age in a time when the art of fashioning a public self—public relations, advertising, self-promotion—was coming of age. Woollcott, F.P.A., and Benchley, to name three, were genuine literary personalities. As a group, the Round Table wielded tremendous power.
One of their ironies is that they seemed not to know what do with that power. Woollcott often lamented that he could be a great writer if only he had something to write about—a remark that captures perfectly the Round Table's depressive, inward-looking worldview. There was everything to write about in the twenties—sweeping political and social change, radical artistic experimentation—but again and again, when they searched for something to write about, the Algonquins simply looked across the lunch table.
The Round Table constitutes not so much a literary movement as a social exemplar. Like the New England transcendentalists of the mid-1800s and the New York Intellectuals of the mid-1900s, they mark a time in American culture when writers and thinkers occupied the public stage. The Round Table would have rolled their eyes at the transcendentalists' fuzzy exaltations, and they would have scoffed at the pretensions of the New York Intellectuals. They rightly belong between these groups. They belong, that is to say, in the middle. They flourished during the birth of the American middle class, which they mocked and served. They wrote in the shadow of the first war fought on a world scale, which signaled the death of one civilization, and during the rise of the world's first mass culture, which signaled the growth of another. They pledged allegiance to neither civilization. They stood in the valley between the two and pledged allegiance to themselves.
See also Parker, Dorothy.
- Benchley, Robert. The Benchley Roundup. Chicago, 1983. Slim volume of selected works. Useful introduction to the Round Table's sensibility.
- Douglas, Ann. Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s. New York, 1995. Magisterial portrait of “the capital of the twentieth century.” Many of the Algonquins play supporting roles.
- Drennan, Robert E., ed. The Algonquin Wits. New York, 1968. A sampler of humor from around the Table.
- Gaines, James R. Wit's End: Days and Nights of the Algonquin Round Table. New York, 1977. A critical group biography that attempts to counter the legend. Lavishly illustrated.
- Harriman, Margaret Case. The Vicious Circle: The Story of the Algonquin Round Table. New York, 1951. A rambling, sunny reminiscence by the daughter of the Algonquin's manager and owner.
- Parker, Dorothy. The Portable Dorothy Parker. Rev. and enl. ed. New York, 1976. Perennially popular collection of Parker's poems, reviews, and stories. Introduction by Brendan Gill is especially helpful.