The Algonquin Round Table
The Vicious Circle
Fueled by alcohol, witty banter and caustic wit, this group of trendsetters, ranging from Dorothy Parker to George S. Kaufman, capitalized on a new era of pop culture celebrity, becoming household names and launching a cultural legend. For more than a decade, this chummy band of writers, critics and entertainers gathered each day at New York City’s Algonquin Hotel, earning themselves the nickname the "Algonquin Round Table." They came to epitomize the glamour and excitement of the Roaring Twenties.
Caustic and highly critical, the group delighted in pranks, jokes and childish humor, which caused many people to refer to the group as the "vicious circle." Language and fierce wit were their swords, which they wielded on themselves and each other. Semi-regular and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edna Ferber dubbed them the "poison squad" for their acid tongues. Their standards were high, their vocabulary fluent, fresh, astringent, and very, very tough. Both casual and incisive, they had a certain terrible integrity about their work and boundless ambition.
The Ten Year Lunch
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. Toohey, annoyed at The 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.
Toohey had 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. 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.
What seems clear is that the principals had no 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.
“When I was growing up, I had three wishes – I wanted to be a Lindbergh-type hero, learn Chinese and become a member of the Algonquin Round Table.” -- John F. Kennedy
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.
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.
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.
As members of the Round Table moved into ventures outside New York City, inevitably the group drifted apart as they had drifted together. By the early 1930s the Vicious Circle was broken. The Great Depression had taken hold and the Roaring Twenties had come to a crashing end—but some members had drifted long before that. Some in the group went on to produce films in Hollywood, or become consumed by their literary careers.
The Algonquin Hotel is an American historic hotel located at 59 West 44th Street in Midtown Manhattan, New York City. The hotel has been designated as a New York City Historic Landmark. The 181-room hotel, opened in 1902, was designed by architect Goldwin Starrett. It was originally conceived as an apartment hotel but was quickly converted to a traditional lodging establishment. Its first owner-manager, Frank Case (who bought the hotel in 1927), established many of the hotel's traditions. It had a reputation for hosting numerous literary and theatrical notables, including the members of the Algonquin Round Table.
The hotel is in the Theater District, and it was the home base for the group for 10 years as they ruled the New York literati landscape during Prohibition. They would meet here in the Rose Room for long, liquid lunches. Some nights, there would be a poker game upstairs in one of their rooms. The Oak Room at the Algonquin was long one of New York City's premier cabaret nightclubs. Opened in 1939 (as the Oak Room Supper Club), it was soon closed on account of World War II, reopened as a regular venue in 1980, and closed for good in 2012. Before 1939, it had been called the Pergola Room and was the first meeting place of what became the Algonquin Round Table.
The hotel has a tradition of keeping a cat that has the run of the hotel. The practice dates to the 1930s, when Frank Case took in a stray male cat that was originally named "Rusty." Legend has it that actor John Barrymore, who felt that the cat needed a more "dignified" name, suggested renaming Rusty "Hamlet." Nowadays, whenever the hotel has a cat, all the male cats are named "Hamlet" while all the female cats are named "Matilda."
The stories are legendary and the drinks even more so at The Blue Bar, one of the best and most iconic hotel bars in New York which has delighted thirsty revelers in Times Square since it opened at the demise of Prohibition in 1933. Appointed with the artwork of longtime Algonquin regular, Al Hirschfeld, the Blue Bar pays homage to the Broadway icons who shared cocktails and conversation in the famous New York City bar. Fans of Roundtable member Dorothy Parker in a boozy mood can sip her namesake cocktail—a blend of gin, St. Germain, lemon juice, honey, and basil leaves—to their hearts' content at the hotel's Blue Bar, where it was crafted in her honor.