Friday, August 10, 2018

Photo of the Day: A Literary Legend—The Algonquin Hotel, NYC

The area of 44th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues is rich with literary lore, containing the Harvard Club, the Royalton, and the old New Yorker building, as recounted by Alex Shoumatoff in a 2012 Vanity Fair article. Even so, for sheer concentration of talents and laughs gathered into one place in one era, the Algonquin Hotel holds pride of place.

If you’re a fan of literature, theater, or film, this hotel is Mecca. Starting in 1919, a constellation of playwrights, critics, columnists, and editors gathered here daily in the main dining room to drink and lob witticisms at each other. In golden, electric Manhattan in the 1920s, few places burned brighter than the area around “The Vicious Circle.”

Was there a giant among them? Maybe not. But the likes of Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, Edna Ferber, Alexander Woolcott, Marc Connelly, Robert Sherwood, Heywood Broun, Harold Ross, and Franklin P. Adams (“FPA”) created a collective legend with their “Algonquin Round Table.”'

Even when your tongue was loosened by drink, you were expected to come up with something as dry as one of those Prohibition-era martinis—or, better yet, a stunning riposte that nobody expected. Such was the case with Connelly, as fellow playwright Kaufman passed his hand over his friend’s bald pate. 

“I like your bald head, Marc,” Kaufman chuckled. “It feels just like my wife's behind.”

Connelly nodded agreeably. “Why, so it does,” he answered, just as pleasantly and acidly. “So it does.”

Some of the best witticisms at “The Gonk,” as it came to be nicknamed, took place away from the dining room. In an elevator, Kaufman encountered a former lover now with a new man whom she introduced as being “in cotton.” Kaufman then came out with a lyric from a song already destined to become a classic, now given far different life in his interpretation: “’And them that plants 'em is soon forgotten.’”

I took this photo nearly two months ago on a Saturday afternoon while in the Broadway district. I have wondered since then how the legends that once frequented this building would have felt about entering literary Valhalla. 

Perhaps they would like the idea of being remembered as the American counterpart of “The Club” featuring 18th-century London luminaries like Samuel Johnson, Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith. Or maybe they’d just see themselves as working stiffs trying to get a decent drink in Prohibition-era Manhattan. 

The doings and sayings of the Algonquin Round Table have been chronicled onscreen in the Jennifer Jason Leigh movie Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle and the documentary The Ten-Year Lunch. But to truly remember them in a way those talents would have truly appreciated, it’s probably best to go their work--the humor collections of Benchley, The Portable Dorothy Parker, or Kaufman and Ferber's The Royal Family, among others.

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