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  • Tim Tench

The Algonquin Round Table

The last time I spoke at this forum I talked about the Bloomsbury Group. That group of artists, writers, philosophers, and intellectuals who lived and worked in and around central London during the first half of the 20th century, and whose work had a profound cultural influence in both the UK and elsewhere in the English-speaking world.

Today I want to drift across the Atlantic to talk about another group of creative people who lived and worked mostly in New York City just a few years after Bloomsbury. It was a group of writers, critics, actors, and wits that came together the year following the Great War. In 1919 three young aspiring writers were working together in the offices of Vanity Fair in Manhattan. They were: Robert E. Sherwood (movie critic); Dorothy Parker (theatre critic); and Robert Benchley (writer and subsequent movie actor). They became close friends, and adopted the daily habit of lunching together at the nearby Algonquin Hotel. Gradually, their work, wit, and social commentary attracted other like-minded and talented writers to join them for lunch. Thus began the Algonquin Round Table.

Membership of the Bloomsbury Group was wide-ranging - it included painters, writers, philosophers, economists, and academics. Membership of the Algonquin Round Table, however, was almost exclusively concerned with the difficult challenges of the written or spoken word - fiction, criticism, gossip, the theatre, and social commentary. As Dorothy Parker wryly remarked: ‘Writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat.’

As with the Bloomsbury Group, membership of the Round Table was a reasonably fluid, informal affair. There was a core group of about 12 individuals, including Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott (critic, journalist), and Harold Ross (editor of ‘The New Yorker’). Then there was a group of some 20 individuals who moved in and out of Round Table activities as circumstance and inclination dictated. These included: Tallulah Bankhead (actor); Noël Coward (playwright); Harpo Marx (comedian); and Herman J Mankiewicz (screenwriter).

Had the Algonquin Round Table been little more than a series of boozy lunches (as it often was) it is unlikely to be remembered today. But the Round Table was much more than that. It became, for a period of some ten years, a forum in which writers and critics of talent challenged both themselves and others to produce ever more ambitious prose, poetry, and criticism. It was their practice to cast about and review the merits or otherwise of America’s artistic and literary effort. And woe betide anyone or anything deemed to fall short of an acceptable standard.

Edna Ferber (member of the Round Table and Pullitzer Prize winner) remarked that ‘they were actually merciless if they disapproved. I have never encountered a more hard-bitten crew. But if they liked what you had done, they did say so publicly and whole-heartedly’. As others observed, their standards were high, their vocabulary fluent, fresh, astringent, and very, very tough. They had a certain terrible integrity about their work, and boundless ambition.

As we shall see, members of the Round Table were frequently outspoken in their views about a whole range of literary and social issues, as well as issues of social justice and personal freedom. Which is precisely what brought the Round Table to the attention of a wider public. For example, in assessing Katharine Hepburn’s talents as a movie actor, Dorothy Parker wrote‘she runs the gamut of emotions from A to B’. In similar vein, Robert Sherwood remarked of Tom Mix (Hollywood cowboy): ‘they say he rides as if he’s part of the horse, but they don’t say which part’.

As I’ve said, members of the Round Table contributed significantly and enduringly to the literary and cultural landscape of American life. For example, Harold Ross used his connection with the Round Table to launch his cosmopolitan magazine The New Yorker. George Kaufman, Marc Connelly, Robert Sherwood, and Edna Ferber all produced works that won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. Several of the group, especially Robert Benchley, eventually made their way to Hollywood to write Oscar-winning screenplays or to produce award winning films. Dorothy Parker remains celebrated for her short stories, poems, and literary reviews. They were at times a close-knit group, and never more so than in their work environment. Dorothy Parker once observed of a colleague that ‘he and I had an office so tiny that an inch smaller and it would have been adultery’. But their barbs were not always reserved for outsiders. Noel Coward once jested to Edna Ferber ‘you look like a man in that suit’, to which she replied ‘so do you’!

As the antics and sometimes outrageous behaviour of the Round Table grew in notoriety, so it became famous (or infamous) for attracting admiration and criticism in equal measure. Its reputation for the finely tuned yet deadly skewering of pretention eventually earned the Round Table the epithet the ‘Vicious Circle’. As Dorothy Parker herself acknowledged: ‘the first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue’. The Round Table’s critics included James Thurber (author and journalist), who thought that members of the Table were too concerned by their own practical jokes to be taken seriously by anyone in the literary world. Groucho Marx (Harpo’s brother) was much more brutal, saying of the Round Table that ‘the price of admission is a serpent’s tongue and a half-concealed stiletto’.

Robert Charles Benchley was a prominent member of the Algonquin Round Table. He was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1889. When he was nine years of age his older brother Edmund was rushed into the Spanish-American War only days after graduating from West Point (1898), and was killed almost immediately. The Benchley family was attending a Fourth of July picnic when news of Edmund’s death reached them. Mrs Benchley cried out ‘Why couldn’t it have been Robert?’, while the child Robert was standing by her side. Mrs Benchley apologised profusely to Robert and tried hard to atone for the remark. Nonetheless, its emotional impact on the nine year old would be hard to imagine, let alone the premature death of the brother he so idolised. And it would be difficult to refute the suggestion that these two traumatic events may have played a role in the formation of Benchley’s lifelong pacifism.

In 1908 Benchley entered Harvard University, where he did well studying English. His personal style and sense of humour began to emerge at this time, and he was often called upon to entertain fellow students. His impressions of classmates and professors were very popular, and these gave him some local fame. In seeking to complete his studies at Harvard, Benchley submitted a ‘scholarly paper’ on the then prevailing US-Canadian Fisheries Dispute, written from the point of view of a cod! Not surprisingly, the award of Benchley’s Bachelor of Arts degree was delayed for a couple of years!

In about 1915 Benchley accepted a permanent position as reporter with the New York Tribune. Unfortunately, he proved to be dismal at the job, seemingly unable to gather even the most basic facts about the subject under report.And so he was transferred to the Tribune’s Sunday magazine where he was commissioned to write two articles a week: the first a review of non-literary books; the second a feature-style article about whatever he wanted. This freedom to express himself gave his writing new life, and the success of his pieces convinced his editors to give him a signed by-line column.

Benchley’s approach to research and writing inspired staff at the Tribune towards greater creativity in the articles they produced. But morale at the magazine eventually deteriorated as the pacifist Benchley became unhappy with the Tribune’s position on the Great War. At the same time, the Tribune’s editors became unhappy with the evolving tone and irreverance of the magazine. And so it was that in 1917 the Tribune shut down the magazine, and once more Benchley was out of work. In response to the closure, Benchley remarked: ‘Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said nothing!’

In 1919 Vanity Fair offered Benchley the position of managing editor. Vanity Fair’s format at that time suited Benchley’s style very well, allowing his work to have a humorous tone, often as straight parody. His columns were published twice a month. It was then that Benchley began a close personal and professional friendship with Robert Sherwood and Dorothy Parker, who were also working at Vanity Fair. Thus began those long lunches at the Algonquin Hotel that were to become both celebrated and notorious.

When Vanity Fair’s editorial managers foolishly went on a European trip en masse, Benchley, Sherwood, and Parker took advantage of the situation, writing articles mocking the local theatre establishment and offering parodic commentary on a variety of topics, including the effect of Canadian ice hockey on United States’ fashion. Management on its return were horrified, and terminated Dorothy Parker’s employment. On learning of this, Benchley tendered his own resignation; word of which was published in Time magazine by Alexander Woollcott. Given that Benchley had two children, Dorothy Parker referred to his resignation as ‘the greatest act of friendship I’d ever seen’.

In response to a public rebuke that members of the Round Table could only criticise and not produce, the Round Table staged a one-night theatrical production called ‘No Sirree!’ Benchley’s contribution to the program, the ‘Treasurer’s Report’,featured Benchley as a nervous, disorganised man attempting to summarise a company’s annual expenses. The production was greeted with applause by spectators and actors alike. Repeat performances of the ‘Treasurer’s Report’ were often requested, and Irving Berlin himself hired Benchley for $500 a week to perform it nightly during his ‘Music Box Review’, which ran from 1921 to 1922.

[Many of Benchley’s performances, including ‘The Treasurer’s Report’ can be found on YouTube]

Benchley’s writing and acting continued to receive positive responses when, in 1925, he accepted an invitation from film producer Jesse L. Lasky to write screenplays at $500 a week. Although this particular venture was not successful, it did open the door for Benchley to move to Hollywood and into the business of movie production. He wrote filmscripts for ‘The Treasurer’s Report’ and ‘The Sex Life of the Polyp’; and acted in the movie ‘The Spellbinder’. All three were made and released by Fox Films, and all were financially successful and critically acclaimed. Benchley remarked at this time that ‘I have tried to know absolutely nothing about a great many things, and I have succeeded fairly well’.

In 1933 Benchley took a role in the feature film ‘Dancing Lady’, also featuring Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Fred Astaire, Nelson Eddy, and the Three Stooges. Subsequent movies which Benchley wrote or starred in included: How to Sleep; How to be a Detective; How to Train a Dog; and How to Behave. In 1940 Benchley appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent for which he was also credited as one of the dialogue writers. Reflecting on this time, Benchley remarked that ‘it took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous’.

At about this time Benchley’s drinking, already a problem, worsened and he was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. An ironic development given that he had been a fervent teetotaler when younger. But as Benchley himself put it: ‘I know that I’m drinking myself to a slow death, but then I’m in no hurry’.

Robert Charles Benchley died in a New York hospital on 21 November 1945 aged 56. In 1960 he was posthumously inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame with a motion picture star located at 1724 Vine Street.

Robert Benchley’s closest friend and staunchest supporter was Dorothy Parker. Dorothy was born Dorothy Rothschild on 22 August 1893 to Jacob Henry and Eliza Annie Rothschild in Long Branch, New Jersey.[Mr and Mrs Rothschild were not related to the Rothschilds of fame and fortune.]

Dorothy grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and, together with her sister Helen, attended a Roman Catholic elementary school on West 79th Street. Dorothy once joked that she was asked to leave the school following her characterization of the Immaculate Conception as ‘spontaneous combustion’.

Shortly before Dorothy’s fifth birthday Mrs Rothschild died, and her father remarried a woman named Eleanor Francis Lewis. Dorothy hated her father, whom she accused of physical abuse, and she despised her stepmother whom she refused to call ‘mother’, ‘stepmother’, or even ‘Eleanor’, instead referring to her as ‘the housekeeper’.

Dorothy’s stepmother died in 1903, and her father died exactly ten years later. Following her father’s death, Dorothy played piano at a dance school to earn a living while she worked on her poetry. She sold her first poem to Vanity Fair in 1914, when she was just 21 years old. Some months later she was hired as an editorial assistant at Vogue magazine. After two years with Vogue she moved to Vanity Fair as a staff writer.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries it was widely considered that a woman’s principal role was to produce and to nurture children. Following the Great War, however,things began to change with the appearance of what came to be known as the flapper – those flat-chested, pre-pubescent ‘girls’ whose presence challenged not only the paternal orthodoxy but other women’s sense of their own femininity. Acutely aware as ever, Dorothy Parker wrote that: ‘I had been fed, in my youth, a lot of old wives’ tales about the way men would instantly forsake a beautiful woman to flock around a brilliant one. It is but fair to say that, after getting out in the world, I had never seen this happen’.

In 1917 Dorothy Rothschild married Wall Street stockbroker Edwin Pond Parker II. Given the strong anti-semitism at the time Dorothy subsequently joked that she married to escape her name. The marriage lasted 10 years.

The New Yorker magazine was established in 1925, and Dorothy Parker’s first piece for it appeared in its second issue. By this time Dorothy was becoming famous for her short, viciously humorous poems, many about the perceived ludicrousness of her many and largely unsuccessful affairs, while others wistfully considered the appeal of suicide. The following is a good example:

When I consider, pro and con, What things my love is built upon -- A curly mouth; a sinewed wrist; A questioning brow; a pretty twist Of words as old and tried as sin; A pointed ear; a cloven chin; Long, tapered limbs; and slanted eyes Not cold nor kind nor darkly wise -- When so I ponder, here apart, What shallow boons suffice my heart, What dust-bound trivia capture me, I marvel at my normalcy.

The next 15 years were Dorothy’s greatest period of productivity and success. In the 1920s alone she published some 300 poems and free verse in Vanity Fair, Vogue, and The New Yorker as well as in Life, McCall’s, and The New Republic. She published her first volume of poetry (Enough Rope) in 1926, which sold 47,000 copies, and attracted impressive reviews. The Nation described her verse as ‘caked with a salty humour, rough with splinters of disillusion, and tarred with a bright black authenticity’. Some, however, notably the reviewer for the New York Times, dismissed her work as ‘flapper verse’. Despite this, Enough Rope helped cement Parker’s reputation as a gifted writer and sparkling wit.

[It’s interesting to note the New York Times’ use of the term ‘flapper verse’. Its purpose was to deliver a double blow at Parker’s poetry using a term of contemporary significance. First, and most obviously, the term suggests that the poems are lightweight. Secondly, and malevolently I think, it suggests that the poems cannot be any good because, quite frankly, the poet herself is lightweight - a flapper, a woman!I suspect that Emily Dickinson would not have been amused.]

Dorothy Parker’s best known short story, ‘Big Blonde’, which was published in The Bookman magazine, was accorded the O. Henry Award as the best short story of 1929. Her short stories, though often witty, have been described as spare and incisive; more bittersweet than comic. Her style is often described as sardonic. When asked once about the most beautiful words in the English language, she replied: ‘The one’s I like are ‘cheque’ and ‘enclosed’.

During the late 1920s Parker began to be politically aware. What would become a lifelong commitment to political activism began in 1927 with the impending executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, the anarchists accused of robbery and murder, and about whose trial so much confusion and misinformation arose. Parker and fellow Round Tabler Ruth Hale travelled to Boston to demonstrate against the legal proceedings. They were arrested. Parker eventually pleading guilty to the charge of ‘loitering and sauntering’, and paying a fine of $5. [I’d like to think that Parker shared my amusement at the term ‘loitering and sauntering. There were many things that Parker could have been accused of, but ‘sauntering’ was certainly not one of them!]

In 1932 Parker met Alan Campbell, an actor with aspirations to become a screen writer. Two years later they married, and moved to Hollywood, where they signed ten-week contracts with Paramount Pictures. Campbell was earning $250 a week while Parker was being paid $1,000 per week. They would eventually earn $2,000 and, in some instances, as much as $5,000 per week as freelancers for various studios. They worked on more than 15 movies, including writing the script of the 1937 movie ‘A Star is Born’ for which they were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing-Screenplay.

During the 1930s and 1940s Parker became increasingly vocal in her support of civil liberties and civil rights, frequently criticising those in authority. She reported on the loyalist cause in the Spanish civil war for the communist magazine ‘The New Masses’. During the McCarthy era the FBI compiled a 1,000-page dossier on Parker because of her suspected communist sympathies. As a result, she was placed on the Hollywood blacklist.

Following Alan Campbell’s death in 1963 Dorothy Parker returned to New York City to live in a residential hotel where she died of a heart attack on 7 June 1967, aged 73. In her will she bequeathed her estate to Martin Luther King Jr. Following King’s death, her estate was passed to the ‘National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ’(NAACP)’. Her ashes remained unclaimed in various places, including for some 17 years in her attorney Paul O’Dwyer’s filing cabinet. In 1988 the Association claimed Parker’s remains, and designed a memorial garden for them outside its Baltimore headquarters. The garden’s plaque reads:

‘Here lie the remains of Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) humourist, writer, critic. Defender of human and civil rights. For her epitaph she suggested “Excuse my dust”. This memorial garden is dedicated to her noble spirit which celebrated the oneness of humankind and to the bonds of everlasting friendship between black and Jewish people….’

Less eloquently, perhaps, but more pointed, Dorothy Parker summed-up her career and existence when she wrote: ‘Ducking for apples; change one letter and it’s the story of my life’.

As the 1930s approached, and as members of the Algonquin Round Table began finding opportunities beyond the City of New York, the bonds that held the group together inevitably began to loosen. ‘It didn’t end, it just sort of faded,’ recalled Marc Connelly. Edna Ferber said that she realized it was all over when she showed up at the Algonquin for lunch one day in 1932 and found a family from Kansas seated at the group’s usual table.

Towards the end of her life Dorothy Parker was strongly critical of the Algonquin Round Table saying that its members were ‘just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were. Just a bunch of loudmouths showing off… There was no truth in anything they said’. My view is that it was a remark made when Dorothy’s health had already declined and when she had been living in difficult economic circumstances for some while. It is a remark that fails to recognise the extraordinary achievements of the Round Table and its energising effects on 20th Century American literature. Dorothy’s rather gloomy denunciation should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt, bearing in mind her own admission that ‘I don’t care what is written about me, so long as it isn’t true!’

If there is one thing that characterised members of the Round Table in addition to their love of the English language, it was their love of alcohol. In the time of Prohibition the fascination with alcohol and the impulse to seek out venues where alcohol could be illegally obtained was almost irresistable. Of course, the impact of heavy or prolonged drinking varies depending on the nature of the individual (not to mention the choice of tipple). In the case of Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker the impact was serious. As we have seen, Benchley died of cirrhosis of the liver while Parker felt compelled to admit that ‘I’m not a writer with a drinking problem, I’m a drinker with a writing problem’. More poignantly, perhaps, her relationship with alcohol and its effects were best summarised in the famous lines: ‘I wish I could drink like a lady; I can take one or two at the most. Three and I’m under the table; four and I’m under the host’.

Some members of the Round Table remained friends following its dissolution, particularly Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, but for all intents and purposes, the ‘Vicious Circle’ was broken with the onset of the 1930s. For one glorious decade America had been treated to the biting wit and sparkling wordplay of a band of tastemakers who embodied an era and who enduringly influenced American humour and culture, including that of the next generation of gifted writers F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

To finish, I leave the last words to the gifted and wildly irrepressible Dorothy Parker when she wrote: ‘Three be the things I shall never attain: envy, content, and sufficient champagne’.

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