16 July 2013

Triviality XIII: The Algonquin Round Table

Greetings from a sunny summer's day! I have finally updated all of the pages on the tab above, so why not click on them and peruse them in peace? I have a new page, too: The Trivia page! It contains links to all of my previous trivialities, and will have a random fact of the day (changed about every midday). -Rob

When looking up witty people, a mention of the Algonquin Round Table is usually quite inevitable. You hear about it usually in conjunction with the 1920s, sometimes on Jeopardy and in books. So what was it?

The Algonquin Round Table (or Vicious Circle, as some of the members called it) was a group of extremely witty intellectuals and writers who got together every day for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. For about 10 years, this group of amazing people would get together and just discuss goings on, play games, and do what they did best - be witty and sophisticated.

Caricature of the Round Table.
Photo Credit: PBS

There were about 20 or so people in this circle, but they often left and joined at will so there's really just a rough list. Members include the well-known columnist Dorothy Parker, critic Alexander Woolcott, writer Edna Ferber, actress Tallulah Bankhead, writer Margaret Pulitzer, Marx brother Harpo, New Yorker founder Harold Ross, playwright George Kaufman, columnist Heywood Broun and his wife, Ruth Hale, and writer Robert Benchley. Rarely in history have such amazing and brilliant people come together in a show of brilliance.

So, how did this interesting group of people get together? Ironically - it was all part of a practical joke to welcome back war correspondent Alexander Woolcott, who was away in Europe during World War I. The idea was to welcome him back in a sort of "roast", to make fun at the war and at him in a lighthearted way. All of his writer and journalist friends were invited to the event, which would take place at the Algonquin Hotel.

The event was a success - so successful that those in attendance agreed it should be a "thing" - and thus the Vicious Circle was born, or as Edna Ferber called it, "The Poison Squad". Every day for lunch they would get together and just discuss things that were going on - in society, their jobs, life, anything! Originally they would sit at a long dining table in the middle of the lunch room of the hotel, "the Board", as they called it. (They once had a waiter called Luigi, prompting someone to call them "the Luigi (Ouija) Board."

Dorothy Parker.
Photo Credit: Flickr
But it was hotel manager Frank Cage who got the "Round Table" name for them. He eventually moved them to a private corner with a round table. The "Round Table" was born. And they enjoyed it. The members would each quote each other in their columns. They'd insult and make merciless fun at each other freely. With friends like them, who'd need enemies? They had high standards, high amounts of wit and sarcasm, and high friends. (They were eventually the talk of America during the late '20s.) They'd create word games and have fun at them, including Dorothy Parker's famous line, spoken when asked to use the word horticulture in a sentence,
"You can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think."
At one point, in 1923, the Round Table created a revue (a sort of play) called No Sirree! The actors and actresses in the group acted, the writers and critics wrote and sang lyrics, and even famous violinist Jascha Heifetz played the violin for the show. Unfortunately it was a failure, but it would represent the only time the group got together to work for a project. It did, however, help launch a Hollywood career for 'Tabler" Robert Benchley.

Harold Ross, EIC.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
In 1925, Harold Ross, one of the "Circle", decided to open his own magazine, The New Yorker. Today it is one of the most well-known magazines in all of America. The members would enjoy writing for it and quoting it. Today the Algonquin hands out free copies to its guests, in honor of Ross.

By 1927, the group seemed to start falling apart. America's eye was on these brilliant individuals - people would crowd the lunch room of the Algonquin to stare at them, making them uncomfortable and hard-pressed to talk - and some members started leaving. Others found new jobs in other cities, making them leave New York. The Sacco and Vanzetti court case - a very famous murder case that was headlines for a very long time - made Dorothy Parker and others depressed. Eventually, with nothing to discuss and write about, the group disbanded around 1929.

The most ironic thing is that many years after, many members would criticize the group, disparaging it later in life. Many felt that while "serious writers" such as Fitzgerald, Stein, Hemingway and Lardner were writing, they were just wasting time and doing nothing. However, their contributions to literature and wit are considerable. They were truly some of history's best and brightest people, no matter how cutthroat they were.

Click here to see last week's Triviality.


Source Material: Flickr article, Algonquin Hotel, PBS, Wikipedia, Round Table

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