In its heyday in the twenties, the Algonquin Round Table was a headline-grabbing “smart set” that came to fame in a decade when mass media took center stage in American culture. A showcase setting for journalists and theater people, the Round Table’s stars included Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, Robert Benchley, and Franklin Pierce Adams. They were “famous for being famous,” but, as Parker once said, they “were no giants. Think of who was writing in those days—Lardner, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway.” The Round Table “was just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were.”
Several Round Table members met working for Stars and Stripes while serving in Europe during the Great War. Regrouping in New York after the Armistice, they met at the Algonquin Hotel to throw a welcome-back lunch for Alexander Woollcott in June 1919. It was such a success that someone said, “Why don’t we do this every day?”
In the decade following that lunch, New York was the most exciting place in the world for young writers. It was an age when words mattered, and print journalism flourished. There were 15 major New York newspapers, and two new magazines—Time began publishing in 1923 and the New Yorker in 1925—helped define the cultural dynamism that shaped the postwar era.
As Gilbert Seldes argued in his landmark Seven Lively Arts (1923), the twenties roared not because of European sights and sounds but because of America’s own popular culture: jazz, movies, Broadway musicals, comics, ragtime, vaudeville, and radio. New York’s theater district was a showcase for many of these lively arts, and the centrally located Algonquin became a hub for both theater people and journalists whose offices were nearby. Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott were critics, and George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly both became Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights. Harpo Marx (minus his brothers) was an Algonquin regular, and Robert Benchley launched a stage and screen career from his Round Table roost.
The Algonquin wits earned fame because, as Dorothy Parker noted, “It was the Twenties, and we had to be smarty.” They happily put their stamp of approval on whatever tickled their cultural fancy; if they disapproved, their words could carry poisonous barbs. When I spoke with her late in life, Katharine Hepburn was still fuming about Parker’s snarky review of her stage performance in The Lake: “Miss Hepburn’s emotions ran the gamut from A to B.”
The Round Table enmeshed itself in New York’s dazzling high life, but after the 1929 crash, Broadway faltered. “Talking pictures” became the new media rage, and some of the Algonquin wits followed the money west to write screenplays. By 1930, the Round Table had ceased to exist.
The group’s virtual fame lived on, however, through much of the 20th century. Its legacy of wit and amusement was sustained in the many books that continued to celebrate its importance, beginning with Margaret Case Harriman’s The Vicious Circle (1951), her memoir of growing up in the hotel where her father, Frank Case, was owner/manager. Later notable works included James R. Gaines’s Wit’s End: Days and Nights of the Algonquin Round Table (1977), Dorothy Herrmann’s With Malice Toward All (1982), and Marion Meade’s Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? (1989).
Today’s devotion to tweets and text-messaging, however, has rendered the Round Table’s passion for word-crafting and smartness highly anachronistic. Their fame has passed from companionable familiarity to the dark sidebars of “history.” So it is refreshing that someone has now written a book that restores their cultural currency in a fitting and contemporary way. Kevin C. Fitzpatrick is an independent historian and Round Table enthusiast who founded the Dorothy Parker Society in 1999 and has published such earlier works as A Journey into Dorothy Parker’s New York (2005). Most important, he is a licensed New York City tour guide, and The Algonquin Round Table New York is an informative guidebook that treats the Round Table as prime Fodor’s fodder.