The Vicious Fun of America’s Most Famous Literary Circle – The New York Times

This year is the 100th anniversary of the first meeting of the Algonquin Round Table, one of the 20th century’s most famous literary gatherings. The story has become a part of New York City lore: In June 1919, a group of writers and critics gathered at the Algonquin Hotel, at 59 West 44th Street in Midtown Manhattan, to welcome the critic Alexander Woollcott home from the war. What started as an impromptu lunch (at two square tables pushed together; the round table came a year later) proved to be such delicious fun that the group returned at 1 p.m., and practically every day thereafter, inviting new lunch companions, until it dissolved in the early 1930s.

The wattage of ribaldry and verbal dexterity around the table was enough to electrify all of Manhattan. Regular members of what many called the “vicious circle” included the humorist and editor Robert Benchley, the sportswriter Heywood Broun, the columnist Franklin P. Adams, the producer Brock Pemberton and the screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz. The playwrights George S. Kaufman and Robert E. Sherwood were there. Edna Ferber, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and short story author, regularly sat near Harold Ross, the editor and a co-founder of The New Yorker, as did the “Guinevere of the Round Table,” Dorothy Parker.

With Prohibition descending, the Round Table drank black coffee (with an occasional splash of moonshine from a member’s hip flask), dined on popovers and scrambled eggs, played charades and word games, inhaled cigarette smoke, exhaled sardonic barbs and purred in delight when their wit outmaneuvered their neighbor’s. It is fabled to have been a “10-year lunch” of fabulous, if also ferocious, fun.

But the historical reality of the Algonquin lunch bunch is more interesting than the fable. The go-go image of the Roaring Twenties has much to do with this historical amnesia, for it obscures how the decade not only roared with new consumer toys, sexual liberation and artistic experimentation, but also bellowed with timid provincialism, bellicose nationalism and intractable sexism, racism and xenophobia. The Algonquinites’ exhilaration in verbal exchange as blood sport hides a darker truth they knew all too well: the kind of culture their cosmopolitan liberalism was up against, and what it would take to turn their creative expression into trenchant social criticism.

Dorothy Parker’s claim that “you can’t teach an old dogma new tricks” was no giggly sendup of Victorian notions of propriety and respectability. Rather, it was, much like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation in “This Side of Paradise,” from 1920, a confession of the profound uncertainties wrought by modernity: “Here was a new generation,” he wrote, “grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.”

CreditBob Landry/The LIFE Images Collection, via Getty Images

Much like Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway, the Algonquinites experienced the moral and aesthetic vertigo brought on by a cataclysmic war. But unlike Pound, Eliot and Hemingway, who welcomed being lost in foreign cities abroad, the Algonquin writers rooted themselves in New York City, a place that, according to the historian Ann Douglas, “became for many people impossible,” but “often for the same people, essential.”

The First World War loomed large in the moral imagination of many Algonquin regulars, especially those who served in the war effort, either as servicemen, war correspondents or both (as was the case with Woollcott, Adams and Ross, who wrote for the new military newspaper Stars and Stripes). One Algonquin regular, the playwright Laurence Stallings, got his start as a writer drafting advertising copy for his local military recruiting office before enlisting in the Marines himself in 1917. The reality of war did not live up to his patriotic platitudes. Stallings’s right kneecap — and with it his high idealism — was shattered while he manned a machine gun nest during the Battle of Belleau Wood. He spent eight months in a French hospital enduring multiple operations, only to have his injured leg finally amputated back home in 1922 after a fall on the ice.

While recuperating from the surgery at Walter Reed Hospital, Stallings wrote his novel (and thinly veiled autobiography) “Plumes,” about a soldier who returns from the war disabled, disenchanted and struggling with a corrupt and mismanaged office of veterans affairs. The novel described veterans like himself as “misshapen humans” whose “grotesquely mutilated limbs” broadcast the “gap between the medical knowledge of the time and perversely ingenious war machinery.” Similarly, his play “What Price Glory,” which he co-authored with Maxwell Anderson, opened on Broadway in 1924 to controversy over — but also was a critical success because of — its unforgiving, unglamorized portrayal of the false pieties of a hawkish patriotism.

Similarly, for Robert Sherwood, another regular, the “theater of war” was no Broadway stage set, but rather a personal reckoning with the senselessness of self-inflicted human suffering. After being rejected from the Navy and Army because of his height (he was almost 6 feet 7 inches), he joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force and was shipped to France. Sherwood experienced the horrors of trench warfare, was a victim of a gas attack, became injured after falling into a German booby trap filled with stakes and barbed wire, and witnessed the injury and death of fellow soldiers in the thousands. At Algonquin lunches and in his work as the editor for the humor magazine Life, Sherwood let his wit unfurl. But in his commentaries on film we see the seriousness of his moral obligations as a critic. Especially with movies about war, he argued, “it is quite important” to “get the record straight, and make sure that nothing goes down to posterity which will mislead future generations into believing that this age of ours was anything to brag about.”

For the journalist and poet Alice Duer Miller, the lunchtime battle of the wits at the Algonquin Hotel was a mere sideshow to the real battlefront for feminists like herself. Twenty years older than most of the Algonquin crowd, Miller was a veteran of the fight for women’s suffrage. She rose to prominence through her column for The New York Tribune, starting in 1914, which featured commentary, news items, poetry and fictionalized conversations about female inequality — all leavened with sarcasm and irony. This inspired her 1915 collection, “Are Women People?,” in which she ridiculed anti-suffragist arguments as well as progressives’ blind spots, like those that kept Woodrow Wilson from endorsing a woman’s right to vote during his first term.

Miller’s humor best expressed itself not in verbal karate chops at the Algonquin lunch table but rather as feminist satire. With tongue in cheek, she dismissed women’s fight for suffrage as “such nonsense” and tried to spare women the fate of all the silly men in history struggling for self-sovereignty. “Poor Washington, who meant so well / And Nathan Hale and William Tell” as well as poor “Garibaldi and Kossuth,” who foolishly “threw away their youth.” As Miller saw it, “They could not get it through their heads / That if they stayed tucked up in beds / Avoiding politics and strife / They’d lead a pleasant, peaceful life.” Miller admonished her “dear sisters” to “never make / Such a ridiculous mistake; / But teach our children o’er and o’er / That liberty is just a chore.”

Though she retired her pro-suffragist satire with the passage of the 19th Amendment, Miller never retired her feminist sensibility and deployed it in her light fiction, short periodical pieces and screenplays as one of the most prolific writers of the Algonquin crowd.

Alice Duer Miller was more than an elder stateswoman at the Algonquin Round Table; she also played the role of one of its matchmakers. Long before the daily gatherings were a twinkle in the eyes of Ruth Hale and Broun, Miller introduced them to each other in 1914 at a Giants baseball game. Hale, a self-possessed feminist, agreed to marry Broun in 1917, but with the agreement that there would be no exchange of wedding rings in their ceremony, no commandment for the wife to “obey” her husband in their vows and under any circumstances, no wedding music. Alas, Broun’s mother reneged on the no-music stipulation, and when, at the start of the ceremony, an organist began playing Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March,” Hale refused to go down the aisle until the offending music stopped.

Hale and her Algonquin friend and co-conspirator Jane Grant were happy to win the right to vote, but they were engaged on another front in the fight for social justice: a married woman’s right to keep her maiden name. Grant, herself a pioneering journalist and the first female correspondent to work at The New York Times city desk (where her male colleagues welcomed her with the pet name Fluff), shared Hale’s outrage that marriage symbolized the closing of the accounts for a woman’s individual identity.

For a short time, Grant and her husband, Harold Ross, shared an apartment with Hale and Broun, where the two women would lament losing the lack of formal recognition of their maiden names. Ross complained: “I never had one damn meal at home at which the discussion wasn’t of women’s rights and the ruthlessness of men in trampling women. Grant and Ruth Hale had maiden-name phobias, and that was all they talked about, or damn near all.” Ross suggested the two carping critics start an organization to deal with their grievances, so as to remove the irksome conversation from the comfort of their shared home.

In 1921, Grant and Hale did just that, calling their new organization the Lucy Stone League, named for the first woman in America to keep her maiden name. They gave it the motto: “My name is the symbol for my identity and must not be lost.” (Hale and Grant were successful in raising the visibility of the cause, but it wouldn’t be until 1975 when that right would be confirmed in the case of Dunn v. Palermo.)

The experiences of Grant and Hale show that at least some of the Algonquin members had their sights on more than entertaining the lunchtime crowds that gathered in the hotel to witness celebrities having so much fun. But they also show the gap between the Algonquin group’s reputation for iconoclasm and their lived reality. Grant not only fought for the legal recognition of her family name; she also struggled with her husband’s expectation that she clean up the messes he and his friends left in their apartment after his all-night (and usually all-male) poker games.

Clearly, not everyone was ready for the Algonquin New Woman — not even the Algonquin Hotel itself. When in 1921 Hale lit a cigarette in the lobby, the manager told her that women weren’t permitted to smoke there. Hale promptly boycotted the hotel, but with no support from the group. Some even poked fun at her lack of humor, which she took as a point of pride. Getting women to be taken seriously socially, politically and intellectually was no laughing matter. “I thank God that the dead albatross of a sense of humor has never been hung around my neck,” she said.

Even Dorothy Parker, the grande dame of cleverness who expressed herself most easily and comfortably in devastating wit, had a deadly serious side to her work. She remains the best known and most celebrated of the Algonquin group for her ability to craft double entendres in a taut, whip-snap form. She famously boasted that “the first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.” However, she also understood that “ridicule may be a shield, but it is not a weapon,” and even a casual reading of her Algonquin-era work reveals a sharpening of her form for purposes larger than lunchtime banter.

The catalyzing event that drew Parker from the tight-knit Algonquin circle to the wider world of political and social causes was the case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Based on flimsy evidence, the pair of Italian-born anarchists had been arrested in 1920 for murder in Boston, and their years of trials and appeals had galvanized American intellectuals and activists who saw the case as a clear example of nativist and anti-radical prejudice.

With the pair’s impending execution after their final appeal was rejected in 1927, Parker — along with Hale, Broun and Benchley — gave her voice to their cause. She raised defense funds and wrote moving appeals, and she headed to the Massachusetts State House in protest, where she was arrested and sent to jail for a night.

Parker’s experience hastened the direction in which she was already heading: She became a Socialist and co-founded the first union for screenwriters (using her talents to show, she said, that “union is not a four-letter word!”). She helped raise money to defend the nine black teenage boys accused of raping two white women in Scottsboro, Ala. Through the 1930s she supported anti-Fascist causes and wrote with “courage” and “no awe,” a “disciplined eye and a wild mind,” and with candor and sensitivity, about the persistent bigotry and ignorance bedeviling America.

The Algonquin Hotel became a city landmark in 1987, in large part because of the vicious circle’s outsize fame. This is a fine way of acknowledging a tourist destination, but it shouldn’t be mistaken as an endorsement of the group’s larger intellectual significance — because in the end, there isn’t much of one. Individually, some of them produced work of lasting vision and import: Ferber’s “So Big,” Parker’s “Enough Rope,” Connelly’s “The Green Pastures,” Mankiewicz’s “Citizen Kane.” And Harold Ross and Jane Grant channeled the urbane, witty conversation at the lunches into the voice of The New Yorker, founded in 1925. But collectively, they had little of the intellectual coherence and gravitas of the Bloomsbury Group, nor the aesthetic daring of the Lost Generation, nor the moral urgency or political traction of the Harlem Renaissance’s New Negroes. As a group, they became famous for being famous.

But that doesn’t mean we should dismiss them altogether. For many of the group, the lunch had a social function, and perhaps even an intellectual one, by encouraging them to limber up their mode of creative expression, while perfecting their language to execute it. And some, like Parker, used that exercise and training to take on a more significant social vision — and role. As Parker put it: “There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words.”

Further Reading: Ann Douglas, “Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s”; Kevin C. Fitzpatrick, “The Algonquin Round Table New York: A Historical Guide”; James R. Gaines, “Wit’s End: Days and Nights of the Algonquin Round Table”; Margaret Case Harriman, “The Vicious Circle: The Story of the Algonquin Round Table”; Marion Meade, “Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell is This?”; Nina Miller, “Making Love Modern: The Intimate Public Worlds of New York’s Literary Women”; Paul Murphy, “The New Era: American Thought and Culture in the 1920s.”

Readers, we want to hear from you: Where are today’s socially conscious literary warriors hanging out? Where do you go to exercise your verbal swordplay? Tell us in the comments.

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of “The Ideas That Made America: A Brief History.”

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email:

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.