Ninety-five years ago this June, a group of famous wits gathered for what would become a legendary literary get-together. Check out our who’s who and some of their whip smart quips…
The origin of the Algonquin Round Table’s 10-year lunch lies in a June 1919 gathering at the Algonquin Hotel. The ostensible occasion was to welcome columnist Alexander Woollcott home from the war, but the tribute, studded with barbs, quips, puns, wisecracks, and repartee, was something more akin to a roast. A tradition was established. The round table replaced a long rectangular one a year later, though the group always preferred to call their clique the Vicious Circle. Many full- or part-time wits drifted in and out of the circle, but there were a few stalwarts who could be counted on for servings of poison with lunch until the group dispersed at the end of the 1920s.
Here is our who’s who of the Vicious Circle and some of the famous phrases they served up.
Franklin Pierce Adams
Columnist Franklin Pierce Adams, or F.P.A., was considered to be the father of the Algonquin Round Table, a status that may have derived from his serving as mentor to several of its habitués. His column “The Conning Tower,” which appeared over its 30-year run, variously, in the New York Herald Tribune, World, and Post, frequently featured the writings of other wits, including early work by such Round Tablers as Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott, and George S. Kaufman. Adams’ flair for the erudite couplet or quip was also showcased on the radio quiz show “Information, Please,” in literary parodies such as The Diary of Our Own Samuel Pepys, and, of course, at his daily place of honor in the Vicious Circle.
“Money isn’t everything, but lack of money isn’t anything” – Franklin Pierce Adams
Apart from occasional participant Harpo Marx, humorist Robert Benchley was the only Algonquin Round Tabler bound for movie stardom. With writing and editorial stints at the Harvard Lampoon, Vanity Fair (where he worked with fellow Algonquin wits Dorothy Parker and Robert E. Sherwood), and the New Yorker under his belt, Benchley embarked on a side career as comedian on stage, radio, and screen. His portrayal of the ladies’ club lecturer in The Sex Life of the Polyp set the dry comic mold for Benchley’s many short films through the 1930s, including the Academy Award-winning How to Sleep. He also lent often befuddled and bibulous comic support to a number of features, notably China Seas and Foreign Correspondent. But he played a leading role at the Round Table, where he could be counted on to deliver some of the Vicious Circle’s most famous quips.
“Why don’t you get out of those wet clothes and into a dry martini?” – Robert Benchley to Ginger Rogers in the 1942 movie The Major and the Minor.
George S. Kaufman
Dubbed “the gloomy dean of American humor,” by James Thurber, George S. Kaufman was Broadway’s top playwright of comedies before Neil Simon, co-authoring more than 40 of them. His irascibility did not prevent him from being a master theatrical collaborator, most notably with Moss Hart (You Can’t Take It With You) and fellow Round Tablers Marc Connelly (Merton of the Movies) and Edna Ferber (Dinner at Eight). Another esteemed member of the Vicious Circle, Alexander Woollcott, was devastatingly sent up in Kaufman and Hart’s hit The Man Who Came to Dinner. He also was a major player in actress Mary Astor’s scandalous (and possibly apocryphal) diary entries, which were leaked to the press during a custody battle. Kaufman’s legendary wit lives on not only in his numerous still-popular plays (and their movie adaptations), but in his theatrical aphorisms.
““There was laughter in the back of the theatre, leading to the belief that somebody was telling a joke back there.” – George S. Kaufman
Probably the figure most commonly associated with the Algonquin Round Table—thanks in part to her cinematic immortalization in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle—Dorothy Parker was a peerless purveyor of comic verse, withering literary and theater criticism (famously describing Katharine Hepburn on one occasion as running the “gamut of emotions, from A to B”), and the acerbic takedown.
“I don’t care what is written about me so long as it isn’t true.” – Dorothy Parker
During and after her Round Table years, she achieved great renown as a poet, short story writer, screenwriter, and playwright. She was also a formidable depressive (attempting suicide at least three times), a committed alcoholic, and an equally committed political activist whose leftist sympathies got her blacklisted during the McCarthy era. But probably nothing Parker accomplished has had the staying power of her mordant verbal wit, or of her oft-recalled reaction to the doorbell chime: “What fresh hell is this?”
Pampered and affectionately ridiculed as an overstuffed pet by the Vicious Circle, Alexander Woollcott could give back as good as he got. A tireless drama critic and radio commentator, Woollcott used his New York Times column “Second Thoughts on First Nights” to adjudge matters of taste in theatre and other realms, drop witticisms, and promote feuds. He also could turn the tongue on himself, acknowledging his great girth and taste for vindictiveness.
“All the things I really like to do are either immoral, illegal, or fattening.” – Alexander Woollcott
Apparently due to an adult bout of mumps, however, Woollcott’s list of indulgences did not extend to the sexual. Towards the end of his life, Woollcott played Sheridan Whiteside, the impossible celebrity guest who won’t leave in Kaufman and Hart’s The Man Who Came to Dinner. The role was clearly inspired by Woollcott, who as ever relished the opportunity to play himself.
Among the other regulars at the Algonquin Round Table were New Yorker editor Harold Ross, writers Ring Lardner, Robert E. Sherwood, Edna Ferber, and columnist Heywood Broun. Broun’s wife Ruth Hale, a feminist who created a stir with the U.S. State Department by insisting her maiden name be used on her passport, was an early Round Tabler who quickly tired of the circle. Accused by one member of humorlessness, she replied, “I thank God that the dead albatross of a sense of humor has never been hung around my neck.”