For more than a decade a group of writers, critics and entertainers gathered each day at New York City’s Algonquin Hotel, earning themselves the nickname the "Algonquin Round Table." The “10-year lunch” epitomized the glamour and excitement of the Roaring Twenties.
Fueled by alcohol, witty banter and caustic wit, this group of trendsetters, ranging from Dorothy Parker to George S. Kaufman, capitalized on a new era of pop culture celebrity, becoming household names and launching a cultural legend.
The group’s first meeting began as a joke
Many of the members of what would become known as the Round Table had served as news correspondents in World War I, including Alexander Woollcott. Woollcott’s ceaseless boasting about his exploits overseas grew so tiresome that a group of friends decided to take him down a notch. In June 1919, they invited a group of fellow critics and writers to an afternoon party at the Algonquin Hotel, near New York City’s theater district.
The group proceeded to roast Woollcott, poking fun at his braggadocio and outsized personality. But rather than be offended by their ribbing, Woollcott was delighted by the attention. And the group decided to meet the next day for lunch, launching a nearly decade-long stint at the hotel. They were at first seated at a long table in the hotel’s Pergola room, but Frank Case, the hotel’s savvy manager soon moved them to a round table in the Rose Room.
There was never a defined list of Round Table members
While regulars included Woollcott, Parker, Robert Benchley, Heywood Broun, Franklin Pierce Adams (known as F.P.A.), Kaufman, Herman Mankiewicz, Robert Sherwood and Harold Ross, a seemingly endless series of semi-regulars and frequent guests helped round out the group. Young actresses, like Eva La Gallienne, Ruth Gordon and Peggy Wood made their way to the table, often seeking the spotlight as well as camaraderie.
Seventeen-year-old Tallulah Bankhead, a southern actress from a prominent Alabama family descended upon New York like a firecracker in 1919. After settling into the Algonquin as a permanent guest, the hard-partying teen and frequent Round Table visitor caused Case to reportedly quip, “I can either run this hotel or look after Tallulah Bankhead.” Playwright Noel Coward joined for lunch on his first trip to New York and would become a popular guest.
They wrote a spoof one-night Broadway show, featuring skits written and performed by Round Table members. Critic and playwright Kaufman teamed up with writer and member Marc Connelly to write a series of plays, including one that launched the career of future theater great Lynn Fontanne. Kaufman next paired with Edna Ferber. Their working relationship was fraught, but produced stage classics, including “Stage Door,” “The Royal Family” and “Dinner at Eight.”
Parker had been working as a writer for Vanity Fair and Vogue when she joined the group. When she was fired after writing a harsh review of a show starring theater impresario Florence Ziegfeld, her close friends Benchley and Sherwood resigned in solidarity. The trio was quickly hired by Ross, who started The New Yorker magazine in 1925, financed with funding from a fellow member and Ross’ “Thanatopsis” poker winnings. The magazine would become hugely influential.
They were nicknamed the 'vicious circle' and 'poison squad'
Caustic and highly critical, the group delighted in pranks, jokes and childish humor, which caused many people to refer to the group as the "vicious circle." Language and fierce wit were their swords, which they wielded on themselves and each other. And semi-regular and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edna Ferber also dubbed them the "poison squad" for their acid tongues.
"They were actually merciless if they disapproved," Ferber wrote of the group. "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."
The post-war years saw a boom in American pop culture. Newspapers, magazine and journals flourished — New York City had more than a dozen daily papers alone. People flocked to see Hollywood films or Broadway shows at one of the 85 theaters in Times Square and radio took on new prominence.
Woollcott became one of New York City’s most celebrated critics, and he helped launch the careers of Fred Astaire, Helen Hayes and the Marx Brothers while writing from a suite he held at the Algonquin. Benchley, Parker and others could make a play, book or film a disaster or a success with their reviews.
Their friendships extended well beyond the Algonquin but the period came with emotional costs
As the group grew closer, they began spending nearly all of their time together. After lunch, they would frequently retire to the apartment of illustrator Nyesa McMein for cocktails. They accompanied each other to dinner and the shows which they would later review, followed by illicit drinks at Prohibition-era speakeasies.
Their exploits and witticisms were regularly reported upon by F.P.A., in his popular syndicated column, “The Conning Tower.” The publicity made the Round Table members stars, with tourists and New Yorkers alike gathering to look on at their daily lunches.
There was a late-night poker club which regularly met upstairs at the Algonquin, acerbically dubbed “The Thanatopsis Literary and Inside Straight Club,” a Greek term for the contemplation of death. They even vacationed together, communally buying Neshobe Island in Vermont, where Woollcott held court for getaways filled with communal meals and games. Trips to Europe saw group members feted at parties, where they kept up the hijinks and personas that made them famous back home.
Like other young adults during the Roaring Twenties, many of the Round Table members welcomed an era of loosened social restrictions. They enthusiastically embraced psychoanalysis and espoused free love, taking multiple partners and sometimes entering free marriages.
But for many, this proved disastrous. Relationships between group members caused rising tensions. Parker’s repeated romantic failures, leading to at least one abortion, left her so depressed she tried to commit suicide at least five times. When Woollcott insisted on moving into a New York City townhouse with newlyweds Ross and Jane Grant, his cantankerous presence helped doom the couple’s marriage. And too many drink-fueled late nights soon took their toll on several members.
Politics helped drive them apart and by the 1930s the party was over
In the group’s early years, most members had eschewed politics in favor of detached, cynical irony, a position not unlike other post-war artists and writers. Two ancillary members, Grant and Ruth Hale (Broun’s wife) were politically active, founding the Lucy Stone League in 1921, a feminist organization that fought for the then-controversial right for women of the era to keep their maiden name after marriage.
But the arrest and subsequent execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in 1927 brought politics to the forefront. The case of the Italian-American anarchists, convicted of murdering a Massachusetts police officer, became a cause célèbre. The case divided America and the Round Table. Parker became a fierce supporter of the pair, a political transformation that saw her championing left-leaning causes for the rest of her life (and famously bequeathing her literary estate to Martin Luther King Jr. upon her death in 1967). Woollcott, convinced of the pair’s guilt, clashed with Parker and other supporters, including Broun and Benchley.
The bonds that held the group together began to fray, as the glittering party that was the Roaring Twenties gave way to the realities of the Great Depression. Several members left New York entirely, including Sherwood, who withdrew to write a series of plays that would earn him four Pulitzer Prizes. Kaufman became a phenomenally successful playwright, producing at least one new show every season until the 1960s. Woollcott became a popular radio star. Braun became increasingly politically active and co-founded the Newspaper Guild.
Some, like Benchley, Ferber and Parker were lured West by the promise of an easy payday but found themselves creatively stifled by Hollywood, although Benchley launched a successful acting career that included an Academy Award. Parker remained a successful poet and screenwriter, but her later years were marred by alcoholism and she later dismissed the literary output of her fellow Round Tablers.
In 1932, Ferber reportedly went to the Algonquin for lunch, expecting at least some members to be there. Instead, she found a family from Kansas sitting at the famous table, officially marking the end of an era.