The sad news broke this week that the Algonquin Hotel, long one of New York’s literary landmarks, is being converted into a Marriott — or at least, becoming one node of the super-hotel-chain’s “Autograph Collection.” Hopefully the new owners won’t rob the historic hotel of its charms, but we’re still planning to go grab a drink while the ghost of Dorothy Parker is a more prominent part of the decor than olive-and-taupe-tapestries. And just to remind you why you should care — or visit, if you can — we’ve compiled a list of culturally relevant happenings at the Algonquin over the years.
Since the 1930s, when hotel owner Frank Case took in a stray, the hotel has had a tradition of keeping a cat that has the run of the place. Actor John Barrymore decreed that the cat should have a theatrical name — Hamlet. Since then, all the male cats have been named Hamlet and all the female cats Matilda. The current Matilda has her own chaise lounge and — of course — an e-mail address for her fan mail.
The Algonquin’s Round Table — a group of 20-something artists, writers, and other New York notables — installed themselves in the Algonquin Hotel’s Rose Room every day to discuss news and literature, exchange witticisms, and, of course, drink heavily. The tradition started when Dorothy Parker, Robert E. Sherwood, and Robert Benchley gathered a group of literati to welcome Alexander Woolcott home from World War I — and used the event to basically skewer Woolcott. Their gathering lead to the founding of The New Yorker, which is still free to guests of the hotel.
Playwright George Kaufman was a regular at the Round Table, and a prominent figure in many of the stories about the circle. Apparently, he was once offered a paltry $30,000 by Adolph Zukor for the movie rights to a play. Kaufman sent Zukor a telegram back, offering to buy Paramount for $40,000.
Actress Tallulah Bankhead — a native Alabamian — was a fixture in the hotel lobby, imbibing huge quantities of booze and cocaine. She apparently had a habit of sprinting naked around the hallways, and occasionally would invite visitors up to her room, where she prepared fried chicken and grits. The recipe was included in Spécialités de la Maison, a cookbook that collected celebrity recipes from the 1940s and had several other Round Table members’ fixins in it.
Though he was too late to join the Vicious Circle, which disbanded, more or less, in the 1930s, William Faulkner did write his famous acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize while staying at the Algonquin.
The Vicious Circle had its own poker club, dubbed the Thanatopsis Literary and Inside Straight Club, which met every Saturday night. Harold Ross secured funding for setting up The New Yorker through his winnings in poker. Other regulars included Franklin Pierce Adams and sportswriter Heywood Broun.
Dorothy Parker, perhaps the most famous and acerbic of the Round Table’s members, was known for her cutting remarks and wry humor. The years she lunched at the Algonquin were some of the most fruitful of Parker’s career. Some selected zingers:
“I was following in the exquisite footsteps of Edna St. Vincent Millay, unhappily in my own horrible sneakers.”
“I hate the Office; It cuts in on my social life.”
On her divorce: “It serves me right for keeping all my eggs in one bastard.”
“That woman speaks eighteen languages, and can’t say No in any of them.”
The composer-lyricist dream team Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner wrote the musical smash My Fair Lady while holed up in Loewe’s suite in the Algonquin.
The Algonquin was also a popular honeymooning spot for the high-brow set. Orson Welles stayed there after he married Virginia Nicholson, and “King of Hollywood” Douglas Pickford brought his new bride, actress Mary Pickford.
The Algonquin is also home to the $10,000 martini, a signature drink that embellishes the traditional vermouth and gin concoction with a single, enormous diamond. No better way to propose than to insult your lover and then offer up booze-drenched gems, eh?