The Guest List: How Manhattan Defined American Sophistication---from the Algonquin Round Table to Truman Capote's Ballby Ethan Mordden
From the 1920s to the early 1960s, Manhattan was America’s beacon of sophistication. From the theatres of Broadway to the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel to tables at the Stork Club, intelligence and wit were the twinned coins of the realm. Alexander Woolcott, Irving Berlin, Edna Ferber, Arturo Toscanini, Leonard Bernstein, Cole Porter, Dorothy Parker, Truman
From the 1920s to the early 1960s, Manhattan was America’s beacon of sophistication. From the theatres of Broadway to the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel to tables at the Stork Club, intelligence and wit were the twinned coins of the realm. Alexander Woolcott, Irving Berlin, Edna Ferber, Arturo Toscanini, Leonard Bernstein, Cole Porter, Dorothy Parker, Truman Capote, the Lunts and Helen Hayes presided over the town. Their books, plays, performances, speeches, dinner parties, masked balls, loves, hates, likes and dislikes became the aspirations of a nation. If you wanted to be sophisticated, you played by Manhattan’s rules. If you didn’t, you simply weren’t on the guest list. The Heartland rebelled against Manhattan’s dictum, but never prevailed. In this lively cultural history, Mordden chronicles the city’s most powerful and influential era.
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Grand Hotel: The Round Table
The revolution collected its poster children in yet another hotel, the Algonquin, just a few months after Cole Porter claimed his cozy little corner in the Ritz. Here, at 59 West Forty-fourth Street, in Frank Case's twelve-story inn of special appeal to the performing arts and literary worlds, one gazed upon a clutch of truly familyless celebrities.
Some were the offspring of people only recently settled in America after emigration from unglamorous parts of Europe. Others came from geo graphical footnotes in the midwest or a city like Pittsburgh. One was even raised on a commune modeled on the Fourier phalange. Imagine the child of such eerie utopia mixing with the Astors! But the revolution thought nothing of it; if anything, it flavored one's résumé positively. It was only old Society that feared novelty.
None of the these newcomers to the great world had any money to speak of or was ever likely to— not in the way Society understood money. As Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish put it, “We are only moderately well off ”: because the Fishes had no more than “a few million dollars.” Nor did this new group assemble in places thought elite—in the opera box or at Grace Church. Instead, the Algonquinites were theatregoers—especially on first nights, because many of them were theatre critics or knew a few—and essentially heathen. While society's leaders sought prominence within their set but anonymity elsewhere, the Algonquinites wanted to make their names, magnify them. The core group were all writers, but over the decade or so of its existence the Algonquin Round Table hosted actors, publishers, musicians, publicists, and sidekicks of various kinds. Achievers and the friends of achievers were welcome. Those whose achievement consisted in having great- great- grandfathers were not.
The whole thing got started by accident, in late 1919 or early 1920,* at a celebratory lunch more or less devoted to Alexander Woollcott. There were speeches, toasts, and insults both teasing and cutting, and everyone had a wonderful time. Someone said, “Why don't we do this every day?,” and they began to, meeting in the Algonquin's main dining hall at a long table, with side tables attending as needed. Then, sensing an angle for publicity, manager Case moved the gang to the smaller Rose Room, seating them at a round table right in the center of every other diner's view. Some of the Round Table came often and some now and again, with wives, friends, or new talent ready to be Introduced and take the town. The also theres included actress beauties Margalo Gillmore, Peggy Wood, and Ina Claire; playwrights Robert E. Sherwood, Laurence Stallings, and Marc Connelly; novelist Edna Ferber; and comic Harpo Marx. But the Round Table proper counted a sextet:
ALEXANDER WOOLLCOTT, overbearing merrymaker. Best assault on Wooll cott, by Gertrude Stein, who keeps interrupting: Woollcott: “People don't dispute Woollcott.” Stein: “I'm not people. I'm Gertrude Stein.”
ROBERT BENCHLEY, spokesman for the Little Fellow Eternally Puzzled By Life. Characteristic observation: “I seem to be behind on my parades …”
DOROTHY PARKER, wit, lover, and occasional failed suicide. Essential first line of a Parker short story: “Please, God, let him telephone me now.”
*The date of the first lunch is unknown; writers treating the Round Table blithely skate around it.
GEORGE S. KAUFMAN, the fastest draw in the east in sarcasm. Typical un- Algonquinlike gallantry, in a curtain speech at the first night of Once in a Lifetime, a collaboration: “I would like the audience to know that eighty percent of this play is Moss Hart.”
FRANKLIN P. ADAMS, the mentor, already famous in his late thirties when the others were more or less starting out. Another assault on Woollcott, who toys with one of his own books and sighs, “Ah, what is so rare as a Woollcott first edition?” Adams: “A Woollcott second edition.”
and HEYWOOD BROUN, the one no one remembers anything about.Typical Broun line: “ .”
Socially breakaway to the point of mania, the Algonquinites first of all registered their importance for not only their work but their lives. Gossip was no longer relegated to Town Topics and the like; gossip was becoming news, even history. Some of the Algonquinites are read little if at all today, yet they remain famous for their eccentricities, and for doing things that writers don't normally do. A highly theatrical bunch, they actually put on a one-night-only revue called No Sirree! (1922) at a Broadway house, the Forty-Ninth Street Theatre. They took over on a Sunday evening, when the regular tenant, the Russian potpourri Chauve- Souris, wasn't playing. Some 750 guests and their guests— no critics were asked—sat through the usual revue of spoofs and specialties, but what a cast! The opening chorus was sung by Woollcott, Benchley, Kaufman, Adams, Connelly, and John Peter Toohey. There was a goof on a recent Theatre Guild offering, Andryeyef's He Who Gets Slapped, as “He Who Gets Flapped.” He was the six-foot-seven-inch Robert E. Sherwood in straw hat and cane, dwarfing a line of flappers in gingham that included Helen Hayes and Tallulah Bankhead; the girls sang lyrics by Dorothy Parker. Benchley created a comic classic in his bumbling “Treasurer's Report.” (“Mr. Rossiter, unfortunately our treasurer—or rather Mr. Rossiter, our treasurer, unfortunately is confined at his home tonight… .”) Opera baritone Reinald Werrenrath sang “Johnny Weaver,” on writer John Van Alstyne Weaver, the Algonquin's resident Extremely Cute Boy and later Peggy Wood's husband. A. A. Milne's play Mr. Pim Passes By got the “Down with British Whimsey!” treatment. And, in a bow to Ziegfeld, Beatrice Herford took the next- to-closing* as “The Algonquin Girl.”
Staged as “An anonymous entertainment by the Vicious Circle of the Hotel Algonquin,” No Sirree! led to a full- fledged Broadway production, The ’49ers, this time with sets, salaries, and critics. But it was still an amateur night, however full of personality. The non- participating Woollcott, who hated it, likened it to “a dinner consisting of five courses of perfectly splendid lemon meringue pie.”
The ’49ers bombed. Yet it is worth observing that, of its cast, Kaufman, Connelly, and Benchley all distinguished themselves later as performers on Broadway, as did Woollcott as well. The Algonquinites were showoffs, trading in eccentricity in life as well as in work, like actors who never quite made it to the wings.
For instance, wasn't Benchley always “on,” always that bumbling treasurer? The word for him is “mild”; but it's the only word. It was probably Benchley more than anyone else who infused The New Yorker magazine, in its early years, with that zealotry of the trivial that has haunted its reputation ever since—that feeling that its writers seemed unaware of global cataclysm but fell to pieces when they had to change a typewriter ribbon. For Vanity Fair, the old Life, and The New Yorker, Benchley would prosper in the “casual,” on problems with shoelaces or taxis or “Your Boy and His Dog.” These pieces cannot even be called frivolous, because they lack the focus that, say, Noël Coward could bring to rhapsodizing about silly things. Benchley's pieces are curlicues of smoke, a way of writing without saying anything.
*The penultimate offering on a vaudeville bill, invariably taken by the top headliner or, on the small-town circuits, the least terrible act available. The last offering was known as The Chaser—something grisly, to “chase” the public out of the house, freeing seats for the next show. The next-to-closing survives in the concept of musical comedy's Eleven O'Clock Song, an exhibition piece before the last scene, reserved for the star. In old- fashioned shows it tends to the extraneous, such as Bells Are Ringing's “I'm Going Back” or, when two stars share the spotlight, DuBarry Was a Lady's “Friendship.” The reconstructed musical absorbs the convention more thematically, as in Gypsy's “Rose's Turn.”
Benchley in person made the whole act charming all the same. Coward's art is brittle because it's a pose; Benchley isn't faking. Nor is his good friend Dorothy Parker, whose act was Miss Helpless, always short of the carfare home. Taxis seemed to bring out extremes in this set: George S. Kaufman, who made his act out of being imperturbable even when most biting, would become choleric in his dealings with cab drivers.
Yet Kaufman handled anyone else with ease, maintaining the smoothest irony in the business. Out of town with the Hollywood spoof Merton of the Movies, co-written with Marc Connelly, Kaufman found his partner holding tight to a laugh line that got no laughs. Night after night, the line went dud as Connelly kept explaining how it couldn't miss stopping the show as the public roared in delight. “There's only one thing we can do,” Kaufman finally said. “We've got to call the audience in tomorrow morning for a ten o'clock rehearsal.”
Oddly, these newfangled Round Tablers with their disdain— perhaps simply disregard— for received values could be conservative in their own way. Franklin P. Adams’ famous newspaper column The Conning Tower actually anticipated the Internet blog in its printing of contributions from outsiders. Post comments here. Yet Adams himself wrote in an imitation of Samuel Pepys, complete with outdated syntax and bewigged observations. Also oddly, the Jewish Algonquinites were unbelievers yet married strictly within the parish. Further, when Kaufman and his wife, Beatrice, adopted a child, they applied to a Jewish organization for the baby. But if one has no use for the religion qua se, why make a point of expanding one's family under its jurisdiction?
The outstanding conservative in the pack—and, if he had anything to say about it, its leader— was Woollcott, a figure out of a vanished age. Not the nineteenth century but the tenth: a front-parlor pasha, accusing and tiffing, now cajoling his favorites and now consigning the disobedient to an oubliette. In small-town America, Woollcott would have been chased out of the barber shop by the real men, not because he resembled a big fat owl but because he was an angry queen avant le temps, sarcastically abusive of friends and enemies alike and as eager to boost a passion as demolish a peeve.
You've met him. He's Sheridan Whiteside, the man who came to dinner in the Kaufman and Hart play. Mind you, the authors didn't write a version of Woollcott. They wrote Woollcott: domineering yet easily hurt, not only manipulative but manipulating with evil relish, exploding one's direst vulnerabilities then pretending it was a harmless jest. After taking all this in, you notice that he is, after all, innovative in one area: there are no women in his life in the romantic sense. There are the Algonquin women, of course: to play games with and fill out the dinner table. Or perhaps simply to charm the other men.
Was he homosexual? He was certainly gay: in style. But did he go for men? A rumor about some childhood disease removing him from consideration as a begetter of children was the excuse fronting his bachelorhood. But did one need an excuse? This was the age of the mariage blanc. It was almost the rage. Many a show- biz couple mated without mating—the Cole Porters, the Lunts, the Katharine Cornells. And everyone knew that, early on, the Kaufmans had stopped bundling in an open marriage without a thought of divorce. “Beatrice is always picking up these sensitive, ambitious young Jews,” Kaufman told Woollcott, who promptly replied, “Sometimes she marries them.”
So he's worldly, isn't he, our Woollcott? Infirmity was not likely the reason why he did not consort with women. He didn't, either, with men, though he seems to have had a very physical crush on Harpo Marx, who was not unappealing when out of his getup. Woollcott consorted, really, with himself: with his micromanaging of the getaway weekend, with his running commentary on croquet championships and poker marathons, with his grand entrance as drama critic, complete with swirling cape, Count Dracula first-nighting. And, above all, with his devotion to great traditions in the arts, the old masters or those who, like the Lunts, found new ways to make good old- fashioned theatre.
The only really new thing about Woollcott was his status as one of New York's first Famous Queens. Supplementary Algonquinites John V. A. Weaver and Peggy Wood married because they were young and beautiful and gifted. It was the kind of fairy tale that movies invent but untypical of the Algonquin circle and unavailable to Woollcott. His story was that of the Difficult Celebrity, an invention of the 1920s, of Manhattan, of the Algonquin. Here was a new format for the elite, because the Round Tablers were not only peculiar but insular and provincial— not just New Yorkers but the essence of that address. Kaufman always said that he would travel only as far as would allow him to get “back to Broadway and Forty-Fourth by midnight.”
But then, the culture in general was becoming Manhattan-centric at this time. Except for cinema, the entertainment media were headquartered in New York— popular music, for example. As a business, American song lived on Tin Pan Alley, the nickname for a block of Twenty-eighth Street where most of the music publishers auditioned and signed up new ware. The acculturation of radio in the 1920s and the arrival of the talkie at de cade's end produced, for the first time, a truly national music, vitalized by the arrival of the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter. Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern had turned up somewhat earlier, leading an evolution away from, say, “Ta- Ra- Ra- Boom- De-Ay” and toward something like “Night and Day.”
Thus, the first of the movies’ all-sound features with song—the first Hollywood musical ever, released in early 1929— is called The Broadway Melody. It opens with overhead footage of Manhattan's skyscrapers to the strains of the kind of music they're not going to write any more, Victor Herbert's “The Streets of New York.” We move thence to the Gleason Music Publishing Company, situated of course in Tin Pan Alley, and amid the cacaphony we listen for the next tune to define the age. Which will it be? A soprano tries out something on the dippy side, so that isn't it. Piano, guitar, and clarinet sample something hot for a men's singing trio, but the singing's just a little too trio. Or something. That isn't it. An ebullient sister act sways to a lively ballad—but before we can collect it, Mr. Gleason himself appears in the main hallway. (This is in fact actor James Gleason in a small unbilled role, for Gleason is famous for his wise-guy attitudes, what they call a “New York part.”) Gleason's going to let our male lead, Charles King, plug a new one he calls “The Broadway Melody.” You only get one chance with these things, so King instructs the pianist, “The second chorus—a little jazz, a little pep, and everything. Ya know?”
Now everyone crowds in to hear, and if the verse is restrained, the chorus immediately starts swinging. The instrumental trio from before sits in, winging it; one of the ebullient sisters, mesmerized, takes on the rhythm as if a second skin, moving within the sound. Even the dippy soprano gets with it. “No skies of gray on the Great White Way!” King exults, as the gang around him revels in the latest show- biz thing: a song to sweep the nation, stimulate and unite it. That's the Broadway melody, and “Hot dog!” King cries, buttoning the number. That's the tune of the age.
So how provincial were Kaufman and his kind, in fact, in seeing New York as an identity as well as an address? Not only the arts but the press as well was centered in Manhattan, and all of the Algonquites were journalists. Today, we think of them rehearsing their ad libs as if reserving their spots in anecdote collections. But America thought of them as newspaper and magazine bylines. They weren't reporters, of course. They were opinion makers, versed in arcane matters and, in the new Manhattan manner, “cracking wise.” It was a novel style, postwar and seemingly born overnight in 1919, the year historians love to conjure with: a twelvemonth of disillusionment, experimentation, and preparation for the Jazz Age, history as fun.
Perhaps there's too much fun in the concept of a suite of hotel jokesters polishing off a piece, a play, a novel only to rush off to the real work of the day, lunch at the Round Table. Oddly, the Algonquinite's idea of a vacation was to move the Round Table to a rustic setting and thus spend one's “getaway” still being bossed around by Alexander Woollcott. Only now he was barking at everyone from a canoe. Even more oddly, a national readership envied them this life. Like Cole Porter tagging the culture with the names of the fabled great Whom You Must Know, the Round Table created for those who were interested a kind of national get- together of habitués with all New York for neighborhood. Fittingly, one of Woollcott's several radio shows was called The Town Crier, and came complete with clanging bell and “Hear ye! Hear ye!”
One wonders how these people got any writing done. Edna Ferber dropped in to lunch but seldom, because it was such a superb waste of concentration. George S. Kaufman broke up his collaboration with Marc Connelly because it was Round Tabling that thrilled Connelly, not playwrighting. The two men wrote seven Broadway titles, including two smash- hit comedies, two musicals, and Beggar on Horseback (1924), a bizarre breakaway piece to set beside The Threepenny Opera and Follies. Kaufman and Connelly were making theatre history, yet Connelly kept retreating to that Table. It was always something—a costume to be built for the next soigné masquerade, or Margalo Gillmore's cat died and I promised to help bury it. So and so's arriving from Europe; so and so's leaving for Europe. Come on, George, we've got to say Bon Voyage!
Kaufman never quit the Round Table exactly. But he didn't let it slow him up. In fact, his next writing partner was Edna Ferber, who had no use for Margalo Gillmore's cats, dead or alive. Ferber even warned more than one starstruck youngster away from equating the quipping sweepstakes with achieving. It was as if Ferber had been seized by a premonition and visualized the non-existent second act of F. Scott Fitzgerald's life.
Some in the entertainment and publishing worlds looked disdainfully on the Round Tablers, whatever they were up to, art of life or art of work. George M. Cohan, who liked his men real and his women cooking lunch instead of ordering it in a hotel, called it “a Round Table without a square man at it,” and Peggy Wood's newspaperman father thought it “a collection of first-rate second-raters.” Others simply resented the Algonquinite habit of praising each other in book and play review and the like, however tart they might be at Table.
What no one ever mentions is the quality of the food, which—except for a reliable pastry cart—could be called “pleasantly vacuous.” The cuisine wasn't bad, but no matter what one ordered, it all tasted the same. There was a ton of it: the menu offered everything you ever heard of, but also sauerkraut juice, huckleberries, Kuroki salad, stewed rhubarb, acidophilus milk. Just the choice of potatoes is somewhat boggling: cottage fried, lyonnaise, julienne, au gratin, French fried, mashed, fried sweets, candied sweets, hash browned, hashed in cream, and “Saratoga chips,” the old term for the crisps you get in a bag.
Nowadays, when the word “legendary” has been debased to mean simply “well- known in show business,” one hesitates to use it when discussing anything short of the Golden Fleece. But the Algonquin Round Table has truly become legendary in its vast popular recollection, its store of riposte readily quoted, its interaction of hyper personalities, all still vivid when so much else of the twenties fame-shop inventory is forgot. Is Teapot Dome legendary? Peaches and Daddy Browning?*
What exactly was the Round Table's influence? First, its meeting of men and women on equal terms was, as I've said, unusual for the day, a kind of photo op for the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution. This was the one that gave women the vote, proposed on June 4, 1919 and ratified on August 26, 1920— just as the Round Table was getting organized. After it, as their freedom of movement expanded, more women went into law and politics, and the notion of the genteel Lady Novelist with her three names and fluttery attitudes began to vanish.
Then, too, there was the secular makeup of the group. They were not opposed to religion; they simply lived without it. Yet they somehow gave one the impression that the many freedoms they espoused— freedom to defy taboo, freedom to have sex without marriage, freedom to lunch— were bound up in a central freedom to giggle at convention. And religious observance, in the 1920s, was still conventional for most Americans.
This marked a break with the Ben- Hur and Billy Sunday generation, whose art was seasoned with Christian references, whether in the Biblical language of silent-movie intertitles or prayer-like utterances in fictional narratives. The Round Table was not unique in this—one thinks, for instance, of the only somewhat veiled criticism of the church that runs through Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. And Twain, remember, was a spokesman for America, quoted, popular, and beloved. Still, the suavely agnostic nature of the Algonquinite world
* Teapot Dome, Wyoming was one of two federally-owned oil fields (the other being Elk Hills, California) that were handed over for private development through payoffs to officers of Warren G. Harding's cabinet. Harding's Watergate, the scandal revealed an administration corrupt almost right the way through. It's a major piece of the American chronicle, yet the average citizen does not hear content in the words “Teapot Dome” the way he does in “Watergate.” On the other matter, Daddy Browning was old and rich and Peaches was ripe; the tabloids had an outing on their affair.
Excerpted from The Guest List by Ethan Mordden.
Copyright © 2010 by Ethan Mordden.
Published in 2010 by St. Martin's Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Meet the Author
ETHAN MORDDEN is the author of dozens of books, both fiction and nonfiction. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker and numerous other magazines and journals. He lives in Manhattan.
Ethan Mordden is the author of dozens of books, both fiction and nonfiction, including Buddies and I've a Feeling We're Not in Kansas Anymore. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker and numerous other magazines and journals. He lives in Manhattan.
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