The Algonquin Wits have embodied intellectual sophistication since the 1920s, when the loose-knit, sharp-tongued coterie of writers, playwrights, journalists and assorted hangers-on held court at lunchtime and beyond at a round table in the Manhattan hotel from which they took their name. Despite a prodigious literary output that engendered Pulitzer Prizes, Oscars and other honors (and midwived The New Yorker), the Algonquins are not, for the most part, the sort of authors that later generations have met in high school or college literature courses. Readers find these writers by other routes and read their works because they want to.
I came upon them in junior high. The entry point was a nondescript-looking volume of American humor I found among my parents’ books – and one story in particular, an absolutely surreal tale called “Carnival Week in Sunny Las Los” by Robert Benchley. His name had caught my attention only once before, in a Laugh In magazine (yes, there was such a thing, and I still have the issue) that reprinted his essay on how to get things done. That piece was droll but not life-changing. The faux travelogue of Las Los, on the other hand, launched me on a quest for everything the public library had by or about this writer and, eventually, his colleagues. One summer I read my way through entire shelves of their works at the library, but the people I kept coming back to were Mr. Benchley and his sometime co-worker Dorothy Parker, one of whose collections I have a distinct memory of reading during math class, with her volume hidden within my textbook.
My introduction and lasting devotion are not unique, I learned one recent evening. The revelation happened, appropriately, at the Algonquin Hotel, during the cocktail hour before Benchley Despite Himself, a one-man show performed by his grandson Nat, who has an extremely winning manner and has produced one CD of readings so far, which deserves a hallowed place in the collection of every Benchley fan. (The dozen selections include “Opera Synopses,” which I have heard called the funniest story in the English language, and which may well be the most brilliant to leave his typewriter.) Strangers struck up conversations to pass the time, and all around me I heard people my age and older saying that they’d first read Mr. Benchley’s work in junior high. (“Do you know what it’s like staying at the Algonquin?” was another query; only one person within my earshot admitted to having checked in once just for the sake of staying there.)
The devotion of some fans goes further than traveling into Manhattan from distant points for an evening. Some have sought out fellow aficianados and formed societies in honor of their favorites Algonquins. One is, of course, the Robert Benchley Society. Membership requires simply signing the guest book; there are no obligations, such as dues or votes, and no meetings, either, though the occasional protracted party does arise. The Society has been known to gather for a fall weekend in its home base of Boston (Mr. Benchley was born in Massachusetts and attended Harvard) to have a good time in Mr. Benchley’s honor. One is in the works again for this year, likely for Labor Day Weekend; check in with the website as the dog days develop for more information. The Society does have chapters, currently numbering six, with names pulled from the source material (LA’s, for instance, is the Uncle Edith Chapter). The Society also offers a page of drink suggestions and awards a Robert Benchley Humor Prize. This year’s competition is being judged by Dave Barry and the finalists, a few of whom hit the style on the head, are posted on the Website.
The Dorothy Parker Society is based in her long-time home (but not birthplace, about more which in a moment) of New York City. Dedicated to having parties instead of meetings, this group throws events with significant style, heavy on 1920s attire and environments. Last year it was the driving force behind her birthplace in the New Jersey shore town of West End (now part of Long Branch) gaining national literary landmark status from Friends of the Library USA. The Society sponsors Saturday walking tours of “the former homes, haunts and hangouts of the Vicious Circle,” which start at the Algonquin Hotel. Tours are led by the Society’s founder Kevin Fitzpatrick, author of the fact-packed, lavishly illustrated book A Journey Into Dorothy Parker’s New York. The next tour is scheduled for August 19, in honor of her 113th birthday three days later.
The Algonquin’s Monday night lecture series includes presentations by the creators of the musical Talk of the Town (July 31), the strange journey of Dorothy Parker’s ashes (September 25) and the leftist politics of Donald Ogden Stewart and Dorothy Parker October 30).
Copyright 2006 Kathy Biehl. All Rights Reserved.