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Biting Facts About The Algonquin Round Table, New York’s “Vicious Circle”

Mathew Burke

The Algonquin Hotel still stands at 59 West 44th Street in New York City. For more than a decade, from 1919 to 1930, the Algonquin was the headquarters for some of the most decorated writers of their era. They would meet each day to trade taunts, barbs, and insults; in the process, they gave the world some of the most quoted lines in history. To this day, the “Vicious Circle” remains the go-to source for a biting insult or snappy retort. Here are 42 vicious facts about the Algonquin Round Table.


1. Roast for Dinner

The Algonquin Round Table began as a prank. Theater critic Alexander Woollcott spent World War I working in Europe as a correspondent for the army newspaper Stars and Stripes. Upon his return in 1919, Woollcott was invited to a special luncheon at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. To Woollcott’s surprise, what was promised to be a warm-hearted welcome home was actually a roast.

2. A Nobel Gesture

The roast had been planned by John Peter Toohey, a theatrical press agent. He was upset with Woollcott for refusing to write a positive review of a play written by one of Toohey’s clients. The playwright in question was future Nobel Prize winner Eugene O’Neill.

3. All You Can Eat

A good time was had by all, including Woollcott himself. The participants at that first lunch had so much fun they recreated it again the next day. Then the next day. Then the next. Then the next. This carried on for ten years.

4. Customer Appreciation

Frank Case, owner of the Algonquin Hotel, was thrilled to have such gifted and famous writers among his customers, and was resolved to keep them coming back. He managed to buy the group’s loyalty by offering them free celery and popovers, and their own waiter.

5. The Writers’ Circle

Membership of the Algonquin Round Table was made up of some of the most notable critics, columnists, journalists, and wits in New York City. In addition to Woollcott and Toohey, the group also included Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, Ruth Hale, Brock Pemberton, Harold Ross, Robert E. Sherwood, Robert Benchley, Heywood Broun, Marc Connelly, and Franklin Pierce Adams.

                                                                                                                                Dorothy Parker

6. If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say…

The de facto head of the Algonquin Round Table, Alexander Woollcott was a theater critic for the New York Times and later the New York Herald. Famous and frequently quoted, Woollcott was actually banned from reviewing certain Broadway shows because of his devastatingly cruel comments.

7. Keep It Simple

Woollcott’s friend and tormentor John Peter Toohey was a publicist for Broadway producer Sam H. Harris. Supposedly, Toohey was the one who gave The New Yorker magazine its name.

8. Lifetime Subscription

On that note, The New Yorker was founded and edited by Round Table member Harold Ross. To this day, all guests of the Algonquin receive a complimentary copy of the magazine in recognition of the Round Table’s patronage.

9. Power Couple

Heywood Broun and Ruth Hale were pair of married writers. He wrote columns for the New York Tribune and the New York World, she for the New York Times and Vanity Fair.

10. House Wife

In addition to their writing, Hale and Broun were active political radicals. Broun ran for Congress as a member of the Socialist Party. Hale won fame for challenging the US State Department when they refused to issue her a passport under her own name; Hale opted to stay at home instead of travel as “Mrs. Heywood Broun.”

11. Terms of Engagement

Hale and Broun were married in 1917. Hale would only accept Broun’s proposal on three conditions: she would not take his name, she would not wear a ring, and there would be no music at the wedding. The third condition may not seem as obvious as the first two, but whatever her reason, Hale was adamant. When an organist absent-mindedly cued up the “Wedding March,” Hale refused to walk down the aisle until he stopped.

12. Pioneering Play

Playwright Marc Connelly won the Pulitzer Prize for his play The Green Pastures. It was the first Broadway play to feature an all-black cast.

13. Tone Deaf

George S. Kaufman started his career as the drama editor for the New York Times, but soon began writing plays of his own. He was a frequent collaborator of the Marx Brothers, and wrote several musical comedies for them—which is ironic, because Kaufman claimed to hate musical plays.

14. The Height of Success

Robert E. Sherwood led a notable literary career, co-writing films with Alfred Hitchcock and crafting speeches for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Amongst his talented friends, however, he was mostly known for his height: at 6’8” tall, he towered over the rest of the Round Table.

15. Awards Night

Brock Pemberton was a producer, director, and co-founder of the American Theatre Wing. When his American Theatre Wing co-founder, Antoinette Perry, passed away in 1946, Pemberton founded a theater award in her honor: the Tony.

16. Shark Attack

Robert Benchley, a regular contributor to Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, was the first in a long line of writers. His grandson, Peter Benchley, found fame as the author of Jaws.

17. Sports Illustrated

Franklin Pierce Adams, better known by his pen name FPA, wrote “The Conning Tower,” a recurring column which ran in several New York newspapers. Baseball fans remember him for his poem, “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon,” which recounts a game-winning double play by Chicago Cubs Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance from the perspective of a New York Giants fan.

18. A Star is Born

The most celebrated and best remembered member of the Algonquin Round Table is probably Dorothy Parker, who became one of the most prominent and characteristic voices of the Jazz Age. Parker wrote poetry, short stories, plays, and essays, and eventually began a career as a screenwriter. Her best known film was the original A Star is Born.

19. Critical Condition

When the Algonquin Round Table began meeting, Parker was still relatively new to the scene. She had been working as a staff writer at Vanity Fair for just two years, and had just replaced P.G. Wodehouse as the magazine’s theatre critic.

20. Workers of the World, Unite

In 1920, Parker was fired from her post at Vanity Fair after several Broadway producers complained of her negative criticism. In response, fellow Algonquin Round Table members Benchley and Sherwood did something extraordinary—they quit Vanity Fair in solidarity.

21. Friends of Friends

In addition to the dozen or so charter members of the Algonquin Round Table, the lunch meetings were often visited by a rotating cast of associates. They included the playwright Noel Coward, author Edna Ferber, actress Tallulah Bankhead, and Harpo Marx of the Marx Brothers.

22. Cutting Corners

The original “round table” itself was actually just a regular, rectangular table. As the group expanded, they were moved from the Algonquin’s Pergola Room to the Rose Room, site of the now-famous round table.

23. Board to Death

The group did not arrive at the name the Algonquin Round Table right away, either. They originally called themselves the Board. When they discovered their usual waiter was named Luigi, they began calling themselves the Luigi Board.

24. A Knights Tale

Once the group had been installed at the round table, they adopted the name the Vicious Circle, a reflection of their gleefully mean sense of humor. The name the Round Table gained acceptance after cartoonist Edmond Duffy drew the group as a squad of Arthurian knights.

25. Read ’em and Weep

In addition to their lively lunches, the group also met on Saturday night for poker. During poker sessions, they referred to themselves as “the Thanatopsis Literary and Inside Straight Club.”

26. Just Picture This

In addition to trying to outsmart one another verbally, the group was fond of playing pranks on each other. These pranks became increasingly complicated as time wore on. In one extreme example, after Alexander Woollcott had his portrait painted, Harold Ross and Jane Grant had several copies made. Each one was slightly different than the last.

Over the course of weeks, Ross and Grant would swap out the portraits until Woollcott was left with a very poor depiction of himself. Once the final copy was hung, Ross and Grant remarked on the poor quality of the portrait, leaving Woollcott in a state of confusion and bewilderment.

27. On Broadway

In 1922, the members of the Algonquin Round Table put off their own Broadway show. No, Sirree! was a one-night-only performance that featured short skits or comic songs by all the members of the group and appearances by stars like Tallulah Bankhead and Helen Hayes.

28. A Poor Showing

Though the Algonquin Round Table were at the height of their popularity, No, Sirree! was not especially successful. After its initial one-night-only performance received positive reviews, a full run of the show was planned, but poor attendance led to the cancellation of the show after just 15 performances.

29. Going Hollywood

The most successful part of No, Sirree! was Robert Benchley’s sketch “The Treasurer’s Report.” “The Treasurer’s Report” was incorporated into an Irving Berlin show, and later made into a movie, which launched Benchley’s career as a screenwriter.

30. Loose Leaf System

Despite it being released as a short film in 1928, Benchley did not write a proper script for “The Treasurer’s Report” until 1930. Until that point, Benchley relied on some notes he had scribbled on the back of an envelope.

31. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Most members of the Algonquin Round Table were journalists with daily columns, so it’s no surprise that the Table’s best quips and jabs quickly made their way into the papers. By 1925, crowds were coming out to the Algonquin every day, just to watch the group have lunch.

32. All Shook Up

Though their heyday came at the height of Prohibition, the Algonquin Round Table were no strangers to a stiff drink. Their namesake cocktail, the Algonquin, is made with rye, vermouth, and pineapple juice, but there’s no evidence anyone from the group ever ordered one.

33. Islands in the Stream

“The Vicious Circle” even owned their own private island. In 1924, Woollcott bought a large portion of Neshobe Island in Vermont. With the help of other Round Table members, he soon bought the rest of the island. The group would meet there to play charades and croquet.

34. Noisy Neighbors

The members of the Round Table were not universally beloved, of course. Comedy writer and cartoonist James Thurber actually lived at the Algonquin Hotel, and was frequently irritated by the group’s constant pranks.

35. What a Grouch

Even Groucho Marx, who was known for his own biting commentary, and whose own brother was a frequent guest of the Round Table, found their humor needlessly cruel. He once remarked, “Admission to the Round Table is a serpent’s tongue and a half-concealed stiletto.”

36. A League of their Own

Several members of the Round Table were members of the Lucy Stone League. The Lucy Stone League, founded by Ruth Hale, was a feminist group that advocated for, among other things, the legal right of married women to keep and use their maiden names. Members included Hale, Jane Grant, and Round Table associate Neysa McMein—but also male Round Tablers Heywood Broun and Franklin P. Adams.

37. Social Justice Warriors

In 1927, Dorothy Parker and Ruth Hale were arrested. They had traveled together to Boston to protest the impending executions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrant anarchists who had been unfairly convicted for robbery and murder. They eventually pled guilty to “sauntering” and paid a fine of $5.

38. Closed for Lunch

By the end of the 1920s, the group had simply drifted apart. Benchley and Parker both moved to Hollywood, Broun and Hale got divorced. Associate member Edna Ferber noted that she arrived at the Algonquin one day for lunch, only to find a family from Kansas sitting at the round table; it was then she knew the group was finished.

39. Last of the Algonquins

Marc Connelly passed away in 1980. At 90 years of age, he was the last surviving member of the Algonquin Round Table.

40. What’s Up, Doc?

In 1987, Aviva Slesin produced and directed a documentary about the Algonquin Round Table called The Ten-Year Lunch. The documentary—which was narrated by Heywood Hale Broun, son of Ruth Hale and Heywood Broun—won the Academy Award for Best Documentary that year.

41.  Period Piece

A 1994 film, centered around Dorothy Parker, dramatized the rise and fall of the Algonquin Round Table. Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle starred Jennifer Jason Leigh as Parker, and featured performances by Matthew Broderick, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Heather Graham.

42. A Site for Sore Eyes

The Vicious Circle has helped keep the Algonquin Hotel on the map for 100 years now. In 1987, the hotel was named a National Historic Landmark, and in 1996, it was designated a National Literary Landmark. The Rose Room has since been renovated, but houses a replica of the original round table, and a portrait of the group by painter Natalie Ascenios.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20


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