When Dorothy Parker Got Fired From Vanity Fair and Started The Algonquin Roundtable

From the Public Domain Review:

Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker.

New York’s Plaza Hotel was, in 1920, already a symbol of luxury, excess, and pretension. (It has since been owned by, among others, Conrad Hilton and Donald Trump.) In this setting, Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield, after commanding the staff to bring a huge bouquet of roses for the table, explained to Dorothy Parker that her predecessor, P. G. Wodehouse, wished to resume the job of theater critic. He complimented Parker’s writing and invited her to freelance for the magazine. She left.

Returning to her West 71st Street apartment, Parker may have been greeted by her husband. Eddie had returned to New York the previous summer, struggling with drug use as did many GIs returning from the Great War. For commiseration, Parker telephoned her friend and confederate Robert Benchley, who immediately caught a seven p.m. train to Manhattan from his home in Crestwood, arrived at the Parker apartment, and offered support. The next morning he walked into Crowninshield’s office and, in protest against Parker’s dismissal, tendered his letter of resignation.

That afternoon, Parker and Benchley went to the Algonquin to tell their stories, staying for hours of gossip and rounds of drinks. After repeated recountings, the Round Table wits, who had long heard the complaints about Nast and Crowninshield, sprang into action.

Alexander Woollcott persuaded his editors at the New York Times that the paper should cover the story. His article, “Vanity Fair Editors Out: Robert Benchley Follows Mrs. Parker–Criticisms Under Fire,” appeared the next day—good publicity for the trio, tantamount to a free “for hire” listing. A few days later, another writer from the table, Frank Adams, publicly shamed Vanity Fair: he described the kerfuffle in his column “The Conning Tower” running in the New-York Tribune. The incident helped make the Algonquin Round Table a thing.

This informal group of colleagues, friends, adversaries and contestants had started taking shape over the previous summer, starting at a roast for theater columnist and Broadway personality Alexander Woollcott upon his return to New York from military duty. The group met at 59 West 44th Street, in the dining room of a hotel that had opened in 1902 under the name The Puritan. It was Frank Case, who managed the establishment for over two decades and then bought it in 1927, who, perhaps hoping to entice a less puritan clientele, rechristened it The Algonquin, giving it the name used for a group of indigenous tribes. One can assume that Case did not intend the irony of using a name for people who had been forcibly exiled from New York City three centuries earlier.

From 1920 on, the Algonquin became a regular meeting place for a group eventually to include a host of literary and cultural figures, including New Yorker founder Harold Ross, fiction writer Edna Ferber, sportswriter Heywood Broun, and Harpo Marx. It was Case, again, who made the decision to arrange a large round table for this garrulous group, set right in the middle of the Algonquin’s “Rose Room” where they could be on display for other customers, especially the tourists. “The Gonk”, as its regulars took to calling it, was where Parker was to encounter Will Rogers, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Sayre, Ernest Hemingway, and the artist Neysa McMein, who would become her close friend.

Speak Your Mind