Snap poll: Name a New York City hotel that’s known for its literary history. One place unfailingly comes to mind — Midtown’s Beaux Arts beauty The Algonquin. Opened in 1902, The Algonquin quickly became the center for the celebrated writers who occupied its Round Table, propelling it into erudite history. “When I was growing up, I had three wishes,” President John F. Kennedy once said. “I wanted to be a Lindbergh-type hero, learn Chinese and become a member of the Algonquin Round Table.” Named after the Native American tribe who once occupied the area, The Algonquin claims to be NYC’s oldest operating hotel. It is also noted for being the first to welcome women traveling alone, and the first to have electronic key locks. In 1987, it became an official NYC landmark, and it achieved literary landmark status in 1996. But there’s more — a lot more — to the hotel’s history. Read on to learn about its intriguing past and present.
About that Round Table
It’s perhaps the most famous piece of furniture in hotel history. But “the actual Round Table has been lost,” says J. J. Murphy, who, as author of the popular series Algonquin Round Table Mysteries, has researched the hotel’s heyday during the Jazz Age. “No one knows what happened to the original round table.” Early hotel manager Frank Case provided the table for the Vicious Circle, a group of wits who lunched there nearly every day from 1919 to 1929, famously volleying bon mots while dining. The group included Robert Benchley, managing editor of Vanity Fair; playwright and novelist Edna Ferber; New York Times drama critic Alexander Woollcott; and the sharpest tongue of them all, poet, satirist and critic Dorothy Parker. Modern historians wonder, however, if those lunches were actually as clever as legend has it. “My sense is that [the Round Table] wasn’t funny at all,” James R. Gaines, the author of Wit’s End: Days and Nights of the Algonquin Round Table, told the New York Times. “It was very competitive, which made it sort of unfunny. I certainly would not have wanted to lunch with them.” Those Round Table lunches aren’t the hotel’s only literary connection, however. The New Yorker magazine was created at The Algonquin by RT member Harold Ross. And, William Faulkner wrote his Nobel Prize acceptance speech within the hotel’s walls, too.
Did they or didn’t they?
The Round Table lunches were storied to be liquor-soaked affairs. After all, Dorothy Parker is often credited (and often disputed) with writing this clever rhyme:
I love a martini —
But two at the most.
Three, I’m under the table.
Four, I’m under the host.
And on a rainy day, Robert Benchley ostensibly said, “Let’s get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini.”
However, the Vicious Circle gathered during the time of Prohibition. So was their boozing a mere fable? Says Murphy, “The story goes that The Algonquin’s manager, Frank Case, had closed the hotel bar several years before Prohibition even began. He also despised speakeasy owners, who he saw as taking away his business.” Still, Murphy says it is very likely that the Vicious Circle’s lunches were liquid on the sly. “They were almost… what we’d call functional alcoholics,” Murphy points out. “At least one of their number — sportswriter Heywood Broun — always carried a hip flask, and he probably wasn’t the only one.”
The $10,000 martini
Though it may have officially been dry back in the day, today spirits flow freely from the hotel’s Round Table Restaurant and the Blue Bar. Round Table regular Alexander Woollcott claimed that the Brandy Alexander was invented there and named for him. Cocktail historians dismiss this claim. Rather, the hotel signature is The Algonquin, a blend of rye, dry vermouth and pineapple juice. Martinis are also a popular order. You can choose from a regular version, at $22, or go big with the $10,000 option. It comes garnished with a diamond from in-house jeweler Bader & Garrin.
The quips coined here are nearly as famous as the hotel’s celebrity regulars
À la the martini rhyme, the stories about the quips tossed around at the table “were as much myth as fact,” says Murphy. “They most certainly told their jokes and witticisms with the intention that they be overheard and repeated, such that they got impossibly tangled and mangled by repetition — a literary whisper-down-the-lane.”
One of Murphy’s favorites is an interchange between early Algonquin manager/owner Frank Case and Nobelist William Faulkner. Faulkner appeared to be under-the-weather, and Case asked the author what was wrong. “I feel like the devil. My stomach’s upset,” Faulkner said. “Something you wrote, no doubt,” Case retorted.
Another gem is Edna Ferber’s rejoinder to Noel Coward, when Ferber arrived at the hotel wearing a new suit, similar to the one Coward sported. “You look almost like a man,” Coward said. “So do you,” Ferber replied.
It wasn’t the boldface names who really made the Algonquin famous
Rather it was the hotel’s first desk clerk, and eventual manager and owner, Frank Case. Case is credited with naming the hotel, swaying the original owner against his choice of the Puritan. A giant supporter of the literary arts, Case was also responsible for starting the Round Table, by not only providing the actual piece of furniture, but by gaining loyalty by serving its members celery and popovers each day, on the house. Case was also known to be forgiving of the debts of struggling writers. He bought the property in 1927 and remained the owner and manager until his death in 1946. At that time, the hotel was bought by oil magnate Ben Bodne, as a gift to his wife. The couple fell in love with The Algonquin on their honeymoon and owned it until 1987.
The famous musicians who owe their start to the hotel
In 2012, shockwaves rippled throughout the cabaret community when The Algonquin’s famous Oak Room closed due to dwindling business. The narrow, wood-paneled supper club was first launched as a music venue in 1939, but it went dark during World War II and was not revived until 1980. From its reopening until its closure, the Oak Room launched the careers of some of today’s biggest musicians, including Harry Connick, Jr., Diana Krall and Michael Feinstein. Another musical note in Algonquin’s history: “My Fair Lady,” was written by Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe in one of the hotel’s suites.
Today’s most famous resident is a feline
Throughout the years, famous regulars and residents at The Algonquin have included Angela Lansbury, who landed there as a teen from England; Harpo Marx, whose harp was always a chore for staff to fit in the elevator; a honeymooning Orson Welles; and many a Barrymore. Today’s most renowned resident has to be Matilda, however, the lobby cat. The Algonquin has served as home to various rescue cats since 1930. According to hotel lore, when Frank Case brought in the first stray, actor John Barrymore named it Hamlet. Male cats from there on have always carried the name of the theatrical prince, and females are traditionally named Matilda. The current Matilda came to The Algonquin in 2006. She sits on her own chaise longue in the lobby, and she even has her own email address: email@example.com
The “secret” 13th floor
Superstition, and travel guidebooks, may claim The Algonquin as a 12-story hotel, but there is actually a “secret” 13th floor. “There’s a top floor not’s not accessible to the public,” Murphy confides. “It’s currently used for housekeeping purposes, but decades ago it once housed maid’s quarters and a staff apartment.”
Is it haunted?
Dorothy Parker may have attempted suicide in the hotel, and though she didn’t die there, it is often said that her ghost continues to roam its hallways. While The Algonquin is often cited as haunted, Murphy assures that “the only spirits you’ll find at the Algonquin come out of a bottle. Other than the kind of made-up mythology that clings to every famous landmark, I’ve never heard any good stories about ghosts at The Algonquin.”
An odd staff tradition
New Year’s Eve is particularly noisy at the hotel. At midnight, the entire staff dons tablecloths, dims the lights and bangs on pots and pans to welcome a new year. Long-time waiter Chuck Shah says, “It’s been a tradition since before my time and will continue after my time.” And contrary to rumors otherwise, “It’s not to scare ghosts.”
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