November 8th, 1998
The Algonquin Round Table
About the Algonquin

Robert Sherwood, reviewing cowboy hero Tom Mix: “They say he rides as if he’s part of the horse, but they don’t say which part.”

Dorothy Parker: “That woman speaks eighteen languages and can’t say ‘no’ in any of them.”

George S. Kaufman: Once when asked by a press agent, “How do I get my leading lady’s name into your newspaper?” Kaufman replied, “Shoot her.”

The period that followed the end of World War I was one of gaiety and optimism, and it sparked a new era of creativity in American culture. Surely one of the most profound — and outrageous — influences on the times was the group of a dozen or so tastemakers who lunched together at New York City’s Algonquin Hotel. For more than a decade they met daily and came to be known as the Algonquin Round Table. With members such as writers Dorothy Parker, Harold Ross (founder of THE NEW YORKER) and Robert Benchley; columnists Franklin Pierce Adams and Heywood Broun, and Broun’s wife Ruth Hale; critic Alexander Woollcott; comedian Harpo Marx; and playwrights George S. Kaufman, Marc Connelly, Edna Ferber, and Robert Sherwood, the Round Table embodied an era and changed forever the face of American humor.

It all began with an afternoon roast of the NEW YORK TIMES drama critic, Alexander Wollcott. A number of writers met up at the Algonquin Hotel on 44th street and had such a good time that the event was repeated the next day, and the day after that, until the lunch table at the Algonquin was established as a ritual. The core group of friends was sometimes joined by others who attended for short periods or drifted about the periphery of the group, including such notables as actress Tallulah Bankhead and playwright Noel Coward. The Round Table was made up of people with a shared admiration for each other’s work. Outspoken and outrageous, they would often quote each other freely in their daily columns.

Round Tabler Edna Ferber, who called them “The Poison Squad,” wrote, “They were actually merciless if they disapproved. I have never encountered a more hard-bitten crew. But if they liked what you had done, they did say so publicly and whole-heartedly.” Their standards were high, their vocabulary fluent, fresh, astringent, and very, very tough. Both casual and incisive, they had a certain terrible integrity about their work and boundless ambition. Some of the most notable members of the Round Table came together to work on significant collaborative projects. George Kaufman teamed up with Edna Ferber and Marc Connelly on some of his best stage comedies, including DULCY and THE ROYAL FAMILY. Harold Ross of THE NEW YORKER hired both Dorothy Parker as a book reviewer and Robert Benchley as a drama critic.

By 1925, the Round Table was famous. What had started as a private clique became a public amusement. The country-at-large was now attentive to their every word—people often coming to stare at them during lunch. Some began to tire of the constant publicity. The time they spent entertaining and being entertained took its toll on several of the Algonquin members. Robert Sherwood and Robert Benchley moved out of the hotel in order to concentrate on and accomplish their work. In 1927, the controversial execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, whose case had divided the country and the Round Table for six years, seemed to cast a pall over the group’s unchecked antics. Dorothy Parker believed strongly in the pair’s innocence, and upon their deaths she remarked “I had heard someone say and so I said too, that ridicule is the most effective weapon. Well, now I know that there are things that never have been funny and never will be. And I know that ridicule may be a shield but it is not a weapon.”

As America entered the Depression and the more somber decade of the 1930s, the bonds that had held the group together loosened; many members moved to Hollywood or on to other interests. “It didn’t end, it just sort of faded,” recalled Marc Connelly. A decade after it began, the Algonquin Round Table was over. Not forgotten, the Round Table remains one of the great examples of an American artists’ community and the effects it can have on its time.

  • Claire Rossman

    I’m looking for a copy of the American Masters
    production of The Ten Year Lunch – The Wit and Legend of the Algonquin Round Table (1987)

  • Les Keyser

    I’m also looking for a copy of The Ten Year Lunch-The Wit and Wisdom of the Algonquin Round Table. This Oscar winning documentary deserves to be broadcast and released on DVD.

  • Charles Wilson

    Put me down for a copy of this classic (Ten Year Lunch) when it becomes available. Hopefully soon.
    If you need backers for this let’s talk.

  • J. Lawson

    I looked and looked and finally found a VHS on ebay. The bidding can get pretty pricey, but if you really want one, they become available on from time to time. Just sign up for ebay to automatically email you whenever any merch with “ten year lunch” in it comes up. Like I said, expensive, and few and far between, but INHO, it was well worth it.
    Good luck.

  • Clare Holman

    I am yet another person looking for The Ten Year Lunch-The Wit and Wisdom of the Algonquin Round Table. Please let me know if a source becomes available.

  • Randi Sobol

    One more vote for “The Ten-Year Lunch” to be reissued. I have an old, much-viewed tape that’s no longer viewable, and I’d love to be able to replace it with a DVD — say, as a pledge gift for supporting my local PBS station?

  • Gloria Holzman

    If someone could just make a copy of that “…Ten Year Lunch”, maybe I could afford it. I heard some of the lunches at the Algonquin with Connelly and I think Kitty Carlisle and Moss Hart and others in the 60’s or so. Also, heard George Kaufman and the very funny fellow he wrote a couple of plays with. It was a delight. Love to hear it all again.

  • Beryl Teunissen

    The DVD of “Ten Year Lunch” is in my Netflix queue, so I know it’s available for rental there.

  • Reader

    Robert E. Sherwood is my favorite American playwright. My favorite play by him is “The Road to Rome,” and my second-favorite play by him is “Abe Lincoln in Illinois.” The man won FOUR Pulitzers, of which three were for drama. It’s a shame that he’s not a more-remembered name, like Robert Benchley or Dorothy Parker. There is a movie called “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle” that does a decent-enough job of re-creating the time period. Check it out, but first go to the library and read as many of RES’s plays you can get your hands on! (I’ve read them all.)

  • Steven

    If you live in LA or NY you can view this at the Paley Center.

  • Cheryl

    Seriously, I have looked every where (netflix, amazon….) and can’t find this. Any ideas on how to get a copy or get it reissued???

  • Nancy

    Check out http://www.worldcat.org. There are some libraries that have it in VHS.

  • JClark

    I am looking for this too! And it can’t be in anyone’s Netflix queue because it states that it is “not yet on DVD” and there’s no guarantee it will be. The title can be in the queue I guess but there is no DVD as yet. Bummer. Someone would make a killing off this if it was available. Any chance PBS could do this?

  • Judy

    Hard to understand why this program isn’t reissued on DVD.

  • JClark

    I finally got a DVD copy, directly from the director, Aviva Slesin!

  • Joe G.

    Somewhere I have an off-air VHS recording of this.

    SOMEWHERE.

Inside This Episode

  • About the Algonquin

Salinger

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