Nantucket I&M Review
The Inquirer and Mirror
Dec. 3, 2009
Resurrecting the Algonquin Round Table
Forgotten wit of “tipsy quipsters” compiled in new book
Nat Benchley helps compile forgotten work
of “Vicious Wits”
By Joshua Balling I&M Assistant Editor
There was a time, before television, the Internet or even talking pictures, when the “tipsy quipsters” of the Algonquin Round Table were the toast of not only New York City, but the nation.
The acerbic wit and hilarious one-liners of Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Edna Ferber and a dozen or so others who met regularly for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel in the heart of Manhattan’s theater district were repeated on the radio and in newspaper columns and magazine articles across the country. This band of literary merrymakers were “viral before there was an Internet,” said writer and actor Nat Benchley, Robert’s grandson. But they did so much more than pen some casual bon mots and caustic witticisms, and to recognize the sheer width and breadth of their accomplishments, Benchley and Dorothy Parker Society founder Kevin Fitzpatrick have compiled some of their lesser-known and all but forgotten work into a new book, “The Lost Algonquin Round Table.”
“About five years or so ago, Kevin Fitzpatrick and I met, having been individually and simultaneously distressed about the way the Algonquin Round Table was being misappropriated and misused,” Benchley said. “The phrase has become synonymous with witty banter, with people sitting around having fun times. While that was a part of it, Kevin and I wanted to go back and redefine who it was and who it was not; what it was and what it was not. It was time to bring out a book which reminded people why the Round Table mattered in the first place, before their witticisms overpowered their writings.
“We wanted to go back to the time before they were individually and collectively famous, to find out why they were such good writers. That’s why we put together this book,” said Benchley, whose grandfather was introduced to Nantucket by fellow Round Table member Marc Connelly, and whose family spent countless summers on Baxter Road in Sconset. His cousin Rob lives there today. Robert Benchley and several other members of the Benchley clan went on to become “permanent residents” of the island, as they are buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery, Nat Benchley said.
So what exactly was the Algonquin Round Table, and what was its claim to fame? It’s somewhat hard to quantify, Benchley admitted, but the impact of its members’ collected work upon the generations of American writers who followed can not be denied.
“The Vicious Wits”
The group which became known as “The Vicious Wits” first met in the Algonquin in 1919, kicking off a “10-year lunch” where no one felt “pressure to perform for public consumption,” Benchley wrote in the compilation’s foreword. In a nutshell, it was composed of between “nine writers and 79,” depending on who you asked, but is most commonly associated with authors, poets, playwrights and critics like Parker, Benchley, Ferber and Alexander Woollcott. But it also included movie critic Robert Sherwood, satirist Franklin P. Adams and journalist Heywood Hale Broun, among others. They were “jolly innocents, slightly unsophisticated people who loved to play word games and clung together in a mixture of fear and love,” Broun once said.
“Their timing was perfect. They got together shortly after World War I, when America and particularly New York were feeling invincible and all-inclusive. They were happy to accept new forms of humor, and let’s remember that in this time frame, there were no talking pictures until 1927, only silent movies. Radio and theater were the primary forms of entertainment. These writers contributed to those forms in a big way. They were seen and read widely in New York and around the country,” Benchley said. “Because they were meeting in the heart of the theater district, in the newspaper district, they were read a lot, and people began to talk about them. That was a new game in 1919. These days, with the Internet and celebrity-obsessed culture, it’s been done and done to death. People today are famous for nothing more than being famous. Then, these people were accomplished writers. They were very bright, very funny, and once they began to gather steam, it sort of snowballed in a slow, oldfashioned way by accruing a lot of good writing, good stories and good quips, and doing it for 10 years.” Who exactly said what and when doesn’t really matter any more, Benchley said, as their collective witticisms have become part of the lexicon. “Huge portions of it are mythologized, and certain members got more credit than they deserved, but once they became famous, people attributed quotes to them. One particular quote I have been told has been misattributed, but there’s no point in going back to correct it. It doesn’t serve any purpose. That’s why they’ve survived,” Benchley said. “That’s part of our whole point. There was a lot of wit there to fill several books, many volumes of really good writing. But Dotty Parker is the only one of this group still in print. George Kaufman is the only playwright still produced. Robert Benchley is pretty much out of print. That doesn’t change the underlying truth. They were funny, they were talented, they were printable and they were prolific.”
Nor is it likely in this highspeed Internet age that what they accomplished will ever be repeated, although Benchley believes – or at least fervently hopes – that talented writers, playwrights and social critics still do exist, just not all in one place any more. “Today’s culture seems to cherish silly, stupid, quick remarks. When people famous for one or two or 10 clever ‘Tweets’ are now being referred to as the next Algonquin Round Table, I don’t see how it can ever be repeated,” he said. “I don’t see the country sitting still to listen to a group of people like this. These days, communication is mostly being done electronically. People don’t gather for lunch, don’t gather for cocktails. It has been tried. Years ago when I lived in Washington, a group of very good writers and journalists anointed themselves the new Algonquin Round Table, and it was a disaster. They found they couldn’t be funny spontaneously.” How they did it all – in an era of three-martini lunches, lengthy cocktail hours and all-night soirées – is still something that baffles Benchley, but it was a different time, he said. “You can’t be totally drunk and produce as much as they did, but it was a different standard. My parents’ generation drank more than ours, and their parents’ generation drank more than they did. By today’s standards, I don’t think people much sit around having two- or threemartini lunches, have cocktails, then drink all night. It was a whole different generation, a whole different way of life, something I certainly couldn’t keep up with in terms of partying or creativity,” Benchley said. Yet somehow, they were incredibly prolific, and incredibly talented. “Any young writer serious about his or her craft could do far worse than studying the underlying foundation of their work, to truly learn how good writing is constructed,” Benchley said. As such, there is far more included in the book than just humor. It’s really about good writing. “I wouldn’t expect it to be repeated, and I don’t think it has to be cast in gold and idolized. But it is valid and worthwhile to read them and to study them,” Benchley said. The timing of the book couldn’t have been more perfect. This year marked the 90th anniversary of the group’s first meeting at the Algonquin. To have the book appear in 2009, however, Benchley and Fitzpatrick decided to publish it themselves through Internet publisher iUniverse after most major publishing houses showed little interest in the project. “We always looked at trying to get it out this year, but the big-time publishers were not terribly interested. They thought it had been done to death. They didn’t quite see what we were trying to do, so we decided to go out and do it ourselves. We don’t expect to make a nickel, it cost too much to publish. We hope people who do read it will look further themselves,” Benchley said. What Benchley and Fitzpatrick have done goes beyond what’s been done before. What they’ve compiled showcases far more than the one-liners Parker, Benchley and their counterparts have become famous for. It reveals their true talent, and in some ways, begins to explain the way that talent was overshadowed by the work that paid the bills. Benchley acknowledged that this in particular weighed heavy on his grandfather at times. “My grandfather was incredibly prolific, despite his reputation as an idle man. It was a great gag on the world,” said Benchley, who writes in the foreword of a man who made a concerted effort to hide his erudition, who read texts in German, but kept them hidden in a closet in his suite at New York’s Royalton Hotel. “My grandfather is remembered as one of the sweetest, funniest, kindest, gentlest men alive, yet he was often unhappy with himself. He never, ever took out his unhappiness on other people. Parker and Kaufman and Woollcott were known for their acid tongues, but my grandfather never did that. Any time he made a barbed comment, it was always about himself. He never thought his work was worth anything. He always thought his work had to be profound,” Benchley said. “But he couldn’t consider turning down the money from magazines and films, for being funny, for putting in the zinger. When he suddenly found himself with money, he didn’t really know what to do with it, so he gave a lot of it away. He never thought he had done anything to deserve it.”
“The Lost Algonquin Round Table” is available on-island at Mitchell’s Book Corner and Nantucket Bookworks, and online at iUniverse.com