Clearing the Table
Playwright and Algonquin wit George S. Kaufman wrote the following in an article called "By the Way," which was published in the August 11, 1945, issue of Saturday Review.
It is about time, I think, that someone laid to rest the myth of the Algonquin Round Table. The legend persists that here was a tight little group of critics, playwrights, and novelists, all intent upon praising each other to the skies and rigidly damning the work of any upstart outsider. Just recently I read intimations to this effect in the columns of John Mason Brown and George Jean Nathan, among others. Perhaps there is some mild excuse in the case of Mr. Brown, for he rose to fame in the post-Algonquin days, and inherited the legend. But Mr. Nathan is old enough to know better. Older.
The truth is, of course, that the Round Table was made up of a motley and nondescript group of people who wanted to eat lunch, and that's about all. They had no power at all over the literature of the day, and it seems to me that the least thought on the part of their accusers would convince them of that fact. How in God's name could they wield any such power? How could any group wield such power in the critical world as it is made up today, and as it was made up then?
The Round Table members ate at the Algonquin because Frank Case was good enough to hold a table for them, and because it was fun. The jokes, as I recall, were rather good, but completely unimportant. I cannot recall that a serious literary note was ever injected, and anyone who tried to inject one would have had a piece of lemon chiffon pie crammed down his throat.
Perhaps one anecdote will suffice to show the high literary quality of those luncheons. There was among us, in those days, one John Peter Toohey, who was and is a theatrical press agent, and a good one. I believe that John had read several books at that time, but I am sure he will agree with me that he was not a literary giant. John's main luncheon interest was in the food -- and the prices. Mr. Case asked thirty-five cents for a slab of pie and about thirty cents for coffee, and John was Irish and a rebel, and he felt that this was too much.
So we hatched a little plan. With the connivance of Frank Case and his staff, a whole new menu was printed, on which the prices of everything were just about tripled. It was arranged that on the following Monday this menu should be solemnly handed to the lunchers at the Round Table. All of the waiters, of course, were carefully rehearsed in these shenanigans, and it need hardly be added that we had a record attendance that day.
I was about the third to arrive, but John was already there. He gave me a rather tight little nod, and his eye followed me eagerly as I took my seat. Then he reached over and tapped my arm. "You've got a little surprise in store for you," he whispered. "Just wait!" He followed me closely as I picked up the menu. "Well?" he inquired, leaning back to enjoy my outburst. But I took it rather calmly. "Things are going up all over town," I told him. "I suppose Frank just found it necessary to raise prices." "Raise prices!" he snorted. "Just wait till Alex gets here! He'll have something to say!"
But Woollcott also took it calmly, and so did the succeeding lunchers, although John, almost bursting, followed each one intently as he picked up the card. We all ordered as usual, but John, in protest, ordered only tea and toast, which, as I recall, came to two dollars and forty cents. Then he took charge of the plan of procedure. Frank Case must be brought to his senses. On the following day we were to scatter over the city -- each was to lunch at a different hotel and each must bring back a menu to show Frank the absurdity of his prices. Marc Connelly was to go to the Ritz, Benchley to the St. Regis, John himself to the Plaza, and so on.
On the following day, of course, John went to the Plaza -- and the rest of us went to the Algonquin. John carried a Plaza menu back to Frank Case, and won his point -- Frank broke down and admitted that his prices were too high.
And that, boys and girls, was the Algonquin Round Table. Just that and nothing more.