It did not look special. Other hotels on West Forty-fourth Street had American Indian names and walnut-paneled lobbies bathed in Edwardian gloom. The difference was not even in the extravagant price of the blue-plate special (half spring chicken, two vegetables, French fried potatoes—$1.65) or the fact the hotel’s regular guests included Mary Pickford and Henry Mencken. The reason for its uniqueness stemmed from a single article of furniture, a large round table that occupied the center of the Algonquin’s main dining room.
Those who took the trouble to stroll through the hotel lobby around noon and stop near the portière leading to the Rose Room could get a good view of the table, quite likely glimpse George Kaufman’s pompadour or the beaky nose of F.P.A., and perhaps hear Alexander Woollcott snarl one of his famous insults at Heywood Broun or Harold Ross. People who waited long enough finally saw a tiny brunette woman emerge from the elevator and breeze into the dining room. No one needed to identify her as Dorothy Parker because everyone knew this was where she lived, where she met her friends, where the luncheon circle she had helped make a national legend dined every day. If the fabled Algonquin Round Table was indeed the country’s literary Camelot, as liked to insist, then she was its Guinevere.
The summer of 1927 marked the eighth anniversary of the day she first brought Robert Benchley and Robert Sherwood to the Algonquin Hotel, all of them working together down the street at Vanity Fair, poorly paid editors grateful to attend a free luncheon welcoming Woollcott back from the war. Although none of them realized it at the time, that animated party in June 1919 was the first gathering of the Round Table. Dorothy, content to observe, had scarcely uttered a word. She looked meek and fragile in every way, childlike, not quite five feet tall with a mop of dark hair demurely tucked under the brim of her embroidered hat and huge dark eyes that seemed to plead for the world’s protection. She wore glasses, but not in public. She had never smoked a cigarette or drunk more than a sip of a cocktail. The taste of liquor made her sick. She still lived in her childhood neighborhood on the Upper West Side and visited her married sister on Sundays.
In the intervening eight years, she had been dubbed the wittiest woman in America, her quips preserved, repeated, and printed so that by 1927 scarcely a snappy line uttered anywhere was not attributed to her. Enough Rope, her first volume of poetry, was a current best seller. Although she had achieved her great popularity for light verse, she also demonstrated a gift for writing short fiction and criticism.
As a public personality, she had a positive genius for creating the impression that she was a one-of-a-kind flapper—sophisticated, urban, intellectual. Born in the final years of the nineteenth century, she spun her dreams in the turbulent twenties and became a model and inspiration for the women of her time. The truth was that she was obliged to invent herself as she went along. She was a born rebel who enjoyed thumbing her nose at the rules that women were expected to obey:
They say of me, and so they should,
It’s doubtful if I come to good.
In competition with men, she pursued a career with skill and accomplishment and demanded to be treated as an equal. She smoked and drank in public. She wrote and said exactly what she thought, expressing herself in racy English that caused eyebrows to shoot up. Her favorite word contained four letters. The word she used almost as frequently also had four letters.
Her way of looking at life was incurably pessimistic. Confronted by the unknown, she immediately prepared for the worst. Ordinary occurrences—the doorbell or a ringing telephone—made her wonder “What fresh hell is this?”
She was a married woman who insisted on being called Mrs. Parker and who was said to keep a husband few had seen in a broom closet and to practice free love. Scandalous stories of extramarital affairs and abortions persisted in circulating, but that was largely because she made no attempt to deny the rumors, since they were true. She called herself a slut and exclaimed to Edmund Wilson, “I am cheap—you know that!” The vigor with which she flaunted her sexuality offended more than a few people, among them Ernest Hemingway who composed a vicious poem about her. But she bestowed a royal raspberry on her critics one and all:
But now I know the things I know,
And do the things I do;
And if you do not like me so,
To hell, my love, with you!
She was thirty-three—“Time doth flit. / Oh, shit!”—and declared that living had taught her two important truths: Never trust a round garter or a Wall Street man. She disdained the American obsession with money, hated the idea of owning property or stocks, and sought only enough money “to keep body and soul apart.” She preferred to live in a hotel, she explained, because all she needed was room to lay a hat and a few friends. She had visited everyplace worth visiting, from Hemingway’s favorite cafés on the Left Bank to the Long Island house parties Scott Fitzgerald memorialized in The Great Gatsby; she appeared to be acquainted with nearly every person worth knowing, possess every ware worth owning.
In the golden age of “Ain’t We Got Fun,” a song she especially loathed, the country was entering its eighth year of Prohibition, and social pleasure was measured by alcohol. Having fun meant getting drunk. Having a lot of fun meant getting very drunk. By current standards, Dorothy was enjoying the time of her life. Her days and nights were packed with adventures tailor-made to fit the public’s fantasies about the New York literary high life and unfolded with fairy-tale predictability. At twilight, she called Algonquin room service to send up ice and White Rock and her suite became the scene of an informal cocktail party, a ritual she called “having a few people in for drinks.” The few often swelled to several dozen, including Irving Berlin, Tallulah Bankhead, and Harpo Marx. No invitations were issued and everybody brought an offering from their bootlegger. Her personal taste ran to Haig & Haig, but she also was known to drink “White Hearse,” as she called all rotgut Scotch whisky, and practically anything in a pinch except gin, which, plain or mixed, made her ill.
After the party broke up, she attended the theater with friends or lovers, sometimes one and the same, then swung uptown to Forty-ninth Street and her favorite speakeasy, where she met her best friend, Robert Benchley. In Tony Soma’s smoky basement, they sat at tables covered with white cotton cloths and drank right-off-the-ship whiskey from thick white coffee cups. There was no ventilation, no music, very little to eat except steak or chicken sandwiches. The club had no established closing hour. Only after the last patron had left, whether at 3:00 A.M. or 6:00 A.M., did Tony lock up.
After downing two stiff highballs, Dorothy talked happily about how she would love to pick up a stray dog because she’d never owned enough dogs. “Three highballs,” she admitted, “and I think I’m St. Francis of Assisi.” On Sixth Avenue, she once kissed a cab-horse because he looked tired standing there, and she liked him. She announced that she’d kiss that horse again if she ever ran into him, even go to Atlantic City with him if he asked her. “I don’t care what they say about me. Only I shouldn’t like to have that horse going around thinking he has to marry me.”
The surroundings in which she felt most comfortable were hotels and saloons, not necessarily in that order. There were thousands of speakeasies in Manhattan. Clubs lined the streets of the forties and fifties between Fifth and Sixth avenues, and Dorothy was a regular patron in a great many of them. Her nightly rounds often included such stylish drinking establishments as Texas (“Hello, suckers!”) Guinan’s, Club Durant, and Jack and Charlie’s. After the midtown clubs began to empty, she circled up to Harlem to hear jazz at the Savoy Ballroom, then sped back downtown to join Benchley for a nightcap at Polly Adler’s brothel before calling it a day.
It was inevitable that sometimes she awoke suffering from what she termed the “rams” and felt scared to turn round abruptly for fear of seeing “a Little Mean Man about eighteen inches tall, wearing a yellow slicker and roller-skates.” She certainly was acquainted with the rams—as well as the less acute strain known as German rams—but had learned that the disease was never terminal. Usually she was able to trace its onset to a stalk of bad celery from last night’s dinner. At lunch, downstairs at the Round Table, she laughed and insisted that her hangover “ought to be in the Smithsonian under glass.” There was no possible way, she protested, that two or three sidecars, give or take a bottle of champagne, a couple of Benedictines, and Lord knew how many Scotches, could leave a person in such filthy condition.
A few weeks earlier, in May 1927, Charles Lindbergh’s flight from Long Island to Paris presented the country with an old-fashioned hero. It was the type of heroism popular in the nineteenth century but out of style in the 1920s, which put no great store by heroes. That year Dorothy expressed the cynical spirit of the decade with these lines:
Oh, hard is the struggle, and sparse is
The gain of the one at the top,
For art is a form of catharsis,
And love is a permanent flop,
And work is the province of cattle,
And rest’s for a clam in a shell,
So I’m thinking of throwing the battle—
Would you kindly direct me to hell?
In her verse rang the voice of the twenties, its hysterical insistence on having fun, its pretense that nothing was really worth believing in anymore. Two years later, all of that crashed with the stock market.
At the close of her life, Dorothy harshly portrayed herself as “just a little Jewish girl trying to be cute.” She was referring not only to herself at the Algonquin Round Table and her reputation as the country’s foremost female wit in the 1920s. Her memories had strayed back to a very different past, another incarnation almost, the distant years before she had transformed herself into Dorothy Parker. In the twenties, at the pinnacle of fame, her name was synonymous with sophisticated humor and a Times Square hotel, but she did not start out in this land of literary romance, nor did she end there.
“Introduction: The Algonquin Hotel” from Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This?
(Penguin Books, 1989). Copyright © 1989 by Marion Meade.
Reprinted by permission of Robin Straus Agency, Inc.