Wednesday, December 9, 2015
December 9, 2015: Circles of Friends: The Algonquin Round Table
[December 12th will mark the 100th anniversary of Frank Sinatra’s birth, and since Sinatra was as well-known for his famous group of friends as for his individual achievements, I wanted to spend the week AmericanStudying such circles of friends. Leading up to a special weekend post on the Rat Pack!]
Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley are the most famous members of the group of 30 writers, editors, and actors who met regularly for lunch at New York’s Alongquin Hotel between 1919 and 1927. But here are four other members who might surprise you and whose collective contributions to American culture and society are just as significant:
1) Edna Ferber: Ferber published two of her most acclaimed and enduring novels during the Round Table years: So Big (1924), which won the Pulitzer Prize; and Show Boat (1926), which was adapted into one of the most popular American musicals the following year. Two of her later novels became iconic Western films: Cimarron (1929; adapted into the 1931 Best Picture winning film) and Giant (1952; adapted into the 1956 film with James Dean, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Tayor). All told, Ferber was one of the 20th century’s most popular and influential novelists, and the Round Table helped launch that career.
2) Ruth Hale: Hale’s striking biography connects to a number of crucial early 20th century histories: she was a prominent advocate for women’s suffrage and the 19th Amendment, a lifelong feminist who established the influential Lucy Stone League in 1921, one of the first female New York Times reporters who traveled to Europe to report on World War I, and a drama critic who traced and contributed to the rise of modern American drama. And along with her husband, the journalist Heywood Broun, she became one of the most consistent participants in the Round Table, helping shape its social and political activisms.
3) Herman Mankiewicz: During the Round Table’s era Mankiewicz was best known for his theatrical efforts and criticisms, which included becoming the New Yorker’s first regular theatre critic and collaborating with fellow Round Tablers Heywood Broun, Dorothy Parker, Robert Sherwood, and George Kaufman on multiple productions. He would bring these experiences to the exploding new world of Hollywood filmmaking, becoming one of the most prolific and influential screenwriters in Hollywood history: Citizen Kane (1941) would be sufficient all by itself, but Mankiewicz also worked on The Wizard of Oz (1939), Dinner at Eight (1933), numerous Marx Brother movies, and dozens of other films.
4) Harpo Marx: Thanks to his relationships with both Mankiewicz and (especially) theatre critic and Round Table co-founder Alexander Woollcott, the second-oldest Marx Brother became a frequent Round Table participant as well. Although Harpo is of course known for the entirely non-speaking, very influential style of physical comedy he employed in the Marx Brothers films, his Round Table connections led to another comic role: the character of “Banjo” in George Kaufman’s play The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939) was based on Harpo, and he would perform that role (opposite Woollcott) in a subsequent production of the play. Just one more example of the cultural and social legacy of this New York circle of artistic friends.
Next friend circle tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?