Still The Vicious Circle

A revamped Algonquin scintillates anew

“Why don’t you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?”

Such was the suggestion Robert Benchley gave Ginger Rogers in the 1942 film “The Major and the Minor.” Today, the quip is printed on cocktail napkins lining the elegant oak bar in the Blue Bar at New York’s The Algonquin Hotel, a historic hub of witty words and liquid lunches perhaps best exemplified by The Round Table that featured Benchley, writer Dorothy Parker, sportswriter Heywood Broun and critic Alexander Woollcott, among a host of memorable wags.

The 181-room hotel, now part of the Autograph Collection, was closed for five months this year for renovations and the preservation of its historic quirks, too. That included replacing antique bathtubs with modern showers, swapping the old, cartoon-style black-and-white wallpaper with more conventional beige textures, adding a fitness center, redoing the plumbing, installing new carpeting, adding 36-inch-screen TVs, creating a presidential suite called The John Barrymore and ultimately renovating the first-floor bar area after the hotel’s iconic Oak Room closed. Alex Aubry, The Algonquin’s executive chef and food and beverage director, calls the $20-million project “a much-needed facelift.”

“We had to be very careful, because in a landmark you cannot touch the structure of the building or the façade,” he says, “so all of this woodwork is still the same original oak from 1902. …The ceiling, the walls, the hand-painted Tiffany & Co. sconces from 1902 are all original.”

The Gonk

The hotel pays tribute to its literary legacy with ongoing roundtable discussions that transcend the advent of the Internet. This gathering of the minds takes place every month as a group of fashion, art and literary insiders gets together for industry insight, laughs, connections and cocktails under the leadership of visual merchandising guru Tom Beebe.

“(He) has been an incredible person for us and gives us incredible PR by word-of-mouth,” Aubry says.

Hoping to channel the original Algonquin Round Table, or “The Vicious Circle” as it was called, writers still flock to the hotel to absorb Dorothy Parker’s blithe spirit, though Aubry exclaims, “There are no ghosts.” Businessmen dine there on burgers and Burgundy. Jazz musicians toast the greats who came before. And New Yorkers of all ages stop in for a stiffener in a setting redolent of Old New York.

“This is the oldest working hotel in New York City,” Aubry says. “It opened Nov. 22, 1902. Not even The Plaza or The Waldorf existed yet. And it has such character, because the guy who owned this place, Frank Case, was an author and a writer.  …He was pretty much into his first profession, being a writer, so he’d get together there with friends like John Barrymore and Ernest Hemingway and have cocktails.”

Case – who bought the hotel in 1907, changing its name from The Puritan (too straitlaced) to that of an indigenous group – wanted to make the place unique at a time when lobbies were filled with pols and mobsters. Cue the stars, the single ladies, the literati.

The owner comped pals like Barrymore and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. to ensure their continued company, made single traveling women feel welcomed – unusual at that time – and provided a haven for iconoclastic journalist H.L. Mencken, who called “The Gonk” “the most comfortable hotel in America;” muckraker Sinclair Lewis, who offered to buy it; and William Faulkner, who drafted his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech there.

Waltzing Matilda

But perhaps the most celebrated of the literati were the members of The Round Table, who first gathered in June of 1919 to welcome home war correspondent-turned-New York Times’ drama critic Alexander Woollcott. The lunches – brimming with ideas, gossip and caustic humor, all well lubricated – lasted for 10 years.

“They would spend long afternoons here from noon till 3, 4, 5, sometimes 6 o’clock. The Round Table was actually behind this wall in what was the Chinese Room. It was one whole room and there was no wall here.  We just put this in when we did the renovations,” Aubry says.

Round Table members included Harold Ross, who founded The New Yorker (a copy of which is complimentary with your visit); comic-actor Harpo Marx; playwrights George S. Kaufman and Robert E. Sherwood; and novelist Edna Ferber.

Another member was The Times’ Al Hirschfeld – “and we have five original Hirschfeld plates in the Blue Bar,” Aubry says with pride. “The guy lived until he was 99 years old and he still came here…. They were all like The Little Rascals,” Aubry adds with a laugh.

The hotel also attracted actress Helen Hayes and writers Gertrude Stein, Simone de Beauvoir and Maya Angelou. But its longest guest, though, is Matilda, the in-house Birman cat who roams the hotel. In the ’30s, Case adopted a stray cat, which his pal John Barrymore started calling “Hamlet.” That lucky Hamlet lived the glam life – brushing up against the legs of stars and drinking milk out of Champagne flutes.

After Case passed away in 1945, the hotel’s various owners continued the tradition of keeping a resident cat. Males are forever named Hamlet; females, Matilda.

The Algonquin, it seems, is still the cat’s meow.

The Algonquin Hotel is at 59 W. 44th St., Manhattan. For reservations, visit algonquinhotel.com.

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