Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
It was the 75th birthday party for the Algonquin Hotel, known in the '20s as a gathering place for the sharpest literary minds of its day, and even now, something of a mecca for the famous and successful. So naturally, everybody was there, and everybody was trying to be very witty.
New Yorker drama critic Brendan Gill, immaculate in dark and crisp accent, expressed fondness for the hotel in the heart of the city's theater district, because of its resistance to change.
"They just put in electricity yesterday, and they're planning running water, you know, two faucets, and water comes out," he said to former Harcourt editor-in-chief Dan Okrent.
"Oh Brendan, you dreamer you," Okrent replied. Then he left for the ball game.
Perhaps it wasn't exactly Round Table-quality repartee, but then it's hard to live with a legend - especially 4 legend as grand as that of the Algonquin's.
A New York City landmark about which seven books have been written, the hotel has been known as a haven for actors and artists since its beginning. Tallulah Bankhead, when she arrived in New York in 1918, roomed there, as did Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Mary Pickford and John Barrymore.
The New Yorker magazine, which threw the birthday party for the hotel at the hotel Tuesday night, was created in one of its rooms.
Harpo Marx, Alexander Woolcott, George S. Kaufmann, Alfred Lunt, and Lynn Fontanne were also card-carrying members of that group. The Hotel is still known, even now, as the Home of the "Round Table," the daily luncheon group of some of the brightest literary lights of the 1920s: Dorothy Parker, Woollcott, Kaufmann, Franklin P. Adams, Heywood Broun and Robert Benchley, who met to trade barbs.
Today the hotel maintains a literary and theatrical reputation - as well as one for cozy, understated elegance. Theater people still congregate there; the hotel's management is proud that in the past season they had five British dramatists, all of whom are working on plays at the hotel. New Yorker writers like Gill and Thomas Meehan are still regulars, as is editor William Shawn, and James Thurber's widow, Helen, maintains a working office at the hotel when she is in town.
So Tuesday night, in a gesture of affection for what was and still is, the New Yorker threw the Algonquin a little cocktail party.
The guest list of 200, as selected by the hotel's management on the basis of their most loyal friends, was spendid. It included former Mayor John Lindsay and Jame duck Mayor Abe Beame, actor Jact Gilford and his producer wife, Madeline, director Eleanor Perry and actress Maureen Stapleton, and grande dame New Yorker writer Janet Flanner, who writes about France for the magazine under the nom de plume Genet.
The guests also included a few people who normally shun the party scene, including New Yorker editor Shawn. A man known for his keen sense of privacy, Shawn stayed at the party for only 10 minutes. Explained New Yorker President George Green, "He couldn't possibly stand a scene like this."
Another guest, who rarely attends parties, was Norman Mailer, accompanied by a tall, attractive woman named Norris Church. Hadn't Mailer once attacked the New York party scene as being something of a disease, a rite which fosters undue competition among writers?
"I never said that," said Mailer. "I think you're thinking of a line in 'Armies of the Night' where I say there are good parties and there are bad parties."
And how would Mailer describe this party?
"That would involve a value judgement, and I never put a value judgement in a newspaper unless it's in context," he said, and disappeared evasively into the crowd.
There were those, however, who were glad to go public. In the formal speechmaking that is required at such events. Leo Leherman of Playbill magazine thanked the hotel for being "a charming anachronism." George Green presented the Algonquin management with a Charles Addams drawing of Eustace Tilley, the New Yorker's effete emblem.
Most of the conversation, as so often happens, was not about the guest of honor (how long can you go on about on hotel?) but about business, Broadway and baseball, with more than a few guests leaving early to go to the World Series game at Yankee Stadium.
But there was a certain amount of talk, prompted almost entirely by journalists, about the significance of the Algonquin Round Table and its famous wits. Not everyone agreed they were so sparkling.
Gill, a devout Algonquin regular who in an introduction to a Dorothy Parker short story collection once described Round Table members as "singing each other's praises or waspishly stinging each other into tantrums," said at the party that the Round Table did not represent the important American writers of the time. "Not one of the real writers, Faulkner, Hemingway or Ring Lardner, belonged, yet it was still very useful, very fertile, it was a stimulus," he said.
Helen Thurber, a cheerful woman who gave her age as "75 - the same damn age as this old hotel," pointed out that contrary to common lore her husband had not been a member of that famous group.
"Jamie only went a few times," she said. "He told me that he always felt nobody was interested in listening to anybody.They were just interested in waiting for the person to shut up so they could get on with what they wanted to say."