Daily association with each other both at the luncheons and outside of them inspired members of the Circle to collaborate creatively. The entire group worked together successfully only once, however, to create a revue called No Sirree! which helped launch a Hollywood career for Round Tabler Robert Benchley.
In its ten years of association, the Round Table and a number of its members acquired national reputations both for their contributions to literature and for their sparkling wit. Although some of their contemporaries, and later in life even some of its members, disparaged the group, its reputation has endured long after its dissolution.
The group first gathered in the Algonquin's Pergola Room (now called The Oak Room) at a long rectangular table. As they increased in number, Algonquin manager Frank Case moved them to the Rose Room and a round table. Initially the group called itself "The Board" and the luncheons "Board meetings." After being assigned a waiter named Luigi, the group re-christened itself "Luigi Board." Finally they became "The Vicious Circle" although "The Round Table" gained wide currency after cartoonist Edmund Duffy of the Brooklyn Eagle caricatured the group sitting at a round table and wearing armor.
Charter members of the Round Table included:
Membership was not official or fixed so many others moved in and out of the Circle. Some of these included:
Members often visited Neshobe Island, a private island co-owned by several Round Tablers, located on several acres in the middle of Lake Bomoseen in Vermont. There they would engage in their usual array of games plus croquet.
A number of Round Tablers were inveterate practical jokers, constantly pulling pranks on one another. As time went on the jokes became ever more elaborate. Harold Ross and Jane Grant once spent weeks playing a particularly memorable joke on Woollcott involving a prized portrait of himself. They had several copies made, each slightly more askew than the last, and would periodically secretly swap them out and then later comment to Woollcott "What on earth is wrong with your portrait?" until Woollcott was beside himself. Eventually they returned the original portrait.
No Sirree! had its genesis at the studio of Neysa McMein, which served as something of a salon for Round Tablers away from the Algonquin. Acts included: "Opening Chorus" featuring Woollcott, Toohey, Kaufman, Connelly, Adams and Benchley with violinist Jascha Heifetz providing offstage, off-key accompaniment; "He Who Gets Flapped," a musical number featuring the song "The Everlastin' Ingenue Blues" written by Dorothy Parker and performed by Robert Sherwood accompanied by "chorus girls" including Tallulah Bankhead, Helen Hayes, Ruth Gillmore, Lenore Ulric and Mary Brandon; "Zowie, or the Curse of an Akins Heart"; "The Greasy Hag, an O'Neill Play in One Act" with Kaufman, Connelly and Woollcott; and "Mr. Whim Passes By - An A. A. Milne Play.
The only item of note to emerge from No Sirree! was Robert Benchley's contribution, The Treasurer's Report. Benchley's disjointed parody so delighted those in attendance that Irving Berlin hired Benchley in 1923 to deliver the Report as part of Berlin's Music Box Revue for $500 a week. The Report was later filmed in 1928 and kicked off a second career for Benchley in Hollywood.
With the success of No Sirree! the Round Tablers hoped to duplicate it with an "official" Vicious Circle production open to the public with material performed by professional actors. Kaufman and Connelly funded the revue, named The Forty-niners. The revue opened in November 1922 and was a failure, running for just 15 performances.
Not all of their contemporaries were fans of the group. Their critics accused them of "logrolling," or exchanging favorable plugs of each others' works, and of rehearsing their witticisms in advance. James Thurber was a detractor of the group, accusing them of being too consumed by their elaborate practical jokes. H. L. Mencken, who was much admired by many in the Circle, was also a critic, commenting to fellow writer Anita Loos that "their ideals were those of a vaudeville actor, one who is extremely 'in the know' and inordinately trashy.
They met at the sign of the Indian Chief where the cleverest of them—and those who were so excitedly sure of their cleverness that for the moment they convinced others as well as themselves—foregathered daily. There was a great deal of scintillating talk in this group of the significant books and tendencies of the day....They appraised, debated, rejected, finally placed the seal of their august approval upon a favored few.
Groucho Marx, brother of Round Table associate Harpo, was never comfortable amidst the viciousness of the Vicious Circle. "The price of admission is a serpent's tongue and a half-concealed stiletto. Even some members of the Round Table disparaged it later in life. Dorothy Parker in particular criticized the group.
These were no giants. Think who was writing in those days—Lardner, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway. Those were the real giants. The Round Table was just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were. Just a bunch of loudmouths showing off, saving their gags for days, waiting for a chance to spring them....There was no truth in anything they said. It was the terrible day of the wisecrack, so there didn't have to be any truth...
Despite Parker's bleak assessment, and while it is true that some members of the Round Table are perhaps now "famous for being famous" instead of for their literary output, Round Table members and associates did contribute significantly and enduringly to the literary landscape, including Pulitzer Prize-winning work by Circle members Kaufman, Connelly and Sherwood (who won four) and by associate Ferber, and the continuing legacy of Ross's New Yorker. Others made lasting contributions to the realms of stage and screen, not least of which are the films of Harpo and the Marx Brothers and Benchley, and Parker herself has remained renowned for her short stories and literary reviews.
The Algonquin Round Table, as well as the number of other literary and theatrical greats who lodged there, helped earn the Algonquin Hotel its status as a New York City Historic Landmark. The hotel was so designated in 1987. In 1996 the hotel was designated a national literary landmark by the Friends of Libraries USA based on the contributions of "The Round Table Wits." The organization's bronze plaque is attached to the front of the hotel. Although the Rose Room was removed from the Algonquin in a 1998 remodel, the hotel paid tribute to the group by commissioning and hanging the painting A Vicious Circle by Natalie Ascencios, depicting the Round Table, and also created a replica of the original table. The hotel also occasionally stages an original musical production, The Talk of the Town, in the Oak Room. Its latest production started September 11, 2007 and ran through the end of the year.
A film about the members, The Ten-Year Lunch (1987), won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. The dramatic film Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1995) recounted the Round Table from the perspective of Dorothy Parker.
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