By Alejandro Grattan-Dominguez
Once There Was Camelot—American Style
We all know the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. The rotund piece of furniture of which I speak, however, was the Algonquin Round Table, which in the 20s, 30s and early 40s was regularly occupied by some of the greatest names and most renowned wits in the entire history of American Arts and Letters. How’s this for a brief roll-call:
Robert Sherwood, a film critic who later would win the Pulitzer Prize for his play Idiot’s Delight and an Oscar for writing The Best Years of Our Lives.
Dorothy Parker, legendary short-story writer and the critic who once damned an actress’ Broadway debut by saying, “She ran the emotional gamut from A to B.” Parker also co-wrote an early version of the movie A Star is Born. Robert Benchley, a drama critic and writer whose name became synonymous with humor and who first coined the phrase, “Let’s get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini.” Ring Lardner, sportswriter and highly successful author, who while sitting in a bar, once said to a bedraggled man who had approached him “How do you look when I’m sober?”
F.P. Adams, newspaper editor and New York Times columnist to a man telling a story who finally said, “Well, to make a long story short—” to which Adams cried, “Too late!” Edna Ferber, who wrote some of the 20th century’s most popular novels and plays, including Cimarron, Showboat and Giant. Herman Mankiewicz, the newspaper columnist who co-write the script of Citizen Kane, believed by many to be the best movie ever made. Ben Hecht, newspaper reporter, screenwriter, e.g. Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights, Spellbound, Gunga Din, Mutiny on the Bounty. Two Oscars, six nominations. “Movies back then,” Hecht once recalled, “were seldom written. In 1927 they were yelled into existence in conferences that kept going in saloons, brothels, and all-night poker games.”
But if all these luminaries were the Knights and Ladies Fair of this latter-day Camelot (which always gathered in Manhattan’s Algonquin Hotel), their King was undeniably George S. Kaufman.
No one has ever put their stamp more indelibly on the American theatrical scene. He wrote, co-wrote and directed more successful Broadway plays than anyone else, with credits that included The Solid Gold Cadillac, Guys and Dolls and Dinner at Eight. He twice won the Pulitzer Prize, as well as the New York Drama Critics Award. For the movies, he co-wrote and/or directed Coconuts and Animal Crackers, both with the irrepressible Marx Brothers.
But it was his scathing wit that is most remembered today. As the Drama Critic for the New York Times, he once said to a pushy press agent who had asked how he could get an actress client of his mentioned in the Times, “shoot her.” To a pompous author, “I understand your new play is filled with single entendres.” About restaurant waiters, “Epitaph for a dead waiter: God finally caught his eye.” Of a play genre, “Satire is what closes on Saturday night.” On troublesome authors whose plays he had directed, “At rehearsals, the only author that’s better than an absent one is a dead one.” On social etiquette, “When I invite a woman to dinner, I expect her to look at me. That’s the price she has to pay.”
Like the Round Table of Arthurian legend, the American version will never come again, but we all should be grateful that once upon a time…