The Vicious Circle

Author: Jana Wendt

In 1920s Manhattan a coterie of wits met daily to trade wisecracks and hurl barbs over a certain round table, thrilling the chattering classes. Jana Wendt laments the passing of smart society.

There are few individuals today who could properly be described as wits. The rest, who take a run at wit, and miss, are derided with an extra syllable - "half", or even, "f-". Crass though it may be, the latter has become a very popular word, and since words are only born to meet a need, there must be more f-wits than there used to be. Long ago and far away - a year after the Great War's end and in the city of New York - a high concentration of wit could be found each day at a single lunch table in Manhattan's Algonquin Hotel. A thrillingly sharp-tongued group of twenty-somethings attracted such interest that the hotel's owner at the time, Frank Case, was forced to cordon off the room, with a velvet rope no less. The Algonquin Round Table became the name not only for a piece of furniture but for the literary circle that came together around it to channel the new, frivolous spirit of the times. And the august Algonquin provided a civilised space for a brutal pastime.

The diminutive critic, author and poet Dorothy Parker left behind such a repository of inspired insults that it overwhelmed her literary legacy. On the dramatic abilities of Katharine Hepburn, Parker offered that a performance by the actress "runs the gamut of emotions from A to B". About a university ball, she opined, "If all the girls attending it were laid end to end, I wouldn't be at all surprised."

Among Parker's fellow Round Tablers was the critic and playwright George S Kaufman, who, when asked to review a new Broadway comedy, obliged with, "There was laughter in the back of the theatre, leading to the belief that somebody was telling jokes back there." At the table, too, were the humorist and actor Robert Benchley, the drama critic Alexander Woollcott, and New Yorker founder Harold Ross. With a supporting cast of occasional lunchers, they disgorged their scorn for the world outside.

Outrageous, callous and, above all, funny - the young wits were show-offs competing to produce the deadliest line. It took them 10 years to refine the art but the sparkling diners invested the smirk and barb with the excitement of a clean and jerk. A regular irregular at the Round Table, the angelic-looking Harpo Marx, took pleasure in the carnage. His brother Groucho, however, did not wish to be a member of the club. "The price of admission," he said, "is a serpent's tongue and a half-concealed stiletto." The actress Margalo Gillmore came to lunch every day "except Saturdays and Sundays", during what she later called her "laughing years".

The Round Table's urbane drollery took many forms. Kaufman was moved to call a radio musical request show to ask for five minutes' silence, and Benchley, on his first trip to Venice, wired home, "Streets full of water. Please advise." Many of the lunchers wrote for a living and readily converted their tart mealtime badinage into columns, a habit attacked by some as back-scratching at The Algonquin.

One recent cold evening in New York I sat in The Algonquin, not at the Round Table but directly in front of it to better see the portrait of the famous diners that now hangs above the table. It had been more than 80 years since the self-titled Vicious Circle had convened in the room. I was afraid the recent refurbishment of the hotel, all dark timber, chaotic carpets and mood lighting, might have removed any remaining scent of the sardonic. I summoned up Benchley, whose short stories had won me years ago, and whose teachers at Harvard must surely have recognised a talent when young Benchley tackled the question of disputed fishing rights from the point of view of the fish. Just like him, I was keen to get out of my wet clothes and into a dry Martini.

We are in an age fractured by instant, mostly wit-free communication. It was not difficult to imagine that what was said over lethal lunches by such sophisticated killers might have ricocheted beyond the room - albeit without the aid of smartphones which, after all, can only be as smart as their users. Frank Case was bemused that Parker's remarks became an influence "that was to dress and fashion the conversation of a whole nation".

Judging by the concentrated efforts she made to kill herself, including swallowing a bottle of shoe polish, Parker might have immortalised too many one-liners for her own good. Her reputation for them continues to typecast her. "Why, it got so bad," she said towards the (natural) end of her life, "that they began to laugh before I opened my mouth." Scott Fitzgerald encouraged her to write a novel. The achievement, which she believed was the mark of a true writer, eluded her. The Round Table disbanded at the end of the '20s, as most of the participants moved on to exploit their talents and reputations for decent money. Parker damned the era as "the terrible day of the wisecrack".

On the night of my visit, a group of tourists ate and drank at the Round Table. One of them used the ledge under the painting of the Vicious Circle to rest a handbag for which she had, unquestionably, paid more than the group would spend on the meal.

An American couple seated in a corner noticed the attention my dinner partner and I were paying the picture. As they left, the pair approached us, to say that "they [the tourists] probably didn't have any idea of the history of the place". The visitors' ignorance was a desecration of sorts, a failure to recognise that, while it is acceptable to be cruelly smart, and smartly cruel, it is never, ever acceptable to be merely crass. And so, I must apologise for my earlier language.

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