The Strange Tale of “The Vicious Circle” Begins at The Algonquin Hotel

The Algonquin Hotel at Night

The Algonquin Hotel is stuck somewhere in time. The charm is early 1900s. It’s my favorite place to stay in Manhattan. Marriott bought it 10 years ago and managed not to ruin it. The Round Table remains. The Cat remains but now banished from The Oak Room, she is never seen. The Blue Room remains – it’s so weird, you may well see a visage of Harold Ross sitting at the bar drinking a Dorothy Parker with Dorothy Parker. Those antique iron railings also survived, guiding you to fine old rooms in which none from The Vicious Circle actually slept. And thank God for that. Je suis chez moi.

True Wit

“The Vicious Circle” was the nom de plume for a group of writers, journalists, and aspiring performers who met everyday for lunch at The Round Table in The Algonquin Hotel from 1919 to 1929. Many went on to fame in newspapers, magazines, radio, Hollywood, and Pulitzers. Mostly, they were hard-drinking wise-cracking poker-playing devotees of wit. But as time went by, so did wit. Wit has an air of pretension and a whiff of insult. Eventually people get hurt, or weary, or both. True wit is a thing of the past – maybe the ancient past. Today, few appreciate true wit. Wit has become bad form. In the days of The Vicious Circle, wit was an art form – a vicious one.

“Old journalists fade away but their wisecracks never die.”

Familiarity breeds contempt is the infamous witticism that broke The Circle. By 1930, members of The Vicious Circle found they had nothing left to say to each other. How many times can you hurl the same insults at the same people before it all becomes wit-less? Which brings me to the quote on the photo hanging on my door in Room 604:

“Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.”

The originator of the quote was Franklin P. Adams, founding member of The Vicious Circle. He’s not in the photograph but Dorothy Parker, perhaps the founding member is sitting there with Harpo Marx standing behind her. Harpo, who would not speak a word in movies was a member of that loquacious group. His brother Groucho, the undisputed champion of the put-down found The Vicious Circle too vicious and refused to join. The things you didn’t know about some people!

Out of Time

The Algonquin Hotel is so strange. But I can come downstairs at midnight, pour myself a cup of hot tea from a silver pot, give it a dollop of milk, check out the scene, time-travel back to the days of true wit, walk outside, and get some cool shots. That and the ancient noire of the architecture keeps me coming back. It’s a place out of time – I hope it will always be there .

Memorial Day Weekend, 2015

Notes – Update March 2018
Referring to the wit of the “ancient past” I was thinking about the Greek cynics, like Diogenes, and the comics, like Aristophanes in the 4th and 5th Centuries BC … it’s said by some that the originators of a style experience it in a way that no one else ever can … I suspect that’s true

Classic American wit and wisecracking sprung from the immigrant milieu outside The Algonquin Hotel during the time of The Round Table … it’s captured poignantly by Sergio Leone in his, “Once Upon A Time In America,” a story that follows a gang of first generation immigrants as ragamuffin kids hustling on the streets of New York from the end of the Guilded Age all the way to old age just past mid-century America … in Rob Reiner’s “Stand By Me,” we observe wit and wisecracking in mid-century America as mere shadows on the cave … American culture was becoming sensitive in an ironic foreshadowing of the turbulent 60s – a direct response to the rise, at long last, of a hyper-sensitivity to injustice … today, 60s-style turbulence has largely been reduced to virtue-signalling – progress? maybe … immigrants in the early 20th Century took injustice for granted … their vicious wit and wisecracking was a self-conscious reflection of their predicament – the social injustice of the Guilded Age had been exposed but nothing had been done about it … members of The Vicious Circle were caught in the same net in a different way – the vicious wit of The Vicious Circle was a self-conscious reflection of the predicament faced by all writers and artists of any time

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