“I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” — Groucho Marx

Even though it wasn’t an official club, there were a lot of people who wanted to have a seat among the writers, wits and wisecrackers who composed the nucleus of New York City’s famous Algonquin Round Table. Let’s take a look at what I feel is some of their best material.

The group’s first get-together came in June of 1919, ostensibly to fete eccentric critic Alexander Woollcott, just back from his stint as a correspondent for Stars and Stripes during the war. The event was actually a roast of Woollcott, but everyone there — including Woollcott himself — had such a good time that they agreed to meet for lunch in the Rose Room of the Algonquin Hotel every weekday.

After returning from the war, Woollcott, who became the self-appointed leader of the group, observed that “The English have an extraordinary ability to fly into a great calm,” but was not as kind to the cast of a play about which he wrote, “The scenery of the play was beautiful, but the actors got in front of it.”

Woollcott, who wrote his revues on the hotel’s third floor and often greeted his friends with, “Hello, Repulsive,” went on to become the inspiration for unbearable New York radio personality Sheridan Whiteside in the play and 1942 movie “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”

Another member was sportswriter Haywood Hale Broun, who pointed out that “Sports do not build character. They reveal it,” and that “The tragedy of life is not that a man loses but that he almost wins.” Also a theater critic, he once lamented that “The play opened at 8:20 sharp and closed at 10:40 dull.”

Writer and actor Robert Benchley fit right in with observations such as, “It was one of those plays in which all of the actors unfortunately enunciated very clearly,” and “Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said nothing.”

The Round Table’s many other regulars included Woollcott’s friend Harpo Marx, but not his younger brother Groucho, who demurred because he felt that “The price of admission is a serpent’s tongue and a half-concealed stiletto.”

Probably the only Round Table regular who could have gone toe-to-toe with Groucho’s rapier wit, had he decided to join the gathering, was Dorothy Parker, who once pointed out that “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”

Of Benito Mussolini’s book “The Cardinal’s Mistress,” she wrote, “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”

“She is so odd a blend of Little Nell and Lady Macbeth,” said Woollcott of Parker. “It is not so much the familiar hand of steel in a velvet glove as a lacy sleeve with a bottle of vitriol concealed in its folds.”

Other Round Table regulars were critic Frank Crowninshield, columnist Franklin P. Adams and acting couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Others in attendance included Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights Robert Sherwood, Marc Connelly and George S. Kaufman. Nevertheless Parker would later remark that the group was hardly made up of literary giants when compared to the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.

“The Round Table was just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were,” Parker opined after the gathering had run its course around 1929. “Just a bunch of loudmouths showing off.”

When Pulitzer Prize winner Edna Ferber stopped in to visit the Round Table in 1932, she found a family from Kansas eating lunch there. The “Vicious Circle” was no more.

The Algonquin Hotel, which became a National Literary Landmark in 1996 thanks to the contributions of “The Round Table Wits,” is still open for business at 59 West 44th St.

Next week: More examples of witty wordplay from members of the Round Table.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at [email protected] 


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