“I’ve got a good mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it.” — Groucho Marx, “Duck Soup”

This week we’ll finish up our look at some of the more-or-less regular members of the famous gathering of wits and writers who frequently met for lunch at a round table in the Rose Room of New York’s Algonquin Hotel between 1919 and 1929.

As mentioned in the previous column, many of these regular members were accomplished and well-known writers, though there were numerous people who drifted in and out of the group’s lively discussions for the better part of a decade who were more famous.

Regardless, these regulars were capable of conjuring remarks that were just as witty and, sometimes, just as cutting as their more famous counterparts during lunches that were overseen by hotel manager Frank Case, who would buy “the Gonk” — as the alcohol was known to the regulars — in 1927.

“Office hours,” said playwright George S. Kaufman, who no doubt spoke for many of the others, “are from 12 to 1 with an hour off for lunch.”

However long they had to meet, many of the attendees always found time to have a drink. Or several. “Why do I drink champagne for breakfast?” asked playwright Noel Coward. “Doesn’t everyone?” He also instructed, “It’s never too early for a cocktail.”

Dorothy Parker chimed in with, “I’m not a writer with a drinking problem, I’m a drinker with a writing problem,” and Robert Benchley admitted, “I know I’m drinking myself to a slow death, but then I’m in no hurry.”

Since the whole Algonquin Round Table thing had started as a roast of critic Alexander Woollcott, it seems reasonable to assume that its members thought it was their job to poke fun at everything, including each other. Maybe it was a defense mechanism.

“I love criticism just so long as it’s unqualified praise,” said Coward.

“The trouble with me,” said playwright Robert Sherwood, “is I belong to a vanishing race. I’m one of the intellectuals.”

“The very rich and the very social are, often, very stuffy,” opined writer Edna Ferber, who once referred to the gathering as “the Poison Squad” for the potshots they often took at others, even though she sometimes took aim at them herself, pointing out, “Writers should be read but not seen. Rarely are they a winsome sight.”

One day, when Ferber was wearing a tailored suit, she ran into Noel Coward, who looked her over and said, “Edna, you look just like a man.” After looking him up and down, she replied, “So do you, Noel.”

“If you can’t be funny, be interesting,” said Harold Ross, of whom Alexander Woollcott said, “Looked like a dishonest Abe Lincoln.” (A high school dropout, Ross and his first wife, Jane Grant, would start The New Yorker magazine in 1925.)

Surely all the insults tossed around like so many paper airplanes were quickly forgiven and forgotten. Or maybe not. According to columnist Franklin P. Adams, “To err is human; to forgive, infrequent.” He also observed that “Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.” Maybe all that drinking helped, too.

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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