Back in the more cavalier days of my youth, if ever I disappeared from view, one could almost always find me in the lobby restaurant of the Algonquin Hotel in New York. Along with several others, I would have lunch here everyday. Now many of the group, which came to be known as the Algonquin Round Table, either were at the time or went on to become some of the finest literary, critical, or witty minds of a generation. I would not fall into this category.
I’m not sure why they kept me around. Perhaps it was my sheer lack of intellectual recognition. I was a sardonic and churlish youth, who stood out from the likes of Woolsey, Dot Parker, and GS Kaufman simply because of my disinterest in their work. I enjoyed their company because they were catty, biting, scathing, and at times down-right rude. Given the Victorian upbringing I’d received, these folks were what I longed to become, and exactly what I needed. Looking back perhaps that is another reason they kept me around. They saw a bit of their own past in my wanton naivete and caustic attitude.
One of my favorite nights with the group was an evening in April of 1922. The curtain had just closed on a revue called No Sirree!, the first and only project that the Round Table had collaborated on. Woolsey suggested we head over to the Algonquin to celebrate, but when we got there we were surprised to find that the doors had been shut early that night so that the manager could take us up onÂ our offer of free tickets to the show. We needed a celebration, but where to go?
Woolsey complained that his place was an absolute wreck and no one should even dream of making it his place. Dot said that she loathed having people over. GS said that his wife would probably already be in bed. To which Groucho quickly replied, “I know where I want to have the party.” Finally I said, “Listen, Gang, I know it’s not much, but we could always go back to my place. The apartment’s a hole, but the view from the roof is spectacular.”
They allÂ agreed to meet me there bringing whatever they had on hand. (My one stipulation had been that as a starving writer I had no booze or food, so if anyone wanted something they should bring it.) After everyone arrived, it seemed that they were all living the lives of starving artists as well. Groucho brought a half a carton of guava juice, and of course, if anyone would have guava juice it would be Groucho. Woolsey brought a little bit of orange juice, and Dot brought over a half-empty bottle of pineapple juice and just the tiniest bit of apple juice. Kaufman brought some grenadine, and Tallulah Bankhead brought some vodka. At least good old Tallulah was always good for some booze. Peter Benchley went out and got some dark spiced rum. And Harpo, God bless him the sweetest man alive, brought in two bottles of the sweetest, tastiest coconut rum you have ever imbibed.
We looked at our table of ingredients unsure of what to do. A light bulb flickered over my head, and I ran downstairs to my apartment, returning with a huge decorative bowl an ex had made for me during one of her artistic phases. I set the bowl on the ground and began pouring.
“Wait! What are you doing!” cried Dot Parker. “We don’t have much as it is, and you’re just going to ruin it?”
“Just wait,” I said, “If this doesn’t knock your socks off, I’ll eat Woolsey’s coat.”
“No small feat,” said Kaufman.
“His feet are about average,” said Groucho. “But that’s no small coat for sure.”
Well, I tell you what resulted from that mixture was just about the finest drink I’d ever had. It was deliciously sweet, like a fruit drink without the slightest hint of an alcohol taste. But boy did it pack a wallop. The next day after all of us had applied our hangover cure of choice, we dubbed the drink “The Harpo Marx” for two reasons. One, in honor of the only one among us who’d had the selflessness to bring enough alcohol to share. And two, because after one glass you’ll find you can no longer speak.
Peter Benchley brought the bottle back from his last adventure snorkeling with sharks in Barbados. Had Robert Benchley been there, I imagine he would have rummaged in the hall closet until he found his favorite cleaning solvent and then would have tried to persuade everyone to mix in just a splash of pineapple juice.
It was a crazy night and some of the details are fuzzy.
And I was never really good friends with Benchley anyway.
Actors and writers–such parasites.