“The Garden of Allah was the Algonquin Round Table gone west and childish.”
– Sheilah Graham
The Algonquins were an exclusive group of about a dozen of the nation’s best-known columnists, critics, editors and other media figures who dined together every day at a round table in Manhattan’s Algonquin Hotel. The one-liners, puns and witticisms they traded over lunch would often appear in each other’s columns the next day. Outsiders called their group the Algonquin Round Table but they referred to themselves as the Vicious Circle. Founded in 1919, the Round Table reached its peak of influence in 1925, and then in just four years it disbanded. Roughly half of them would soon decamp to the West Coast where they would take up residence at the Garden of Allah.
Robert Benchley was an Algonquin mainstay who was among the first to move to Hollywood. He was hired by Paramount to write intertitles in 1925. He’d gotten his start at Vanity Fair magazine and later became one of the first writers at The New Yorker. He moved to the Garden of Allah sometime after 1930.
The self-appointed master of ceremonies for the riotous goings-on at the hotel, few people are as closely associated with the Garden in its golden era as Benchley.
He was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on September 15, 1899. His family was prominent – he was descended from a lieutenant governor of Massachusetts – but not wealthy. A family friend took an interest in him and paid for his tuition at Exeter and then Harvard, where he served as editor of the Harvard Lampoon. He graduated in 1910. Two years later, he married a local girl, Gertrude Darling. They had two sons, Nat and Robert Jr. During his years at the Garden, he led a dual life, spending half his time in Hollywood and the other in the east with his family.
Another writer closely associated with the Garden was Dorothy Parker. Remembered today for her droll humor and mordant poems and essays, she was born Dorothy Rothschild (although not closely related to the wealthy Rothschilds in Europe) in 1893. She was the product of what then was considered a mixed marriage. Her father, Jacob Henry Rothschild, was Jewish; her mother, Eliza Annie Marston, was not. They lived comfortably in a townhouse on Manhattan’s Westside, but her mother died when Dorothy was five, and her father died when she was 19. Five years later she married Edward Pond Parker II – she said she was attracted to “his nice, clean surname.” The marriage ended in 1928.
Dorothy Parker met Robert Benchley in 1919 when he was hired to work with her at Vanity Fair. They shared an office Dorothy described as “so tiny that an inch smaller and it would have been adultery.” Even so, they soon had a new office mate, Robert Sherwood, a budding playwright who would go on to win four Pulitzer Prizes.
Later that year, the three office mates were on hand for what would prove to be the founding of the Algonquin Round Table. The first gathering was a luncheon for New York Times theatre critic Aleck Woollcott at the Algonquin Hotel. The event was a homecoming party for Wollcott who had recently returned from World War I service in Europe. Known for his stinging wit, Aleck was beloved by his colleagues, especially Dorothy Parker.
Among the columnists, critics, editors and actors there that day were 35 or so men and women who were destined for fame in New York and Hollywood. The format was similar to a celebrity roast, with Woollcott in the hot seat. Obviously everyone had a great time. At some point toward the end of the luncheon, someone floated an idea: “Why don’t we do this every day?” And so they did. Soon they were meeting at the Algonquin on a daily basis.
The one-liners, puns and witticisms they traded over lunch would often appear in each other’s columns the next day. As the number of regulars grew, seating everyone at a rectangular table became unwieldy and an actual round table was brought in. They soon found that they hated to part after lunch and began spending time together in the evenings and on weekends.
In The Vicious Circle, Margaret Case, the daughter of hotel manager Frank Case, wrote, “The Algonquin Round Table came to the Algonquin Hotel the way lightning strikes a tree, by accident and mutual attraction.” The group was never officially organized–there were no officers, no rules, no membership dues.
Association with the Round Table benefited the careers of nearly all the members. Some of the writers became well-known public figures, but the only Algonquin who was truly famous in his day was Robert Benchley, who became an actor in movies.
In the spring of 1922 the Round Tablers produced a one-night theatrical review called, “No Siree.” Benchley’s bit was an improvised monologue called “The Treasurer’s Report.” He played the assistant treasurer of a club who’s forced to deliver an annual financial report because the actual treasure is out sick. Based on this single performance Benchley was hired to perform “the Treasurer’s Report” in “The Music Box Review,” produced by Irving Berlin and Sam Harris.
“The Treasurer’s Report” led to the writing gig at Paramount. In 1928, it was filmed at William Fox Studios, a precursor to 20th Century-Fox. With a runtime of ten minutes, it was the longest-running film produced with synchronized sound to date. Benchley followed it with “The Sex Life of the Polyp.” The shorts played as interstitials in theatres along with other short subjects before the feature film. It was extremely well received, and more screenwriting assignments followed.
Around 1930 Benchley moved into the Garden of Allah. He quickly made it his home away from home. Over time he established a pattern: He’d move to Hollywood every spring and return to New York in September to cover the theatre season as The New Yorker’s drama critic.
The Round Table unofficially disbanded ten years after its unofficial founding. The members were entering their thirties and forties and beginning new phases in their lives and their careers. There was no final luncheon. They simply stopped meeting. Many of them remained friends and colleagues– and a great many, perhaps as many as a dozen, would make their way to Hollywood and the Garden of Allah. Led by Benchley, the indefatigable, hard-drinking former Algonquins would set the pace for the social scene at the Garden for more than a decade.
Charles Butterworth was a popular film comedian who had a doleful face and deadpan delivery. He and Robert Benchley became fast friends at the Garden of Allah. They were constantly together and spent much of the time socializing over cocktails. Charlie was the son of a physician from South Bend, Indiana. He had a law degree from Notre Dame, but instead of practicing law he went to work at a newspaper. In 1924 he tried his luck on the vaudeville stage. He was cast in a show in New York, and after a stint there on the stage landed his first role in a movie in 1929. He moved to Hollywood the next year.
Benchley and Butterworth were known as much for their antics as they were for their drinking. The writer Amy Porter, a frequent guest at the Garden, wrote about one for Collier’s Magazine in 1947. In the article she wrote that at one point the Garden’s bar became a hangout for a group of gay men. Homosexuality was illegal then, and the LAPD often raided the bars gay men and women frequented. As she put it in the article, “certain undesirables started gathering in the Garden bar every afternoon about five.” In an effort to discourage them congregating in the bar, management issued a new policy. Single men were no longer admitted. Each man must be accompanied by a woman.
“A Pinkerton detective was stationed at the door to enforce the rule,” Porter wrote “and well-remembered is the day when Benchley and Butterworth, returning from a trip and all ignorant of the reform movement, were halted on the way to a drink. The B and B team went on at some length about their constitutional rights, and indeed their moral rights, for why should they be forced to go out and pick up some lady, and the detective, being out talked, said, “Well, if someone would vouch for them…”
“Just then,” Porter writes, “one of the very group the rule was made for came in, saw their dilemma, and with a graceful wave of the hand intervened, “Oh, officer, you can let them in. They’re all right.” They were saved by one of the gay men the bar management wanted to ban.