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The History and Traditions of The Algonqun Hotel

On November 22, 1902, a small hotel with a red brick and limestone façade designed by Goldwin Starrett, opened its doors in one of the most fashionable areas in New York “in the very center of this town.” The two most popular restaurants of the era – Sherry’s and Delmonico’s – were located just up the street on Fifth Avenue and 44th Street. Five of New York’s greatest clubs – Yale, Harvard, Bar Association, New York Yacht and Century were neighbors. In 1905, the Hippodrome advertised as “the world’s largest playhouse,” opened across the street (now the site of the garage of the same name) and it was soon joined by a group of theaters – the Belasco, the Winthrop Ames, the 44th Street and the Broadhurst. The visionary Frank Case Legendary manager (1907) and owner (1927) Frank Case, who joined the Algonquin staff while the hotel was still under construction, believed that the original name – The Puritan – was too straitlaced. He changed it to the Algonquin, opting for an indigenous American name rather than a European name favored by the other hoteliers of the age. From the beginning, Case played an integral role in developing the Algonquin and positioning it as New York’s center of literary and theatrical life. Because he liked actors and writers and was always willing to extend credit to his favorites, Case attracted personalities like Booth Tarkington, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., John Barrymore and H.L Mencken, who called it “the most comfortable hotel in America.” The Algonquin welcomed women guests from the beginning, among them, Evangeline Booth, Lady Gregory, Gertrude Stein, Marian Anderson, Simone de Beauvoir, Helen Hayes, Eudora Weity, Nadine Gordimer, Erica Jong, Edna O’Brien and Maya Angelou. Three Nobel laureates visited on a regular basis – Sinclair Lewis (who offered to buy the hotel), most recently Derek Walcott and most memorably William Faulkner, who drafted his Nobel acceptance speech at the Algonquin in 1950. The legend of the Round Table The Algonquin Round Table – a group of New York-based writers, actors, critics and great conversationalists who favored the hotel as a daily meeting spot – set the standard for literary style and wit long beyond their ten-year duration together. It all began after World War I, during which time Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Robert E. Sherwood regularly lunched at the hotel because of its convenient location – just a few doors away from the offices of Vanity Fair, where they all worked. One memorable afternoon these three great thinkers were joined by several of their friends for a small party welcoming Alexander Woollcott back to his position as drama critic of The New York Times after he served as a journalist covering the war. Frank Case treated the talented but low paid young writers to free celery and popovers and provided them with their own table and waiter, thereby guaranteeing return daily luncheon visits. The group expanded to a core membership that included Edna Ferber, Peggy Wood, Franklin P. Adams, George S.Kaufman, Heywood Broun and Marc Connelly. Most of the Round Table members were critics and as they lunched, they would exchange ideas and gossip which found its way into Adams’ “Conning Tower” column in the New York Tribune the next day. For one glorious decade beginning in June of 1919, members’ opinions and writing strongly influenced young writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Harold Ross, legendary editor and friend of the Round Table, created The New Yorker and secured funding for it at the hotel. It made its debut February 21, 1925. Today, guests of the Algonquin receive a complimentary copy of the magazine with their room rate. Mrs. Parker and her friends were immortalized in 1987 in Aviva Slesin’s Academy Award-winning documentary, The Ten Year Lunch. In 1994 the group was once again transported to the big screen in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle produced by Robert Altman, directed by Alan Rudolph and starring Jennifer Jason Leigh as Mrs. Parker. The premieres of both films were followed by gala parties at the Algonquin. The Ben Bodne years In 1924 Ben Bodne, a South Carolinian honeymooned with his wife Mary at the Algonquin. At the time, he promised his bride he would one day buy the hotel for her. Shortly after Case’s death in 1946, Bodne retired from the oil business and acquired ownership and operation of the hotel. Friends commended his decision remarking that he had not bought a hotel, he had bought a tradition. Under Bodne’s direction the Algonquin continued to possess all the qualities that had attracted guests and visitors almost a half century earlier. When he undertook his first major refurnishing, Bodne replaced carpets and sofas during the night so as not to disturb his guests. He also made certain that any replacements were near replicas of the old. The oak-paneled Lobby retains its Edwardian luster, with brass bells on each table for summoning otherwise inconspicuous waiters. The Oak Room, named “New York’s best cabaret venue” by New York Magazine, evokes a turn-of-the-century club, with its rich paneling and warm lighting. The room has acted as a launching pad for such stellar talents as Harry Connick Jr., Michael Feinstein, Andrea Marcovicci and John Pizzarelli. While maintaining the traditional character of the hotel, Bodne did not compromise guest comfort and convenience. The Algonquin became the first New York hotel to replace room keys with electronic key cards. It was also among the first to place smoke detectors and air conditioning in all rooms. The Algonquin’s traditions In addition to its character and cultural fame, the Algonquin continues to celebrate its famous traditions, some of unknown origin. For more than 50 years, the entire staff has marched through the Lobby at midnight each New Year’s Eve banging on pots and pans and dimming the lights, presumably to frighten away any evil spirits residing in the hotel. Another institution is the hotel’s cat. The original feline resident was called Hamlet, but it is Matilda who currently has full run of the hotel, and can often be found happily napping in her own “suite” in the Lobby or supervising any unusual activity, especially festive parties. The hotel’s mascot has been lovingly immortalized in The Algonquin Cat, written by Val Schaffner and illustrated by Hilary Knight, whose talented pen also rendered immortal the Plaza’s Eloise. The history continues In 1998 the Algonquin underwent an extensive restoration. Much to the delight of its regular guests and patrons, the owners and the design team of Alexandra Champalimaud Associates carefully researched the physical and spiritual histories of this New York City landmark property before undertaking a multi-million dollar. Another renovation took place in 2008, using the same award winning designers to enhance and restore the original luster of the renowned hotel. As it enters its 107th year, the Algonquin’s attraction for an influential clientele has remained constant. The hotel notes each guest’s individual requirements and preferences so that when they return, all their wishes can be attended to in advance in keeping with the observation that “the Algonquin is one of the fast diminishing breed of hotels – those that still boast personality.” In the premiere issue of Historic Traveler magazine, the Algonquin was named one of the “America’s Ten Great Historic Hotels.” In 1987 the Algonquin was designated a New York City landmark. In 1996 it was designated a Literary landmark. The Algonquin Hotel 59 West 44th Street, New York, NY 10036

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Marissa Mastellone/Louise O’Brien/Tonya Fleetwood
Dan Klores Communications