Community Conversations Recap: Literary Life in New York, Then & Now at Mid-Manhattan Library
On January 31, Mid-Manhattan Library at 42nd Street hosted its second in a series of system-wide Community Conversations. We offered a talk on the topic of New York (City) State of Mind: “Literary Life in New York: Then and Now.” Here is an overview of the talk from our guest lecturer, Kevin C. Fitzpatrick:
The Algonquin Round Table met from 1919-1929 and is America’s most well known group of writers. It started in June 1919 at the Algonquin Hotel (59 W. 44th Street) as a welcome home luncheon, or roast, for New York Times dramatic critic Alexander Woollcott.
The core group was Franklin P. Adams, Robert Benchley, Heywood Broun, Marc Connelly, Edna Ferber, George S. Kaufman, Harpo Marx, Dorothy Parker, Harold Ross, Robert Sherwood, and Alexander Woollcott. This became the “Vicious Circle” that met for around seven or eight years, six days a week, at the hotel.
But this was not everyone in the group. There were 30 members of the Round Table, and a lot of the less-known members are, to me, just as interesting as the famous ones.
A blog post I wrote about six female members was one of the points of my talk. These women led fascinating lives and seem to be overlooked today. Jane Grant was the first female reporter in the Times city room, and she co-founded The New Yorker. With her friend Ruth Hale, a writer and publicist, they co-founded the Lucy Stone League, a group to urge women to preserve their maiden names after marriage. Also at the table were actresses Margalo Gillmore and Peggy Wood, who both had 50-year acting careers in New York. Margaret Leech was also a writer, and the only woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, twice, in History. Beatrice Kaufman would have been a Page Six star if she were around today; in the 1930s she shined as an editor and event planner.
Composer Deems Taylor was one of the most famous men in America. He was also an original Round Table member. When he found the time, he served as president for six years of the new American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), which he helped found. Today ASCAP is driving the conversation to get musicians and performers paid fairly for streaming music.
Another of my favorite people is Herman Mankiewicz. One of the few Round Table members that was a native Manhattan resident, he graduated from Columbia in his teens and served in World War I. He worked in newspapers in the Twenties and the early New Yorker before going to California. He got in on the ground floor of screenwriting when talking pictures took off. Years later when he was recovering from a car accident, his friend Orson Welles asked him if he had any screenplay ideas. In a matter of days, Mank sketched out what became the greatest American film: Citizen Kane.
The Round Table is all around us. The most famous names still creep into our popular culture references. What was intriguing about the post-talk community conversation was how this group, who has been dead for many years, is still driving the conversation in their old neighborhood today.
After the lecture, we set some initial ground rules as a group and then had a wide-ranging discussion that touched on issues of cultural and technological change.
During the heyday of the Round Table, newspapers were the main source of news and live theatre the main form of entertainment. There were many more papers then than now, and they offered bulletins morning and evening. There were as many as eighty theatres and countless shows in Manhattan, employing thousands in their daily productions.
The group seemed to agree that the creative drive has not changed, but the tools we use today are different. It’s harder now to tell where entertainment ends and sponsorship begins. Some find the amount of content available today disconcerting; easy-to-produce, low-quality material can make it harder for real talent to stand out. Yeats was invoked: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”
A challenge and opportunity for today is that research and information seeking is much easier to do from your desk or the palm of your hand then it was a hundred years ago. Twitter is a modern communication tool that gives us insight into the lives and thoughts of media personalities and authors; the Algonquin Round Table would likely be using it today! And Edvard Munch would probably be at home in the culture of melancholy selfies.
Thanks to our speaker and to the community members who stayed to talk. On February 21 we hope writers and readers will join us again to continue the conversation on today’s changing media landscape.
Kevin C. Fitzpatrick is the author of seven books that all have a tie to New York City. His most recent titles are World War I New York: A Guide to the City’s Enduring Ties to the Great War, The Governors Island Explorer’s Guide, and the Algonquin Round Table New York: A Historical Guide. Follow him on FitzpatrickAuthor.com.