The Algonquin Hotel is the most famous hotel you’ve probably never heard of. The century-old New York institution holds its own among the posh hotels, but it’s always had a flare for the dramatic. For example, this space has played host to some of the most influential people of 20th century American arts and letters. And it has a cat (more on that later).
It was originally named The Puritan, but, fortunately, Frank Case, the beloved owner who gave the hotel such a rich and fascinating legacy, renamed it the Algonquin after the Native American tribe who once lived in the area. It’s tucked away on West 44th, not far from the crowds and lights of Times Square, and, from the outside, very little seems to have changed since it was built in 1902. Inside, it has managed to maintain the opulent, rich design of the early 20th century, while incorporating modern conveniences.
The hotel had its first (of many) dates with destiny in 1919 when a crowd of writers, critics, playwrights, attended a party there. They had such a blast, they decided to meet daily for lunch: Case, eager to encourage them, provided a free lunch of celery and popovers. These luminaries and tastemakers (many of whom were massive influences on the likes of Fitzgerald and Hemingway) would become the Algonquin Round Table. They, however, referred to themselves as “The Vicious Circle.”
In brief, the Vicious were:
- Academy Award winner, story storyist, playwright, poet, and critic Dorothy Parker, whose wit should’ve been considered a lethal weapon. Supposedly, she’s still haunting the place, pushing noisy children.
- Robert Benchley, Vanity Fair’s first editor and an Academy Award-winning actor.
- Harold Ross, the guy who started The New Yorker after winning the money in a poker game at the hotel. Each guest still gets a free copy.
- Robert Sherwood, a four-time Pulitzer Prize winner and an Oscar winner.
- Alexander Woolcott, who often wrote his New York Times theatre reviews upstairs.
- George Kaufman, the playwright who only won two measly Pulitzers.
- Edna Ferber, who spun gold with her plays and books, nabbing her Pulitzer for “So Big.”
- Heywood Broun, husband of Ruth Hale, as well as a sports writer and founder of the Newspaper Guild.
- Franklin Adams, who was insanely famous columnist at the time.
- Marc Connelly, yet another Pulitzer-winner at the table.
- Harpo Marx, Ruth Hale, and Jane Grant, among others, showed up from time to time.
The Vicious were famous for their barbs, badinage, and acrobatic conversations. By 1925, even their daily lunch was famous.
But the hotel was also scandalous in its day. The Algonquin was one of the first high-end establishments to allow actors to stay, a somewhat controversial decision. Legendary actor John Barrymore, grandfather of our current Barrymore, Drew, left several lasting marks. He suggested they put blue gels over the lights in the bar because it made people look better (or maybe it was easier on his hangovers). Case did, and it’s still famously known as The Blue Bar.
Around the same time, Case took in a stray cat named Billy. Strangely, after Billy passed away, days later, in walked another cat he dubbed Rusty. Barrymore wouldn’t abide by such a plebeian name, and Rusty became Hamlet. The hotel continues the tradition of having a cat named Hamlet, though if she’s a female, she’s named Matilda. The reigning cat is Hamlet the 8th, formerly a feral Long Islander who now has arguably the most famous cat position in the world — from commercials in Japan to having his own social media manager. You can even bring your own cat during your stay.
— Hamlet (@TheAlgonquinCat) September 8, 2017
Singers have also found refuge and fame within the walls of the Algonquin. Their famous Oak Room Supper Club cabaret show hosted the likes of Greta Keller, Karen Akers, and Diana Krall, and helped launch Harry Connick Jr. Sadly, it closed in 2012.
However, the Algonquin remains a sanctuary for writers and readers alike. They used to offer touring writers a night free in exchange for a signed copy of the book, though now they get a reduced rate. Honoring the Round Table, supposedly discounts at lunch are offered for struggling writers. Regardless, it’ll be a stay to write home about.
You’ll never sleep in a more storied hotel.
Featured image courtesy of Peter Kramer/Getty Images.