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Reflections on the Crown Jewel of Manhattan’s Literary Hotels

AlgonquinWe went to the Algonquin for lunch …. We sat in a big round booth built into the wall that felt cozy like a clubhouse.

—Margaret Salinger

 

I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure I was the only person on the packed-to-the-gills Manhattan-bound Jersey Transit train who was reading a 57-year-old paperback edition of J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories. Aside from the fact that I still spend time rereading Salinger’s fiction while still foolishly looking forward to that legendary trove of unpublished work (hey, it’s only been, what, 47 years?), my choice made perfect sense. We were on our way to a night at the Algonquin, the crown jewel of New York’s literary hotels, where Salinger and his then-editor at the New Yorker, Gus Lobrano, often met to talk about these selfsame stories, all but one of which first appeared in the pages of that magazine. And when the reclusive author made forays into the city from his New Hampshire sanctuary, he would revisit the hotel for lunch with his New Yorker pals William Shawn and Lillian Ross. If you have any doubt about the symbiotic relationship between the magazine and the hotel, take a look at the decor on the hall outside your room and you’ll see framed New Yorker covers from the golden years and framed vintage New Yorker cartoons.

In the time-honored tradition of hotel guests everywhere, I came home with some souvenirs, but you can be sure that this is the only hotel that provides a blue cocktail napkin bearing a quote from playwright George S. Kaufman (“When I was born I owed twelve dollars”); a note pad illustrated with an Al Hirschfeld caricature of the Round Table crowd; a postcard of Natalie Ascendios’s painting of Dorothy Parker and “The Vicious Circle”; and a handsome postcard portrait of Matilda, the hotel’s resident feline. And if you are someone who writes every single day of your life, how can you resist bringing home a card for maid service that says Quiet, Please. Writing the Great American Novel on one side and Service Please. Went Out to Find Some New Ideas on the other.

I almost forgot to mention the Algonquin stationery I made off with. As if anyone could forget the item that at the moment most famously represents this hotel’s intimate connection with literary greatness. You read about it just the other day in the March 27 New York Times article, “Faulkner’s Past Isn’t Dead Yet: You Can Buy It at Auction,” which reports that the sheet of Algonquin stationery on which William Faulkner wrote the first draft of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech is among the pieces of his undead past expected to fetch between $500,000 and $1 million in a June auction at Sotheby’s.

Room 512

We’d always heard that the rooms at the Algonquin were, uh, well, you know, small, and Room 512 was no exception. The fact is, however, that small, cleverly set-up rooms are preferable to big impersonal spaces if you’ve come to the Algonquin hoping to spend quality time in the proximity of the luminaries who have stayed, are staying, and will always stay there. Speaking of Faulkner, you’re also that much closer to the author of Light in August, particularly if you’ve read of his lifelong devotion to the hotel and of the binges he slept off in one or another of its 170-plus rooms. According to various biographies, including Faulkner at 100: Retrospect and Prospect, the novelist was in New York during the fall of 1937 trying to finish The Wild Palms when the woman he’d been having an affair with abandoned him to marry a concert pianist. As a result, he went on “an enormous bender” and “passed out in his hotel room at the Algonquin, with his bare back against a radiator steam pipe, and suffered third degree burns.” The wound was slow to heal, had to be skin-grafted, and made it impossible for him to sit and type for more than an hour at a time. On his next visit to New York, Faulkner resumed seeing the woman for liasions at the Algonquin, where they apparently resumed the affair.

You don’t need a plaque on the wall saying Faulkner made love or suffered or wrote in Room 512. What matters is knowing that by reading, sleeping, passing time in his favorite hotel you’re entering into a literary continuum housed by the Algonquin, and should you doubt it, the image of Matilda, the most recent incarnation of the resident Algonquin cat, is posted on the door to your room with a quote from a typically scathing Dorothy Parker review: “This is not a novel that should be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” The room service breakfast menu contains this choice tidbit from the inimitable Mrs. Parker: “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.” Walk into the corridor to take the elevator, and you see that every door has its quote from this or that Round Table wit, along with the aforementioned framed reproductions of New Yorker covers and cartoons.

Remembering

Until last Saturday the only time I’d visited the Algonquin was many years ago for an interview with veteran newspaperman Harry Hansen. All I have to jog my memory of that occasion is a Chicago Tribune article (“A Young Hoosier Author Looks at Writing Game”) that begins, “A studious young man of 20 was talking quietly about the way books get written, in a room where, 36 years before, F. Scott Fitzgerald had aired similar views.” Hansen sets the stage (“It was the cocktail hour at the Algonquin”), noting that “a member of the junior class at Indiana University” was getting “his first glimpse of the red carpet and stained walls that had seen hundred of authors lift a drink in times past.” That was it. I remember neither the carpet nor the walls nor anything else, but my wife does, having met with authors there a number of times over the years in her capacity as an editor at Rutgers University Press. This was her first visit since the recent refurbishment, and though the infrastructure is the same (dark oak woodwork, grandfather clock, black cast-iron stairs), she misses the overstuffed chairs and sofas and other pieces of atmosphere-saturated furniture that made it possible to at least imagine being in touch with authors and editors from the hotel’s Round Table prime. She also misses the miniature four-poster bed near the front of the lobby occupied by the resident Matilda, as all female cats since the 1930s were named; it was Hamlet for the males, thanks to John Barrymore, who named the first stray to cross the threshold.

Regardless of the updated furnishings, the Algonquin aura was all around us when we had breakfast in the lobby with the Ascendios painting of Dorothy Parker and the gang at the Round Table for company (including an upside-down Matilda), not to mention thoughtful service from the Algonquin staff. The legend continued in the Blue Bar with its framed Hirschfeld caricatures of show biz and literary stars, among them Princeton’s Bebe Neuwirth in Chicago.

Lost Time on 35th

That time and memory would figure so prominently during our day in the city was inevitable, and not merely because the first place we went after arriving at Penn Station was to the Morgan exhibit celebrating the 100th anniversary of the publication of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, the first volume of In Search of Lost Time. The Morgan also happens to be in close proximity to the church where we were married a longlost time ago, with a statue of St. Francis looking on, and one of the running jokes of our marriage is that neither of us is ever quite sure which street it’s located on. I said I was sure it was 32nd Street, my wife doubted it, and as we came to within a block of the Morgan, she pointed toward a nondescript structure halfway down 35th Street. Can’t be, said I. Is, said she. We checked, and what do you know, she was right; she usually is.

Proust and Degas

Like our room at the Algonquin, the Swann’s Way exhibit, on view through April 28, was small but striking, a Parisian extension of the continuum marked by a quote from Abbé Mugnier: “Proust? No one is less dead than he is.” We followed the course of his writing life, from ideas scribbled in the tall, slender, elegant cahiers, then the larger student exercise tablets, then the school exam book where he jotted down subjects for Swann’s Way and sketched a bird at the top of one page and at the bottom a slender female presumed to be Albertine. By the time we got to the actual correction-ravaged typescripts, we could see the Abbé’s meaning in the work’s labyrinthine additions and vehement deletions.

On the Morgan’s second floor there’s a fascinating exhibit on view through May 13, focused on a single work by Degas, Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando (1879), his only painting with a circus setting.

A Salinger Moment

In the Jersey Transit waiting room at Penn Station and on the train home, I started reading J.D. Salinger’s For Esmé with Love and Squalor” in my Signet paperback of Nine Stories. The pages are yellowed, faded, and fragrant with the cozy scent of the same cheap paper comicbooks were made of, and it’s pleasant to think back on our night at the Algonquin and to imagine that Salinger and Gus Lobrano met there to talk about this story that never fails to charm and move me and that apparently had the same effect on the many readers who wrote him letters about it after its appearance in the April 8, 1950 New Yorker. We were on the train home when I finished “For Esmé.” As I looked up from the book, I saw a little girl effortlessly forming words on the fluid surface of the iPad being held by her mother, who smiled to see me admiring the beauty of a child seemingly writing on air, and when the mother saw my book, she smiled again, a little sadly, as if she knew the story I’d just read, with its flawless, subtly felt picture of two children, a brother and sister, in  a dark time. Or maybe she was only smiling at the oddity of anyone in 2013 reading a 47-year-old paperback. Any way you looked at it, it was a Salinger moment.

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