I curled my body around some blue-jean-covered legs as the human attached to them started to read a copy of The New York Times pulled from the antique rack in the cramped lobby of the most famous literary landmark in Manhattan, The Algonquin Hotel. A momentary purr slipped out as I cosied up to watch the morning hubbub begin. It was a few weeks before my historic home would celebrate its 107th birthday.
The old place — originally to be called The Puritan — has seen some of America’s most influential literati pass through the front door a stone’s throw from the dazzle of Broadway. My ancestors didn’t arrive until the late 1930s, so they didn’t witness the founding of The New Yorker here in 1925. But they might have visited with novelist William Faulkner as he penned his Nobel Prize acceptance speech here in 1950. Ernest Hemingway, H.L. Mencken, Gertrude Stein, Simone de Beauvoir and many other luminaries also stayed here.
Back in those flapper days the lobby crackled with gossip, character assassinations and the caustic wit of Dorothy Parker and the notorious “Vicious Circle.” That group of Vanity Fair writers held court at the nearby Round Table. Ironically, it wasn’t a round table in the 1920s, but hotel management eventually replaced it with the appropriate shape. All that remains of the long-silenced rabble-rousers is a caricature’s portrait that hangs above the table.
We don’t have a tourist trinket shop at the hotel, but if we did I’m sure Ms. Parker’s most memorable works of poetry and commentary would be on sale. One of America’s most acerbic social critics, she left behind many pithy remarks on life. “If you want to know what God thinks of money,” she once wrote, “just look at the people he gave it to.” Nothing was too sacred to escape her sharp tongue, not even herself: “I don’t care what is written about me so long as it isn’t true.”
I was old enough to have seen Canadian jazz singer Diana Krall at the piano in the Oak Room a few years ago. But it was a previous hotel mascot who met Canadian actor Christopher Plummer when he lived in one of the claustrophobic rooms upstairs. That was early in his career and I’m sure he could be seen regularly guzzling far too many Manhattans in the lounge.
As I purred, an older couple passed us looking troubled. I thought they might be looking for directions to Ground Zero. Tourists used to ask about it, considering it a solemn duty to visit the site of the twin towers attack. “But Harry,” said the frustrated woman. “I’m sure the guidebook said this is where that Beatle John Lennon lived. He was killed here.” The desk corrected her: “That was the Dakota, ma’am.” He was shot there almost 30 years ago. I could have told them about an exhibit on the “Imagine” man at the New York annexe of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They could have seen his blood-stained clothes, his Steinway piano, even his green card.
As the waiter made his way to our table, three young women from Nebraska asked the desk for directions to the Broadhurst Theatre a few blocks away. It had been built around the time my home began to grace 44th St. and serve as an entry point to the city’s famous theatre district. Jude Law was wowing crowds with his portrayal of Hamlet. Clearly the trio was not interested in Shakespeare. “We just want to see HIM,” said one. “He’s sooo hot!” Their plan was to hang out at Sardi’s – not the famous restaurant, but the rather ordinary bar upstairs – until HE came out on the street to sign autographs. Digital cameras were already dangling from their necks at the ready.
Newlyweds approached the desk after the post-teens had giggled out of the lobby. They sought directions to Katz’s Delicatessen, a 120-year-old pastrami sandwich-making legend on the Lower East Side where poor immigrants once found refuge. The nearby Tenement Museum would give them a taste of that hard life, the desk suggested helpfully. The museum offers a glimpse into the world of poverty that greeted the newcomers in 1863 when the tenement building first opened. I should have warned them that Katz’s can be a pretty wild place at lunch hour with its long line-ups of carnivores waiting for their turn at the cutter’s table. The yelling of orders and exchanges of insults merge with the murmur of lunch time gossip and lover’s quarrels at this landmark eatery.
As my human companion prepared to order, a tall, balding man in a double-breasted trench coat brushed past us. “I am Latvian,” he announced to the desk. “I am a former officer in the Russian Red Army.” The desk didn’t look up. “I want to be directed to Small’s, the jazz club in Greenwich Village,” he demanded. The desk pointed to the right.
Billy Drummond and his ensemble were playing at the hole-in-the-basement music venue, one of dozens in the city. I overhead some other hotel visitors talking about the show. “Billy hit the cymbals like a mad hatter, the French bass player (known the world over, we were told) was crawling all over his instrument, the pianist (an instructor at the Julliard School of Music, we were told) was tinkling away and the sax player (who had played with the Rolling Stones once, we were told) was hitting the highest notes imaginable.”
I noticed that my companion was an art lover. He had turned straight to the arts pages of the Times. I could have told him what the city had on offer. An unheard of six Vermeers were on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That’s a sixth of the 17th-century Delft painter’s works out of a worldwide collection of only 36. Next he could see Monet’s Lilies grace whole walls of the Museum of Modern Art. MOMA also houses more Picassos than most galleries and they mix with a substantial array of Braques, Matisses and Magrittes. Next, Georgia O’Keefe’s abstracts, many from her Santa Fe collection, were on display at the Whitney. And then there were the Kandinskys at the Guggenheim, Frank Lloyd Wright architectural misfit over on Fifth Ave. All the artists had something to show the world and Manhattan was a willing if not always appreciative display case.
And so my day began and would pass in all its pandemonium and wonder as it did every morning at the Algonquin, the ordinary and awestruck passing amidst the rich and famous in this grand dame full of celebrity secrets. Hotel lounge-abouts like Parker are joined in spirit with other great wits like Lennon, for example, who tried to bridge that gap — bring the street to the money — and they are remembered for their efforts.
“Coffee, sir?” the waiter asked. “Yes,” my jeaned companion said. “And could you bring a small saucer of cream for my new friend here.” But by then I had slipped over to the leg of another stranger. My name is Matilda, I might have introduced myself, and may I welcome you to The Algonquin Hotel.
Ron Verzuh is a Vancouver writer and historian. He stayed at the Algonquin in October 2009. Fancy an email chat with Matilda? Write to her at [email protected]