MAXWELL: When wit was in style

2/28/2008 – Printed in the NATIONAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Few things are better than fulfilling a childhood dream. It satisfies expectations, paints reality on the canvas of imagination and suggests the limits of human potential.
During 2000, I fulfilled two childhood dreams: I visited Dracula’s castle in Transylvania and Auschwitz death camp in Poland.
Seeing Dracula’s castle was great because I saw the physical place, or a version of it, that had filled my youthful imagination with such wonder and dread. My Auschwitz experience reminded me of humankind’s capacity for evil. I will never forget the lesson I learned there.
On a brighter note, I traveled to New York last week and fulfilled another childhood dream: I stayed two nights at the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street. (And, yes, my checking account took a walloping.)
I do not recall exactly when I learned about Algonquin, but I do recall that some time during eighth grade, I had, on my own, discovered Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Edna Ferber, Booth Tarkington, H.L. Mencken, George S. Kaufman, Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, all of whom were regulars at the hotel.
And, of course, because I knew I would become a writer, I daydreamed of growing up and becoming a member of the famous Algonquin Round Table, a group of 20-odd journalists, fiction writers, playwrights and actors who got together each day for lunch at a special table in the hotel’s Rose Room.
Because Round Table members were New York luminaries, their witticisms and jokes were the staple of Franklin P. Adams’ column “The Conning Tower” in the New York Tribune the next day. The column was a must-read of the time because it offered a rare insider’s view of New York’s sophisticated literary and theatrical culture to readers everywhere in the nation.
Although the Round Table lasted about 10 years, its aura lasted for many decades, influencing many other writers, such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Maya Angelou.
As a youngster in high school and college, I fancied myself sitting across the table from the likes of Norman Mailer, James Baldwin and John Steinbeck, exchanging witticisms that would be recorded for posterity and, of course, written up the next day in the New York Times. I learned later, to my great disappointment, that I could not have bantered with these writers at the Algonquin: The Round Table, which set up shop in 1919, dissolved in 1929. Still, its powerful memory has a life of its own.
I sat in the Rose Room last Friday and Saturday imagining the voices of the famous writers, now long dead, creating a din of intellectuality and laughter. I could hear Dorothy Parker flirting with Robert Benchley as she cooed one of her naughty one-liners and Benchley returning with a clever pun.
Alas, those witty voices are gone. Now, you hear the dolorous voices of 2008, the need for respite from general uncertainty and the clamor of crass politics and religion wars that fuel cynicism and wounds.
I should have been born during the heyday of the Round Table, I kept thinking as I studied the wood-paneled walls through the dim light of the Rose Room. Where, I wondered, have all the literary voices gone? Why did the great writers stop gathering here?
Times change, someone probably will tell me. That person would be right, and I must be satisfied with the fulfillment of my childhood dream of sitting where great writers sat.
When I went to my room on the eighth floor, which had been fully restored to its original splendor, I imagined that members of the Round Table, perhaps Parker and Benchley, had slept there. William Faulkner wrote his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech in the hotel. He could have written it in my room.
“Let’s get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini.”
– Author Robert Benchley, a member of the Algonquin Round Table