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The Algonquin & Albert: Home to Writers, Actors, Musicians and Revolutionaries

New York, besides the Chelsea Hotel, had two other hotels where artists, creatives, and eccentrics would meet between roundtables and famed Hamlet VIII feline mascots

The original Albert Hotel

It could only have happened in a city like New York, where everything is possible, that the rebellious Chelsea Hotel eloped with the erudite Algonquin to fulfill their clandestine love. After taking a forbidden bite of a rather big apple, their merged knowledge, genes and geniuses resulted in the Albert Hotel.

The original Albert Hotel

The forgotten Albert Hotel was located on the southeast corner of 11th Street and University Place and was originally opened as a complex of apartment buildings that, by 1887, were combined with the existing St. Stephen Hotel to become the Albert Hotel. It was a graceful red-brick building with plenty of gables, turrets and elegant cast-iron balconies with a pop-rock attitude and a revolutionary side; the union between Cain and Abel, or even better, a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of its days. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise perhaps that Robert Louis Stevenson was inspired to write his famous novel while at the Albert Hotel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Albert Hotel today

“Meet me in the bar at the Albert Hotel” says Jimmy Stewart in the famous Hitchcock thriller, “Rear Window.”

In fact, the Albert quickly established itself as the meeting point for important artists, writers and singers–a magnet for creativity. Novelist Thomas Wolfe, who stayed at the hotel while teaching at NYU, wrote in a letter in 1924, “The world is mine, and I, at present, own a very small but gratifying portion of it – room 2220, at the hotel Albert.” Hart Crane wrote his poem, “The Bridge,” while at the Albert, where many other famous guests, including Robert Lowell, Anaïs Nin and Walt Whitman stayed.

The Albert Hotel was where literary luminaries mixed with Red revolutionaries while listening to sixties-music visionaries.

While at the Albert, Russian radicals Maxim Gorky and Ivan Ivanovich Narodny dreamt of a Red Revolution as did, years later, the U.S. presidential candidate for the Socialist Workers party, Farrell Dobbs. Frequent guest Frank Zappa was the unsuspected inspiration for Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution.

By the 1960s and 70s the Albert was run-down, but its guests were still running high.

Like many other rock bands at the Albert, Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention were singing about sleazy and lewd sex while Candy and Jackie, the drag queens known as the Warhol girls, used to hang around with many other visiting celebrities and artists, including Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol himself.

 

No real New Yorker ever dreams of being anywhere else, unless it was “On a winter’s day” when “All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray,” and you are stuck in the dark and damp basement of the Albert Hotel, with psychedelic-cockroaches roaming around. That is when the Mamas and the Papas started “California Dreamin” and The Lovin’ Spoonful wrote “Do You Believe in Magic”; to which we say yes we do!

In fact, all over the world legends make us dream, but it is only in New York where dreams can actually turn into legends. The story of King Arthur and his famed Round Table influenced many of us and it was at the Algonquin hotel that the Round Table became a reality and the inspiration for many brilliant writers and artists. The Hotel was on 44th street between 5th and 6thAvenues, which was then called the “Club Row” since the Harvard Club, the Yacht Club, and the Bar Association were also located on the same block. When it opened in 1902, with its red brick and limestone Beaux-Arts style façade and distinguished copper bay windows, it was supposed to be called the “Puritan.” However, not lacking in irony, it was instead called “The Algonquin.”

It was not by chance, however, that the Algonquin became the center of the literary and theatrical life of the city, being located as it was, in an area that was quickly becoming the most fashionable in New York, helped by the recent opening of the famous restaurant Delmonico’s and, in 1905, by the 5,300-seat theater, the Hippodrome, the most magnificent theater the world had ever seen.

The building where the Algonquin Hotel was located today

The Algonquin Hotel was part of a bygone era filled with charm, erudite conversations, dry martinis and dry wit, combined with the occasional literary genius throwing a fit.

Frank Case, the manager who took over the Algonquin in 1907, had the vision and the means to create a comfortable environment for literary luminaries to stay. JD Salinger was a guest, as was also William Faulkner who wrote, in his room at the Algonquin, his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for literature. It was in this creative environment that theatrical agent John Peter Toohey once organized, together with other writers and critics, a welcome lunch at the Round Table in honor of New York Times journalist and critic Alexander Woollcott. During lunch, guests poked fun at Woollcott on several occasions and the luncheon became such a success that Toohey suggested all participants meet up for lunch every day. The Round Table quickly became known as “The Vicious Circle”.

Talented quills with exceptional verbal skills.

 

 

Al Hirschfeld’s illustration of the “Round Table” at the Algonquin Hotel

The original members of the Round Table included columnist Franklin Pierce Adams, writer Dorothy Parker, the New Yorker editor Harold Ross, playwright and director George Kaufman, Vanity Fair drama editor Robert E. Sherwood, and also humorist and actor Robert Benchley, who once said “the freelance writer is a man who is paid per piece, or per word or perhaps.”

Pulitzer-Prize winner Edna Ferber called them “The Poison Squad” saying, “They were actually merciless if they disapproved.” The reviews of the Round Table could make or break any play or movie.

The plaque at the Algonquin, a reminder of its golden literary era

Kaufman was once asked by a press agent, “How do I get my leading lady’s name into your newspaper?”

Kaufman replied, “Shoot her.”

The Washington Post reported that once Edna Ferber approached the Table wearing a double-breasted suit.

“You almost look like a man,” said Noel Coward.

“So do you,” said Ferber.

The Algonquin Hotel today

Dorothy Parker was a writer for Vanity Fair and Vogue and had been fired after writing a bad review of a show of impresario Florence Ziegfeld, just to be hired by Harold Ross, who had just launched the magazine The New Yorker.  However, Ziegfeld was not the only guest to shoot for the stars. In fact, actor Douglas Fairbanks, while staying at the Algonquin promoting his movie “Robin Hood,” literally started shooting arrows from the roof of the hotel.

Politics, however, poisoned the Round Table lunch, and the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927 was the beginning of the end; you see, Parker believed in their innocence while Woollcott was convinced of their guilt.

In 1939, a cabaret opened in the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel. Sadly, it closed during WWII and remained so until 1981 when it reopened and became one of the most famous cabarets in New York City, hosting artists such as Barbara Carroll, Steve Ross and Diana Krall, while also launching the careers of Harry Connick Jr. and Michael Feinstein.

“They Can’t Take That Away from Me”

While composing “My Fair Lady,” in room 502, Lerner and Lowe were threatened with having their piano taken away and tossed out of the window of the Algonquin after they had played “I Could Have Danced All Night” uninterruptedly for several days and nights.

Dorothy Parker wrote in 1928, “That is the thing about New York; it is always a little more that you had hoped for”.

So, when Anthony Melchiorri–my former Front Office Manager at the Millennium Broadway Hotel–became the General Manager at the Algonquin in 2005, he launched a publicity stunt selling a $ 10,000 martini to a couple for their engagement. But he could not outshine Ben Bodne who, in 1946 bought the hotel for his wife, as he had promised her during their honeymoon at the Algonquin Hotel in 1924.

There is however, a guest who hasn’t left the hotel since 1923, when Frank Case adopted a stray cat that actor John Barrymore theatrically named Hamlet. The tradition continues today between male Hamlet and female Matilda.

Matilda the cat

Matilda the cat might not have used her nine lives yet, but short-sighted Marriott decided that the Oak Room was at its end and in 2012 it permanently closed the famous cabaret.

The Algonquin Hotel is still open but instead of famous witty writers, it only hosts ordinary bloggers-overnighters. The Albert was converted into rental apartments in 1977.

In the end, not just the Chelsea but also the Albert and the Algonquin Hotels paid for the original sin. They had gained knowledge, creativity and genius by challenging conformity when taking a bite of the forbidden apple until the ordinary snaked back in and their irreplaceable uniqueness was lost forever.

The only survivor left to fight on the frontline, is today, Hamlet VIII… the feline.

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