For the Algonquin group, it seems like they spent every waking hour at the hotel when they weren’t working. However, as their fame grew, so did their environs. In the delightful documentary, The Ten-Year Lunch (available on YouTube), Marc Connolly refers to the midtown studio of Nyesa McMein as “headquarters.” McMein, described as the “femme fatale of the group,” was, along with J. C. Lydecker (he of the Arrow Shirts ads), the most successful illustrator of magazines and advertisements. Members of the Round Table could be found there, along with young talents like George Gershwin and Yasha Heifitz on any afternoon. It was McMein who created the image of Minnesota’s General Mills symbol, Betty Crocker.
McMein had an open marriage with John C. Baragwanath, but had affairs with director George Abbott (who writes about it in his autobiography, Mister Abbott), Robert Benchley and Charlie Chaplin. It was at McMein’s studio that two of the three personalities discussed below had some of their finest moments.
“Everything I like is either illegal, immoral or fattening,” the portly, acerbic Alexander Woollcott (1887-1943) is quoted as saying. Woollcott was partially discussed in Part 1 of this article, but his life was so full and rich, he requires more attention, especially since he was the ringleader for the group. The stories about Woollcott are plentiful, and many of them can be found in Howard Teichmann’s delightful biography, Smart Aleck. For example, when he was asked to listen to a story, he said, “My foot’s asleep. Do you mind if I join it?”
Following a short time in the Army, writing for The Stars and Stripes, “when I was in the theater of war,” Woollcott returned to his post as drama critic for The New York Times and later for the New York Herald and the New York World. Like many critics, he delighted in the company of young women (although it’s assumed he was asexual). Tallulah Bankhead became a favorite when, during a dreary evening of theater, told him: “I think there’s less to this than meets the eye.”
In 1929, he became “The Town Crier” on radio. Ruth Gordon wrote that when she was starring in A Doll’s House, and it wasn’t getting audiences, Woollcott commanded his listeners to see it and show played through the season.
Woollcott shared ownership of a house on Neshobe Island, on Lake Bomoseen in Vermont. He built another house there, and the group spent summers swimming, sailing and playing games. Harpo Marx was known to jump out of the bushes stark naked and scare off unwanted visitors, while newlyweds were given a bed so noisy it was named “the informative double.” Woollcott delighted in croquet, because his doctor “forbids me to play unless I win.” While on a visit to Bucks County, PA, his hosts the playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart in Bucks Country, PA, were appalled. As usual, he took over, and ordered the staff to do his bidding. His hosts questioned what might happen if he never left, and this became the plot of their classic comedy, The Man Who Came to Dinner.
The role was originally played on stage and film by Monty Woolley, Woollcott, Kaufman and Hart all delighted in playing the role of Sheridan Whiteside. Woollcott’s also the basis for the character Waldo Lydecker in the noir film, Laura. With all his socializing, it’s amazing that he managed to write three books and two anthologies. Alexander Woollcott suffered a heart attack during a broadcast in 1943. He was rushed to the hospital where he passed on at the age of 56.
Another journalist, playwright and screenwriter, Charles MacArthur began his career in Chicago, but wound up in New York, where he began a career in playwrighting. His most frequent collaborator was Ben Hecht. Their most renowned plays are Twentieth Century and The Front Page (filmed several times and produced twice at the Guthrie, once under the title, His Girl Friday and based on the best film adaptation). The latter play is based on experiences MacArthur had while working at the Chicago News Bureau. At one time, he shared an apartment with Robert Benchley, and it was because of MacArthur that Dorothy Parker wrote that: “I put all of my eggs in one bastard.”
It was at Neysa McMein’s studio that he met his second wife, actress Helen Hayes. They lived in Nyack, NY, and had three children, including their adopted son, actor James MacArthur, star of the original Hawaii-50. However, their daughter, Mary died of Polio at the age of 19. MacArthur never recovered and passed on in 1953. Their son, John D. MacArthur owned an insurance company and founded the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, benefactor of genius awards, and PBS programming.
In addition to his plays, MacArthur wrote (frequently with Hecht) stories and screenplays for such films as Wuthering Heights, Gunga Din and The Sin of Madelon Claudet (for which Helen Hayes won her first Oscar).
Perhaps the most prolific member of the Round Table was the playwright, editor and screenwriter, Robert E. Sherwood. He attended Harvard and fought with the Royal Highlanders of Canada during World War I. He wrote film criticism for Life and Vanity Fair, but his good friend Edna Ferber suggested he move to the Midwest for a few years. She told him he’d return with some superb work.
Sherwood remained in New York, but contributed superb work indeed. His first play, The Road to Rome featured a recurring theme: the futility of war. He continued this theme in his next play (and perhaps his masterpiece) Idiot’s Delight which won Sherwood the first of three theatrical Pulitzers (the others are for Abe Lincoln in Illinois and There Shall Be No Night). Idiot’s Delight will be presented this summer at Park Square. Set in a hotel in the Alps, the guests are trapped at the start of a war. Two of the characters, performer Harry Van and a woman now called Irene, and the mistress of a Nazi, were once involved, although she denies it. It’s original production starred Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, but it’s the MGM film starring Clark Gable and Norma Shearer that’s the best remembered version.
For the movies, he collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock and Joan Harrison on the script for Rebecca. Other screenplays include Waterloo Bridge, Reunion in Vienna, The Petrified Forest, Tovarich, Idiot’s Delight and The Rugged Path. A speechwriter for FDR, his script for The Best Years of Our Lives won the Oscar for Best Screenplay.
Sherwood is a playwright whose work needs rediscovery. While The Petrified Forest is probably his most produced play, theaters should take a look at his other work. Due for release on DVD, we need the delightful Tovarich in which Claudette Colbert and Charles Boyer play broke aristocrats who take a job as domestics and find that they like it. This classic is due for revival as well.
I was in college during the Bicentennial, and Sherwood’s last play Small War on Murray Hill was included in a season that also featured The Crucible and John Brown’s Body. Small War had been produced posthumously in New York, but closed after 8 performances. UW-Eau Claire gave it one more performance. Slight but charming, the story follows Mrs. Murray’s attempts to detain General Howe during the American Revolution. I remember that it had a lovely set, because it was directed by the Tech Theater professor.
Woollcott, MacArthur and Sherwood were champions of the Algonquin, but there was another, perhaps even more prolific, art movement further uptown, The Harlem Renaissance.