ARTS With their wits about them

A new film brings Dorothy Parker and her `vicious circle' back to life. But what was the Algonquin Set really like? Chris Peachment finds out
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The Independent Culture
HAROLD ROSS is about to start a new literary magazine. It will not be written "for the little old lady of Dubuque". It will be for the smart man, "who knows his way around town". What should he call it? A voice in the background pipes up - could it be the novelist Edna Ferber, or the humorist Robert Benchley - "Well, if it's about this town, why not call it the New Yorker?" Thus are legends born. And Alan Rudolph's new film, Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle, released this week, trades heavily in legend. The wits, socialites and flaneurs who constituted the famed literary group which sat at the Algonquin round table, all have their few minutes at the feast, cannoning bon mots off one another like literary pool balls.

The life and times of Dorothy Parker's circle began in the summer of 1919. She and her lifelong best friend, Robert Benchley, the only man that everybody said she should have settled for, but with whom she never had an affair, had just met while working on Vanity Fair. She was standing in for PG Wodehouse as drama critic, while he was back in England.

Benchley was, by all accounts, an angelic man. Reticent and slightly awkward, he had a delightfully oblique sense of humour which could turn an article called "The Social Life of the Newt" into a hilarious account of mistaken sexual identity between a newt and a pencil eraser. His friends said that his simple presence in the room would make everyone feel better.

They were joined by Robert Sherwood, a man six feet seven inches tall, who had just served in the Canadian Black Watch during the war. When all three stepped out for lunch, a group of midgets who were performing vaudeville at a nearby theatre would clutch at his knees and ask what the weather was like up there. They all dived into the Algonquin hotel on 44th Street, as the nearest refuge from the midgets.

The group of New York's most promising young writers was beginning to form. Almost every day over the next few years they would meet in the hotel dining room, sometimes 30 strong, to eat scrambled eggs and exercise their wits.

Another triumvirate soon joined: Franklin Pierce Adams, who wrote the humourous column "The Conning Tower" in the New York Tribune, and later another column called "FPA", which would disseminate the wit and wisdom of Dorothy Parker; Alexander Woollcott, described by Mrs Parker as a "plump owl", and drama critic of the New York Times; and Harold Ross, whose hair stood straight up from his head, and who dressed in a suit like a farmer's Sunday best. But, from his days on Stars and Stripes, the US forces' magazine, he was already regarded as an editor of genius.

As the gang expanded the group found it harder and harder to find enough space to sit together. "I have a great idea," said the hotel's mitre d'. He produced the round table that was to become synonymous with the group. By a nice coincidence, in the film the mitre d' is played by Wallace Shawn, son of William Shawn, who followed Harold Ross as the second editor of the New Yorker.

Mrs Parker could hold the rest of the group spellbound. She was a gentle, well-bred girl, of impeccably old-fashioned diction, who tended to touch people's arms when they spoke, and turn an enormous pair of dark eyes on them as if what they were saying was the most important thing in the world. Not a man laid eyes on her who did not want to protect her. And the day would always come when they discovered that she needed as much protection as a hornet's nest.

She was born Dorothy Rothschild, but when people asked her, "Why Parker?", she would reply that: "There was a Mr Parker, once." Edwin Pond Parker the Second was a Wall Street broker who came from a wealthy Wasp family. He had volunteered in 1917 and driven an ambulance at the front. Dorothy would later put it about that he returned from the war a morphine addict, but there is little to support this. The truth was that they had grown tired of each other. Moreover, he fell victim to the exclusive nature of the Algonquin gang. Donald Ogden Stewart said of Edwin Parker: "He would pass things at parties. He wasn't in the way. But there was no particular reason for people to pay any attention to him.''

By 1920 the circle had expanded hugely to include, among others, George S Kaufman (author of Once in a Lifetime, Broadway's first satire on Hollywood), Charles MacArthur (who teamed up with Ben Hecht to write, among other plays, The Front Page, and who became Dorothy Parker's first love after her marriage), humorist Donald Ogden Stewart, and Herman J Mankiewicz, who went on to write Citizen Kane. Harpo Marx seems the least likely member of the group, but he could be found there occasionally, hooting his motor horn up the girls' skirts.

They did not always confine themselves to the Algonquin. From her simple apartment on West 57th Street, where she had just enough space to "lay a hat and a few friends", and a budgerigar called Onan, because he spilled his seed on the floor, Mrs Parker would venture down to Jack and Charlie's Puncheon Club on West 49th Street, where European wine and expensive food could be had. Sometimes the circle would go around to artist Neysa McMein's studio, where George Gershwin, Ethel Barrymore and Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald could be found, playing charades. When funds were low, they would decamp to Tony Soma's speakeasy and drink bath- tub gin. It was here that Robert Benchley fell from grace.

In his youth he had been an ardent prohibitionist, a tee-totaller and a keen family man. Standing outside Tony Soma's one rainy night, he observed Donald Ogden Stewart emerge, duck under a passing pedestrian's umbrella, grip his arm, and say: "Yale Club, please." Benchley decided that if drink could do that to a man, "there must be something in it". Mrs Parker introduced him to his first real drink: an orange blossom. Within a few years he had left his family, and taken to living in whorehouses. He died in 1945 of cirrhosis of the liver. "Isn't it a bit presumptuous of us to be alive now that Mr Benchley is dead?" asked Mrs Parker.

By 1927 the party was over. The founder members were already calling Dorothy Parker's gang the Vicious Circle. Of the originals only Mrs Parker continued to frequent the Algon-quin. But the new crowd was trading on a former reputation. The witticisms were turning to insults, and the whole incestuous atmosphere was taking its toll. Not one of the original writers was fulfilling his or her promise.

It was Ernest Hemingway who had the last word on the failure of the group, in his novel Green Hills of Africa. He had brushed up against the Circle a few times and had the good sense to flee. "Writers should work alone. They should see each other only after their work is done, and not too often then. Otherwise they become like writers in New York. All angleworms in a bottle . . . Once they are in the bottle, they want to stay there. They are lonesome outside the bottle."

For her part, Mrs Parker responded in one of her book reviews by thinking him the best writer of his generation. She even coined the most famous phrase about Hemingway's idea of courage - "grace under pressure". When she died in 1967, one of the last questions she asked of a friend was whether Hemingway had really liked her. She was very happy to know that he had.

She left behind only three slim volumes of poetry and two volumes of short stories. And every line in them is about the pain of living.

! `Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle' (15) opened on Friday. Quentin Curtis's review appears on the Critics pages of the main paper.