Here at the last chance salon

New York's young literati are recreating Dorothy Parker's world of cruel wit, clever criticism and casual sex. Daniel Jeffreys tells all
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The Independent Culture
The Algonquin it's not, and it doesn't have a round table, but Liesl Schillinger's Manhattan apartment is a literary salon. Every Sunday around 20 salonistes arrive at her home on East 5th Street to read their work aloud, to criticise and to try and poke fun in the style of Dorothy Parker. There are more than 15 well-known salons in New York and they draw writers and artists from every discipline.

Liesl Schillinger, 28, is a researcher at the New Yorker magazine, where Dorothy Parker worked as a reviewer in the late Twenties and early Thirties. Schillinger launched her New York salon after living in Eastern Europe.

"The big thing in Russia is that people still look to each other for entertainment," she says, handing a quiche to a hungry young poet called Arthur. "In Europe, the salon is still the place to hear new work. I missed that when I got back."

"The salon movement has developed despite considerable resistance," says the Schillinger saloniste Andrew Cohen, who writes for the New York Observer. "American writers have never been keen on European drawing- room traditions. Ever since Gertrude Stein called Ernest Hemingway a Rotarian for spending time at the Algonquin, the practice has been fraught with the perils of pretension."

It still is, if remarks overhead at Miss Schillinger's apartment are evidence. "The novel should be an emotional gasp," from the hungry poet. "A pinball machine is so much more than a game," from a portrait artist. "Tarantino is an assassin, he wants to kill the film," from Liesl's brother Justin. And from Schillinger herself: "I don't play basketball and I don't play tennis. My only sport is conversation and I had to make a place to play it, here, in my house."

The salon movement has legs, too. Everybody at Schillinger's Sunday gathering was a member of at least two other groups, and there is tough competition.

Laurel Touby runs her salon out of a back room at Flamingo East, a downtown nightspot. "Liesl is a lot more connected," she says in tart tones. "She's bringing in people that I wouldn't even venture to call. She gets senior editors at the New Yorker, I can't get an associate."

The author Bill McGowan has been to Schillinger's and Touby's salons. "There is jealousy between them, that's part of the fun. Right now, Liesl holds the ring. She's from the New Yorker, Laurel is from Glamour magazine. I think Laurel tries too hard."

But Schillinger couldn't get Kurt Vonnegut to come. "He told me we were all just lost animals looking for a herd." Or maybe they are as Dorothy Parker once described her own circle, "poor little ewe lambs that have gone astray".

Mrs Parker's Round Table was made up mostly of second- and third-rate writers. As Dorothy Parker herself has observed, the major American writers of the period were not members of any set. They kept their distance from the noisy gaggle of egoists who clucked and squawked in the Algonquin's Rose Room.

As the Twenties, so the Nineties. "She gets wannabe names, not first- rank authors," complained one of Schillinger's guests. "I like Mark Jacobson's better."

Mr Jacobson's salon is in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a leafy New York suburb. He only invites published writers to his monthly meetings. Regulars include Darius James, author of Negrophobia and That's Blaxploitation, and John Berendt. "He read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil here before it was published." says Jacobson. "Then it went on the New York Times bestseller list. We treat him like a conquering hero." Like most of Jacobson's salonistes, John Berendt is a non-fiction writer. "I felt that non-fiction writing deserved more respect," says Jacobson, a freelancer who writes for Esquire magazine. "Of the journalists I knew, nobody had read their work aloud before. It gave it a whole new dignity. Freelance magazine writers are often fatalistic - my gatherings give them a sense of identity."

"This is Ivy League meets Generation X meets naked ambition," says Bill McGowan. "What makes Liesl's salon successful is that everybody is networking but they manage to do it whilst being amusing. A salon fails quickly if it becomes just a place to harvest business cards."

McGowan has reaped a different crop from the salons. "I'm working on a novel set in a salon, a detective story. A saloniste has been murdered. It's not hard to imagine, we are pretty cruel to each other. At one meeting a writer at the New Yorker assembled a group of fellow authors to encircle and insult an editor who failed to return a week's worth of phone calls. The editor left after 15 minutes."

That's certainly not nice ... but murder? "Actually the villain is a serial killer," says McGowan. "He picks off salonistes at meetings all over the city. That is where the humour comes in: two overweight detectives from the Bronx are assigned to the case: they have to penetrate the social mores of the salon to find the killer."

And what would those mores be? "It's just like the Round Table. There's gossip, treachery and sexual intrigue."

The salonistes are typically between 25 and 35 and heterosexual, which gives meetings a strong scent of amorous pursuit. For many of these precious intellectuals the salon is an acceptable surrogate for a dating service, although the sex can be quite casual, just as it was at Parker's Algonquin. One author at Schillinger's was anxious to confess. "I found myself at one of Liesl's evenings standing within inches of four men who had just met. I had had dalliances with each one."

Darling, that's so Round Table. Dorothy Parker wrote that she liked to bowl her "shattered heart" down the street and watch while "Every likely lad in town/Gathers up the pieces." After all, she queried, "who's to say it mattered?"

There's not much sex at Echo, but then it's a cybersalon and its meetings are held on computer screens. Sam Pratt, the American editor of the Modern Review, says: "Echo is a highly selective on-line service. It only has about 3,000 subscribers. People start conversations as they work, they might have a plot problem and they just get on the network."

Liesl Schillinger prefers the face-to-face tussle; when you use words as weapons, you like to see the barbs draw blood.

"Of course it's competitive," she says. "There's always the potential for embarrassment."

So how does one get in?

Schillinger's salon is by personal invitation; Jacobson likes new members to have a sponsor who is already in the group; Touby has invited everybody whose name appears on a magazine's masthead. "I have a core of close friends." says Sam Pratt. "I invite them, plus different characters depending on the theme." Theme? "Yes, all my evenings have a theme. The next one will be a Spelling Bee and I'm inviting lots of journalists."

A Spelling Bee is an excruciating competition used in American schools to humiliate children. Everybody takes turns to spell unusual words: get one wrong and you're out - the last man standing wins. "Journalists think they can spell," says Pratt. "But when they stand up in public they get nervous. It will make us all think more deeply about the meaning of words."

One begins to feel this has all gone too far. "The town, these days, is full of them," wrote Dorothy Parker in a 1928 article about the salonistes of her day. "They are all bright and brisk and determinedly young. The tips of their noses are ever delicately a-quiver for the scent of news. They are here, I fear, to stay. But they will never take the place of the horse."

It seems Parker was wrong about that. The horses are gone but the noses are still here, emptied of cocaine and pointed straight at the grindstone. The Eighties are over and the Nineties are about comfortable ambition, the new congeniality. The "disciplined eye and the wild mind" that was Parker's artistic ideal is not well represented at these modern salons, but that was true of her own times. She was a star and they are few and far between.