Category: History

Donald Ogden Stewart in Hot Water

On This Date October 19, 1942: The FBI file on Donald Ogden Stewart is more than 1,000 pages. I conducted a Freedom of Information request several years ago to get it all. The government kept tabs on him for 30 years. I have some of it in the new book. Of all the Algonquin Round Table members, Stewart paid the biggest price for his political beliefs and convictions.

FBI Page
FBI Page

Crazy for Games, Sports, and Puzzles

Woollcott and Ferber
Alexander Woollcott and Edna Ferber, at the home of Margaret Leech and Ralph Pulitzer (Photo courtesy of Kate Pulitzer Freedberg)

Sports and leisure were important to the Round Table. They loved professional sports—with baseball and boxing being the chief attractions. F.P.A. was an amateur tennis star. Their leisure time was taken up with parlor games, mind-benders, word play, and gambling. Their poker games were soul-crushing feats of gambling (Broun won and lost his house at a poker table). Charades and croquet consumed them.

Neysa McMein was credited with “inventing”—or at least popularizing—Scavenger Hunts. F.P.A. wrote about it in “The Conning Tower” on July 28, 1925:

“To Jane Grant’s, where was a party for Alice Miller’s birthday, and had a merry time of it, save for a silly treasure hunt, a craze that hath become widespread while I was not here to crusade against it.”

While playing I Can Give You A Sentence, Dorothy Parker was tasked to use “horticulture” which led to the oft quoted, “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.” Baseball was a passion, especially New York Giants games at the Polo Grounds. F.P.A. wrote “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon” one of the most famous baseball poems of all time following a Giants game. Broun is in the Baseball Hall of Fame’s sportswriters wing in Cooperstown.

The friends were crazy for crossword puzzles; they even wrote a book of them together. On January 4, 1925, the first Intercollegiate Cross Word Puzzle Tournament was held in the auditorium of the Hotel Roosevelt, 45 East 45th Street. With hundreds of cheering fans in the audience, Yale edged out Harvard, Princeton and the City College of New York. On the Harvard team were Broun (who never really graduated) and Robert E. Sherwood. Poet Stephen Vincent Benet and Jack Thomas made up the Yale team. The contest was held in rounds and each word was tackled individually. First Broun won a round by correctly guessing the name of a German poet with five letters (Heine). Then Sherwood backed him up with a seven-letter word meaning “honest in intention” (sincere). However, a foul play was called when the judge, Ruth Hale, sat beside her spouse, Broun.

Pulitzer Landmarks Tied to the Algonquin Round Table

This guest blog was written for Literary Manhattan.

I love literary landmarks. I seek them out whenever I possibly can. I’m the kind of person who can’t pass a plaque or historical marker and not stop for a look, and when the site is tied to an author or book, it’s even better. When I was writing my new book, The Algonquin Round Table New York: A Historical Guide, I decided to make it a guidebook to everything related to the Vicious Circle in New York: their homes, offices, speakeasies, theaters, and related locations.

Several of the locations in my book have ties to the Pulitzer family that are shared here. If you have never been to Woodlawn Cemetery, take a trip to the beautiful landmark in the Bronx. The Pulitzer graves are incredibly touching to see placed there.

Here are two in Manhattan that you might want to visit if you get the opportunity. I enjoyed putting them in the book because they show that even though there is no longer a Pulitzer newspaper in the city, his literary landmarks are still around us.

The New Yorker has a long history of sticking its nose into matters of frivolity around New York City, and the magazine loves a good crusade. E. B. White complained vociferously about advertising in Grand Central Terminal, and editor Harold Ross, a commuter, testified at a city hearing against public address announcements in the terminal.

The magazine also took up the cause of the dirty bronze statue of Pomona, goddess of abundance, outside the Plaza Hotel in Grand Army Plaza. When New York World publisher Joseph Pulitzer died in 1912, he bequeathed $50,000 to build it. Carrere & Hastings designed the Italian Renaissance-style fountain, which was dedicated in 1916. But in The New Yorker of April 18, 1931, poet Arthur Guiterman complained that the fountain was a mess. The last stanza of “Letter to Mr. Pulitzer” reads:

One hates to speak this way about a lady,
But she is obviously much too shady;
Though still quite young, a good bit under thirty,
No nymph was ever quite so black and dirty
In all New York; so you, sir, as her guardian
(You see I’m Mid-Victorian, not Edwardian),
Should personally scrub her form and face in
The sudsy foam of her own fountain basin.

A few weeks later the magazine published a response by Pulitzer’s son, Ralph, publisher of the World:

For know! The lady’s guardians ad litem,
Aroused by her attempts to mock and spite ’em,
Have joined the city in a contribution
To give her an immaculate ablution;
To scrub her from her head, with all its wet locks,
Clear down her contours to her very fetlocks.

Ralph Pulitzer donated $30,000 to restore the statue. Doris Doscher, the model who posed for sculptor Karl Bitter as Pomona, wrote to the New York Times: “I want to take this opportunity to offer my thanks to Mr. Pulitzer for enabling me to again stand exalted—and scrubbed—above the grounds on Fifth Avenue, generously spurting precious, clear water—flush, in these times of dried-up prosperity.”

The saga of the statue and Pulitzer Fountain is a long-running city drama. It was renovated in 1971 but, due to faulty plumbing, went dry for six years in the 1980s. In 1989, $3.3 million was raised privately to restore it yet again.

The World stood at 63 Park Row, with editorial offices on the eleventh floor of a tower that Pulitzer erected in 1890. A golden dome topped the 309-foot tall building. Pulitzer died in 1911, and the paper ran along for twenty more years.

Star reporter Herbert Bayard Swope became executive editor in 1921 and brought in the best talent, increasing high-quality reporting and also hiring New York’s first black reporter. By the time the Round Table came to it, the highly respected World was the “newspaperman’s newspaper.” Swope receives credit for creating the page opposite the editorial page—the “Op. Ed.”—a phrase he coined. Onto this page he brought a lively mix of writers, most from the Vicious Circle. Among the first of them to write for the World was Robert Benchley a month after he quit Vanity Fair in 1920. Benchley’s book reviews often had nothing to do with the books themselves and could easily contain ruminations on train schedules.

Swope stole both Heywood Broun and Franklin P. Adams (known as F.P.A.) from the Tribune in 1921. The 33-year-old Broun could write anything, from a play review to a recap of the Harvard-Yale football game. He had free rein in his column “It Seems to Me,” which ran for six years, to discuss books, sports, movies, or politics. The last of these landed him in hot water. When F.P.A. brought his famous “Conning Tower” to the Op. Ed. Page, it caused a sensation. Ralph Pulitzer and his brothers broke the family trust by court order in 1931 and sold the newspaper. It put more than 3,000 people out of work.

Today no plaque or monument marks the former Pulitzer Building and its wonderful gold dome. Before it was razed in 1955, Swope and F.P.A. toured the deserted newsroom one last time. It is now a highway approach to the Brooklyn Bridge. The stained glass windows from the city room were moved to Columbia University’s Journalism School building, 2950 North Broadway, where, each year in the World Room, the Pulitzer Prize winners are announced.

6 Women You Didn’t Know Were Members of the Algonquin Round Table

6 Women You Didn’t Know Were Members of the Algonquin Round Table

This article was written for the Huffington Post.

Dorothy Parker and Edna Ferber were the only women sitting at the Algonquin Round Table, correct? That’s what I thought before I started researching my new book The Algonquin Round Table New York: A Historical Guide. After all, these are the only females among the wits in most accounts, anecdotes, and cartoons. But I was delighted to uncover the names and stories of the other members of the Vicious Circle, women that had fascinating and full lives. Even though their names aren’t as common today as Parker and Ferber, the rich history and accomplishments they left behind are still relevant.

The Algonquin Hotel, 59 W. Forty-fourth Street, sits in the middle of “Club Row” a block west of Times Square. In June 1919, not long after he returned from serving in the army, Alexander Woollcott was treated to a free lunch here. Woollcott was the acerbic theater critic on the Times, and his hosts were two Broadway publicists, Murdock Pemberton and John Peter Toohey. The flacks struck out in interesting him in the playwright they were pitching —Eugene O’Neill of all people — but they did dream up the prank of holding a welcome home luncheon for Woollcott.

The men invited a colorful cast of characters from newspaper city rooms, magazine offices, and the Broadway milieu. As the legends hold, Parker, at the time a Vanity Fair staffer and freelance poet, and Ferber, novelist and short fiction dynamo, were popular members. But among the famous men — columnists Franklin P. Adams and Heywood Broun, composer Deems Taylor, playwrights Marc Connelly, George S. Kaufman, and Robert E. Sherwood, and humorist Robert Benchley — women were always in the midst.

Reading contemporary newspaper columns and sifting through recollections, at least 30 men and women were Round Table members. These half-dozen women are unique and deserve to be remembered, and that’s why they are in my book.

Margalo Gillmore
Margalo Gillmore, actress

Margalo Gillmore was the baby of the Vicious Circle, a Broadway actress barely out her teens when she joined the group for lunch. Her parents and grandparents were also actors, and she started onstage in high school. Growing up, her mother said that if she was working and needed to eat, to go where Ethel Barrymore and Gertrude Lawrence lived: The Algonquin. Gillmore appeared in early O’Neill dramas, including The Straw (1921) and racked up scores of credits. She worked in every medium, from silent pictures to live television. Her father, Frank Gillmore, was a founder of Actors Equity, and she earned one of the first union cards after the 1919 strike that shut down Broadway. She toured constantly and was a working actress for fifty years. In 1954, an audience of 65 million TV viewers saw her in Peter Pan as Mrs. Darling. In 1986 Gillmore was the last member of the Round Table to pass away. I was stunned to discover her gravestone, in Kensico Cemetery in Westchester County, has the Equity logo carved into it.

Jane Grant, reporter
Jane Grant, reporter

Jane Grant has slipped through the cracks as a pioneer feminist and a barrier-breaker in print media. With her first husband, Harold Ross, the two launched a “humorous weekly” in 1925 from their Hell’s Kitchen apartment, a fact long overlooked. In a 1945 letter, Ross wrote, “There would be no New Yorker today if it were not for her.” Grant pushed Ross to realize their dream, introduced him to the chief financial backer, and found some of the most famous names in the magazine’s history, such as Janet Flanner. Leaving out how Grant helped launch The New Yorker, she led a life like few others in the Jazz Age. She was the first female reporter in the city room at the Times. Grant interviewed Caruso and Chaplin, and was the first Times woman to visit China, Russia, and Nazi Germany. In addition, in 1921 she was a co-founder, with her close friend Ruth Hale, of the Lucy Stone League, a forerunner of the Women’s Liberation Movement. The group fought to allow women to maintain their maiden names after marriage. Grant wrote for more than 30 years. When she died in 1972, the Times buried her obituary on page forty-four.

Ruth Hale, feminist
Ruth Hale, feminist

Ruth Hale sued the U.S. State Department because she wanted a passport issued in her own name, not as the wife of her husband, Heywood Broun. She lost that fight but brought attention to the cause of the Lucy Stone League, an organization that came to define her. Hale was a writer, columnist, critic, and publicist in pre-World War I Manhattan. She and Broun went to Paris as war correspondents, then came back to New York and became one of the city’s most talked-about literary couples. From West Side apartments she directed efforts to support equal rights for women in the 1920s. Hale also ghostwrote for her more famous husband. Hale quit New York and retired to a farm in rural Connecticut, where she died alone.

Beatrice Kaufman, editor
Beatrice Kaufman, editor

Beatrice Kaufman was not a member of the Round Table because she was married to George S. Kaufman, the newspaperman turned successful playwright. The Vicious Circle didn’t tolerate wives very much, and Bea Kaufman carved her own life for herself as an editor, working under Carmel Snow at Harpers Bazaar. The Kaufmans had an open marriage, so in 1936 when George was mired in a national sex scandal with actress Mary Astor, Bea not only defended her husband, she was the one to move him to Bucks County to avoid the press. Bea was always the first to read his new work, and he leaned on her consistently. She was close friends with the Marx Brothers, Moss Hart, and the Gershwins. Kaufman parlayed her social standing into a job with Samuel Goldwyn as a movie script reader. Late in life she also tried writing plays, but none were successful. Perhaps Bea Kaufman’s best role was as her husband’s sounding board and guardian; following her 1945 death George wrote few hits.

Margaret Leech, double Pulitzer-winner
Margaret Leech, double Pulitzer-winner

Margaret Leech was a Vassar grad who started her career working for the Condé Nast magazines that were not named Vogue or Vanity Fair. She wrote articles and stories, and in her 30s had three romance novels published. With Heywood Broun she co-wrote a bestselling biography of New York’s anti-vice crusader, Anthony Comstock. Leech crafted short fiction for popular magazines, with her most famous, “Manicure,” set in the world of a nail salon, included in The Best Stories of 1929. The collection found Leech sharing company with Willa Cather. Her life took a dramatic turn in 1928 when she married the much-older and wealthy Ralph Pulitzer, scion of Joseph Pulitzer and the president-publisher of the World. Leech had children and travelled the world, and upon her husband’s death in 1939 she returned to writing. She became a serious presidential historian, and devoted the rest of her life to it. Reveille in Washington: 1860-1865 (1941) is considered a classic about the Civil War era. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for history. Eighteen years after she won her first Pulitzer Prize, Leech won her second, for In the Days of William McKinley published in 1959. She was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in History, and is still the only woman to have won it twice in the category.

Peggy Wood, actress
Peggy Wood, actress

Peggy Wood had a calling to the acting profession that kept her working for sixty years. Born and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, the daughter of a magazine editor, Wood made her Broadway debut in 1911 and worked until the 1970s. She appeared in early talkies with Will Rogers, and was a close confidant of Noël Coward. She was the original Ruth in the three-year Broadway run of Blithe Spirit. When Wood was starring in Coward’s Bitter Sweet, Harpo Marx visited her. “Why didn’t you tell me you were as good as this?” he asked her. “I’d have married you long ago!” When she wasn’t onstage, she was writing about it, for newspapers, books, and magazines. Wood married a fellow member of the Vicious Circle, poet John V. A. Weaver, in 1924. If Peggy Wood is remembered for anything almost forty years after her death, it’s that she co-starred in The Sound of Music in 1965 as Mother Abbess. She was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress.