A list of Manhattan’s greatest gatherings of wits would have to include the 1970s Saturday Night Live writers room; the late-1950s meetings between Mike Nichols and Elaine May; and the 1920s Algonquin Round Table. The last was a group of sharp-tongued literati that included Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott, George S. Kaufman (who co-wrote You Can’t Take It With You and several Marx Bros. movies) and Robert Benchley.
Beginning in 1919, the “Vicious Circle,” as they dubbed themselves, met daily for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street. They were portrayed in Alan Rudolph’s 1994 film, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle. In its review, The Hollywood Reporter was a bit harsh about Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance as Parker, saying her “delivery is such an insouciant muddle that it is sometimes downright incomprehensible, sounding like Katharine Hepburn slurring the verses of ‘Louie Louie.’ ” (One of Parker’s most memorable zingers concerned Hepburn’s acting running “the gamut of emotions from A to B.”) While the myth of the Round Table wits lives on, Rudolph tells THR that “a good number of them are justifiably more famous for being part of that inner circle than for their actual legacy. Much of their writing now seems humorless and turgid.”
However, the filmmaker calls Parker “the real deal” and Benchley “the first stand-up comedian in the modern sense. He did not use jokes. His material was behavioral and mostly personal, like contemporary stand-up but without the gut punch. Perhaps there would have been no Robin Williams or Jerry Seinfeld without the great Benchley.” By the ’30s, Parker had abandoned New York for Hollywood. She and her screenwriter husband, Alan Campbell, had a mansion at 914 N. Roxbury in Beverly Hills with a Picasso on the wall and neighbors who included Jack Benny and Lucille Ball. Parker might have enjoyed Algonquin lunches with New Yorker writers, but in L.A. she received an Oscar nom for co-writing 1937’s A Star Is Born and that year earned $27,024 ($474,000 now).
In true life-imitating-art fashion, her less-famous husband took his life in 1963 by overdosing on Seconal. (Legend has it a neighbor asked Parker if she needed anything, to which she replied, “A new husband.”) Parker died four years later of a heart attack at 69. She was living once again in her beloved New York City.
This story first appeared in the April 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.