Algonquin Writers' Work No Longer Lost

Host Liane Hansen speaks with author and performer Nat Benchley, a descendant of one of the members of the Algonquin Round Table, about the book, The Lost Algonquin Round Table.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Ninety years ago, a talented group of authors, critics, poets and journalists began to meet for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. They became known as the Vicious Wits, and collectively as the Algonquin Roundtable. Since then, plays, musicals and movies have been written about their lives and their works have become the stuff of doctoral dissertations.

So, why do we need another book about them? Nat Benchley, grandson of one member of the so-called Vicious Circle, writer Robert Benchley, answers that in a new book, "The Lost Algonquin Roundtable." And Nat Benchley joins us from New York. Welcome to the program.

Mr. NAT BENCHLEY (Author, "The Lost Algonquin Roundtable"): Thank you very much. Pleasure to be here.

HANSEN: So, why do we need another book about them?

Mr. BENCHLEY: Well, partially because the mere phrase, the Algonquin Roundtable, has been misappropriated over the years. It was used in a book a couple of years ago that had almost nothing to do with the roundtable. The picture on the cover was of Dorothy Parker and five men, none of whom were members of the roundtable.

And it has sort of lost its meaning, lost its way. And what we really wanted to do was get back to discovering why these people were famous in the first place. So, we started doing some research into what these people were writing before they became famous, and found some wonderful material.

I had found some when I was researching my one-man show about Robert, writings that he did in 1917 for the New York Tribune.

HANSEN: Your grandfather, Robert Benchley, you write, tried to hide his erudition in pursuit of his image as an idler. Why did he do that?

Mr. BENCHLEY: Because it was part of his self-deprecation. It was one of those things he really couldn't help. He was very bright, very well read. He read about five newspapers a day, he read German text in the original German, but he kept them hidden because he thought it would look pretentious and because his reputation was as a partier and an idler who could never get any work done.

HANSEN: Dorothy Parker is one of the more famous of the circle, and she has more of her work in print today than she did when she was alive. Why do you think that is?

Mr. BENCHLEY: Well, she is very clever, very bright, and her work reads well, particularly in excerpts, either in short stories or poems. You don't really tend to sit - she never finished a novel, so you don't sit down and read her cover-to-cover. She's very good for picking up and putting down, as is Robert Benchley, as are many of the others.

She is, I believe, the only one of the members who is still in print because she was a brilliant wordsmith. Unfortunately, the human side of it was a little less pleasant. I talked to a lot of people who had known her, and every single one of them said, I'm not real sure why people hung out with her much because personally she was not very pleasant to be around.

HANSEN: We remember the famous names - Parker, Benchley, Edna Ferber, Harpo Marx - but there's many who are virtually unknown, and one of them is Deems Taylor. Who is he?

Mr. BENCHLEY: Deems Taylor was the dean of American music. He was a charming, funny, witty guy who was a brilliant musician. And these days, he is largely remembered for having been the narrator of "Fantasia," but in the '20s he had reviews, he had radio shows. I remember my father talking about him when I was young. He also was the first president of ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

And it's one of those things, as Kevin points out in the book, people who fall out of print fall out of memory. And Deems Taylor didn't write a lot but even so, as a musician, he has unfortunately been lost to memory. And we have a couple of bits of his in here.

HANSEN: You have a review he wrote, and it was the first performance of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." And he says Mr. Gershwin's piece possessed at least two themes of genuine musical worth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BENCHLEY: Well, and again, you see, these critics, they could be so gentle and yet they could really drop a hammer on someone with very clever wordplay. There's one in here that Robert wrote when he wasn't even sure if the play would be open by the time his review was printed, so he reviewed the program instead.

He reviewed the circus. He had a review once of a play. He didn't much like the actor but he couldn't bring himself to say anything nasty about him. So, he said, while I'm sure this gentleman is someone I would be pleased to meet personally, nature has secured me from being excited when he comes on stage.

He just, in many ways, they didn't like to really hit hard on plays and particularly performers.

HANSEN: What meaning do you think these works have to a contemporary audience?

Mr. BENCHLEY: My hope is that, as people like Evie White and William Shawn(ph) have stated many times, the people who read good writing will learn to write better. And they will learn to put more substance in their writing. And I believe what these works do is show the power of really well-chosen words to affect criticism, to entertain, to illuminate.

And these days, there is so much blather being put out there. I have to say I take exception with one of our lead bloggers who said that all unfiltered thoughts should be put out there for everybody to see. I think that's a waste of time. And I think if you consider good writers like these who chose their words carefully and honed them, read enough of that and you'll learn to write better yourself, and then published works will be, I believe, more pleasant to read.

HANSEN: I'd like you to end with a short poem by Franklin Pierce Adams, the newspaper columnist who was called the dean of the roundtable. And he wrote: In the last issue of The World. The paper folded in 1931. It's kind of interesting today with so many newspapers folding. It's called "Journalism," and it's on page 212.

Mr. BENCHLEY: Journalism's a shrew and a scold. I like her. She makes you sick, she makes you old. I like her. She's daily trouble, storm and strife. She's love and hate, and death and life. She ain't no lady. She is my wife. I like her.

HANSEN: The poem "Journalism," written by Franklin Pierce Adams, read by Nat Benchley. Benchley is the co-editor with Kevin C. Fitzpatrick of the "Lost Algonquin Roundtable: Humor, Fiction, Journalism, Criticism and Poetry from America's Most Famous Literary Circle." Nat Benchley joined us from New York. Thanks a lot.

Mr. BENCHLEY: Thank you very much, Liane.

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