The “Algonquin Round Table”

There was a domestic version of 1920’s Paris expat literary, social scene. It was called “The Algonquin Round Table”, aka “The Vicious Circle”. It was a gathering of American literary and artistic intellectuals, who regularly met in the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan, NYC and critically commented on the state of American society. (Moore, pp.233-38) The group included magazine columnist and drama critic Dorothy Parker, founder of The New Yorker magazine Harold Ross, newspaper social columnist Franklin Pierce Adams (known as “FPA”), director and playwright George S. Kauffman, New York Times theatre critic Alexander Woollcott, drama critic and editor George Jean Nathan, fiction writer Ring Lardner, actress Tallulah Bankhead , humorist Robert Benchley, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Marc Connelly (The Green Pastures), novelist and screenwriter Edna Ferber (So Big, Showboat, Cimarron and Giant), Jane Grant , a society columnist for The New York Times, and “the very chic model of modernity during the 20s”, Helen Hayes.

Several Broadway plays were based on the activities of the people of the Algonquin Round Table. “Room Enough for Two – The Life of Dorothy Parker” was a musical tribute that explored the life and loves of Dorothy Parker, the pre-eminent female humorist of the early 20th Century. The musical covers Dorothy Parker’s fascinating life from her days as a film critic for Vanity Fair Magazine in New York when she founded the Algonquin Round Table, to being nominated for an Oscar in Hollywood for the screenplay ‘A Star Is Born’, to being blacklisted during the McCarthy hearings, to returning to New York with friend Lillian Hellman, to eventually dying alone at the Hotel Volney in New York City. The intro to the play can be found at “Nights at the Algonquin Round Table”, another play about the 1920’s New York social scene, which won the 2017 critic’s award, can be found at

Other prominent 1920s social critics were H.L (Henry Louis) Mencken and Sinclair Lewis. H.L. Mencken, known as “The Sage of Baltimore”, was the featured writer in American Mercury magazine. He wrote hundreds of essays mocking practically every aspect of American life. He looked at society with “raucous and profane laughter”. (Allen IX, 2) Calling the South a “gargantuan paradise of the fourth rate,” and the middle class the “booboisie,” Mencken directed his choicest barbs at reformers, whom he blamed for the bloodshed of World War I and the gangsters of the 1920s. “If I am convinced of anything,” he snarled, “it is that doing good is in bad taste.” When asked why he stayed in the United States when he was so critical of it, he responded “Why do men go to the zoo”.

Mencken’s Pen, written and sung by Christine Lavin, 2009, paints an accurate portrayal of Mencken.

SPOKEN INTRODUCTION: H. L. Mencken was born in Baltimore in 1880, died there in 1956, and was the most influential American journalists during the first half of the 20th century.

He continues to have an impact today. Mencken was controversial and quite opinionated and some called him “The Barb Of Baltimore.” Though he couldn’t have known exactly who would be elected TWICE to the office of president during the first decade of this century, listen to the words he wrote on July 26, 1920:

“As democracy is perfected, the office [of the president] represents,
more and more closely, the inner soul of the people.
We move toward a lofty ideal.
On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land
will reach their heart’s desire at last,
and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

H.L. Mencken wrote that
more than 80 years ago
he understood more than we’ll ever know
we think we’re making progress
we better think again
when we read what was written by
H. L. Mencken’s pen
Mencken’s pen

A church is a place in which gentlemen who have never been to heaven
brag about it to persons who will never get there
A judge is a law student who marks his own exam papers
In the United States, doing good has come to be, like patriotism, a favorite device of persons with something to sell

All men are frauds. The only difference between them is that some admit it. I myself deny it.
Adultery is the application of democracy to love
Conscience is a mother-in-law whose visit never ends,
and the inner voice that warns us that someone might be looking

Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods
Never let your inferiors do you a favor — it will be extremely costly
I believe in only one thing: liberty; but I do not believe in liberty enough to want to force it upon anyone

H.L. Mencken wrote that more than 70 years ago
but the words still echo true you know

we think we’re making progress
we better think again when we read what was written by
H. L. Mencken’s pen
Mencken’s pen

I never lecture, not because I am shy or a bad speaker,
but simply because I detest the sort of people who go to lectures
and I don’t want to meet them

I never smoked a cigarette until I was nine
If a politician found he had cannibals among his constituents,
he would promise them missionaries for dinner

Criticism is prejudice made plausible
It is hard to believe that a man is telling the truth
when you know that you would lie if you were in his place

In war the heroes always outnumber the soldiers ten to one

Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable

In this world of sin and sorrow there is always something to be thankful for;
as for me, I rejoice that I am not a Republican

H.L. Mencken wrote that
more than 60 years ago

got a kick out of tweaking the status quo
we think we’re making progress
we better think again
when we read what was written by
H. L. Mencken’s pen
Mencken’s pen

A legend is a lie that has attained the dignity of age
As the arteries grow hard, the heart grows soft
Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence
Puritanism: the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy

The theory seems to be that as long as a man is a failure he is one of God’s children,
but that as soon as he succeeds he is taken over by the Devil
Say what you will about the ten commandments,
you must always come back to the pleasant fact that there are only ten of them

Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance
War will never cease until babies begin to come into the world with larger cerebrums
and smaller adrenal glands

H.L. Mencken wrote that
more than 50 years ago
today it is still apropos
we think we’re making progress
we better think again
when we read what was written by
H. L. Mencken’s pen
Mencken’s pen

No author offered a more scathing attack on American 1920’s society than Sinclair Lewis, who in 1930 became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He also won the Pulitzer Prize in 1926. In Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922), he satirized the narrow-minded complacency and dullness of small town America. The protagonist of Main Street is Carol Milford Kennicott, a college-educated young woman who tried to use the sociology she learned at university to improve the cultural lives in small town Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. Her trials and tribulations and ultimate failure reveal Lewis’ negative attitudes towards Midwestern small towns. George F. Babbitt was a real estate broker and a “booster”, the quintessential American businessman of the era. He believed that business success and prosperity were God’s will, and that business morals that led to success were justified. He “boosted” all local business. Based on Lewis’ novel, the word “Babbitt” referred to a person, a business or professional man, who conforms unthinkingly to prevailing middle-class standards. In Elmer Gantry (1922), Lewis exposes religious hypocrisy and bigotry of revival preachers of the time, e.g. Aimee Semple MacPherson and Billy Sunday. H. L. Mencken wrote of him, “[If] there was ever a novelist among us with an authentic call to the trade … it is this red-haired tornado from the Minnesota wilds.”