Tag Archives: Jazz Age

Presenting the Algonquin Round Table: The wits of New York’s Jazz Age

PODCAST The enduring legacy of the Algonquin Round Table and the brilliant (and sometimes forgotten) people who made it famous.

One June afternoon in the spring of 1919, a group of writers and theatrical folk got together at the Algonquin Hotel to roast the inimitable Alexander Woollcott, the trenchant theater critic for the New York Times who had just returned from World War I, brimming with dramatically overbaked stories.

The affair was so rollicking, so engaging, that somebody suggested — “Why don’t we do this every day?”

And so they did. The Algonquin Round Table is the stuff of legends, a regular lunch date for the cream of New York’s cultural elite. In this show, we present you with some notable members of the guest list — including the wonderful droll Dorothy Parker, the glibly observant Franklin Pierce Adams and the charming Robert Benchley, to name but a few.

But you can’t celebrate the Round Table from a recording studio so we head to the Algonquin to soak in the ambience and interview author Kevin C. Fitzpatrick about the Jazz Age’s most famous networking circle.

Are you ready for a good time? “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.” — Dorothy Parker

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At top: The gorgeous modern painting by artist Natalie Ascencios which hangs over the spot where the original Round Table once sat.

A few members of the Round Table including Art Samuels, Charles MacArthur, Harpo Marx, Dorothy Parker, and Alexander Woollcott

The Algonquin, as seen in the year 1907….



…..and 30 years later, in 1937.

A 1906 advertisement in Brooklyn Life extolling the virtues of the Pergola Room (where the first group of Round Tablers first met) at the Algonquin Hotel.

Brooklyn Life, April 7, 1906

An ad featuring hotel manager Frank Case:

April 28, 1906

A couple stories of drama from the Algonquin’s early days:

Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, NY, Feb 14, 1909
Evening World, August 5, 1911

Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper which fostered the talents of several who would end up sitting around the Round Table.

A few members of the Round Table, as featured on the show….

Alexander Woollcott

Franklin Pierce Adams

Dorothy Parker


Edna Ferber and George F. Kaufman


Ruth Hale

Robert Benchley

Robert Sherwood

Harold Ross and Jane Grant


The Mystique of Josephine Baker, born 110 years ago today

Josephine Baker is a spellbinding icon. Her persona is magnetic, mysterious, intangible, taking inspiration from Sophie Tucker and Bessie Smith, the divas of the silent screen and the flappers of Harlem and Greenwich Village.

And yet this most alluring figure of the Jazz Age was born 110 years ago today in St. Louis, Missouri.

Barely 15 years old, Baker made a quick impression upon her arrival to New York, notably appearing in the original touring production of Shuffle Along.  Her first appearance in 1924 in the New York Times was as part of the show The Chocolate Dandies playing ‘That Comedy Chorus Girl’: “As a freak Terpsachorian artist, Josephine Baker, with her imitation of Ben Turpin’s eyes, made quite a hit.”

New York Public Library

Baker’s career would only really take off after appearing in shows in France. She would accentuate her unique talent and beauty with extravagent style. Baker was famous for her animal companions — a cheetah named Chiquita and a chimpanzee named Ethel.


But the most powerful story about Josephine Baker would transpire back in New York City, many years later, in a incident which blew open the absurd, racist nightclub practices of the 1940s and 50s.  Baker took aim at the segregationist policies of Stork Club, the hotspot frequented by the world’s biggest celebrities.

On October 16, 1951, Baker attempted to have dinner there after a sold-out performance at the Roxy Theatre. While her white dinner companions got their food, she and a fellow black guest were never served. If you think perhaps this was just an oversight, keep in mind that Baker was a prominent civil-rights activist, openly critical of such policies. This was no mistake.

Baker in 1932:

New York Public Library

Yet she was eventually excoriated in the press by none other than Walter Winchell, the powerful gossip columnist.  “The Josephine Baker affair at the Stork Club made Winchell look like a self-serving hypocrite, if not racist; and his weekly radio show fell out of the top ten for the first time.” [source]

But Baker was permanently shaken by the whole affair.  “After that…there was nothing left for me in America. What little there was left, he ruined for me.” [source]

Below: Baker at the 1963 March on Washington where she was the only woman who gave a speech that day. “I am not a young woman now, friends.  My life is behind me.  There is not too much fire burning inside me.  And before it goes out, I want you to use what is left to light that fire in you.”  [source]


Her final New York performances were in June of 1973 — at Carnegie Hall and at the Victoria Theater in Harlem.

US-born dancer Josephine Baker, nicknamed Black Venus, performs 26 March 1975 at a Paris'stage Bobino, two weeks before her death 10 April 1975. Baker, born 03 June 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri, first danced for the public on the streets of St. Louis and in the Booker T. Washington Theater, a black vaudeville house in her native town. Later she became a chorus girl. Her first job in Paris was in La Revue Negre at Folies Bergeres in 1925, where she first performed her famous banana dance. In 1937 she renounced her American citizenship and became a citizen of France. During WWII, Josephine Baker worked as a spy for the French resistance and became sub-lieutenant in the Women's Auxiliary of the French Air Force. Baker was back in France in 1954, with the intention of raising a family o ethnically diverse children that she had brought to France from her tours around the world. In her last years, Baker suffered struggles, financial difficulties, and poor health. (Photo credit should read PIERRE GUILLAUD/AFP/Getty Images)
(Photo credit PIERRE GUILLAUD/AFP/Getty Images)

“Josephine Baker knows how to make an entrance. The American-born singer and dancer, who celebrated her 67th birthday on Sunday, brought a full house at Carnegie Hall to its feet cheering and applauding Tuesday evening merely by stepping into a spotlight wearing a spangled body-stocking that left no doubt about the slim, trim, youthful lines of her figure, topped by an outrageously towering headdress of flamingo-colored plumes that was as tall as she was herself.” [source]

Here’s a little number from that very performance, her take on a Bob Dylan number.  And happy birthday Josephine!


Images courtesy New York Public Library


“Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers & Swells”: What a party! Courtesy Vanity Fair and the toasts of the Jazz Age

Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers & Swells: The Best of Early Vanity Fair
Various authors
Edited by Graydon Carter with David Friend
Penguin Press

BOOK REVIEW  Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers & Swells: The Best of Early Vanity Fair sounds like a soirée in book form, but it’s a lot more than that.  If anything, the book’s title is a bit constricting.  The bohemians, the bootleggers, the flappers, the swells — they’ve all brought guests along with them. Welcome!

One hundred years ago, Vanity Fair was a men’s fashion and style magazine that gradually became known for some of the best published writing in the world. It was a veritable sounding board for the wits of the Algonquin Round Table whose entire membership either wrote for it or were written about within it.

After the Great Depression, its publisher Conde Nast (the man) folded its contents into his more successful women’s magazine Vogue.

Its spirit was revived in 1983 by publisher Conde Nast (the corporation) and re-energized in the early 90s with the introduction of editor Graydon Carter, best known for the dearly lamented Spy Magazine, which is the closest anyone ever got in the ’90s to the droll swagger of the Algonquin crew.

For its one hundred anniversary, Carter has put together a collection of stories from the magazine’s first incarnation, from P.G. Wodehouse‘s take on the fitness craze of 1914 to Allene Talmey‘s survey of New York nighclubs in 1936.  The entirety of the Jazz age in contained between them — the fashion, the reverie, the amusement, the agony.

But most of all — the modernity.  If anything defines most of these spectacular entries, it’s the coy observations of change, how America left the Gilded Age to became something awkward but none the less brilliant. In one essay, Aldous Huxley tries to literally define the word: “Let us not abuse a very useful and significant word [modern] by applying it indiscriminately to everything that happens to be contemporary.”

Here are the world’s greatest authors of the early 20th century, attempting to define their era from the vantage of a barstool or a kitchen table.  D.H. Lawrence takes on the modern female, implying she’s merely an update on the ancient woman.  Music critic Samuel Chotzinoff zeroes in on the origin of jazz music in 1923, still in its infancy. Tremors in sports, world affairs, women’s fashion and the stage are all tackled by a rich embarrassment of talents.

We see here the birth of legends at the dawn of their careers, through a variety of writing samples, light fiction to poetry.  My favorite (no surprise) are the early poems by Dorothy Rothschild (Parker) who beautifully bemoans whole categories of miserable co-workers, in-laws and other species. “I hate actresses/They get on my nerves.”  Stroll past the entries from T. S Eliot and Gertrude Stein to find an introduction to readers from Carl Van Vechten of the young poet Langston Hughes.  “Hughes has crowded more adventure into his life than most of us will experience.”

Modern Vanity Fair is known for personality profiles, and there are many on display here.  Most of the subjects themselves are scarcely quoted themselves; instead their images are preened and paraded by imminent writers and colleagues.

Actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr writes about his wife Joan Crawford (at left) in a 1930 essay. “She is intolerant of people’s weakness.  If someone does her a wrong she is slow in forgetting it but when she does there is no doubt of her attitude. (Fairbanks and Crawford divorced three years later.)  Alexander Woollcott waxes poetically about the unpoetic Harpo Marx.  Paul Gallico turns Babe Ruth into a proto-Superman. “He rose from Rags to Riches. Sink or Swim. Do or Die.”

Moments of great foresight rise throughout the essays. Walter Lippman predicts the entire Internet age in his essay on publicity:  “It may even be that when men have lived for a few more generations … the race will no longer have any prejudices in favor of privacy.  They may enjoy living in glass houses.” David Cort‘s post-mortem on the stock market crash of 1929 reads like cynical analysis from 2008.  “Those who recanted, who sold out and are bankrupt, have already been forgotten.  Wall Street wants fresh money, fresh optimists.”

Also included here is Anne O’Hagan‘s defiant laundry-list of woman in 1915 who make more than $50,000.  “Consider the growing horde of decorators,” she says in one refrain.

Virtually every major name of the arts and letters makes a brief appearance in Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers & Swells.  The collection’s tremendous breadth in subject matter makes it sometimes difficult as a straight-through read, but I would encourage you try it anyway.  In total, this is as much a story about America between the Great Wars as any actual historical tome.

And a quick note about my two favorite stories.  If you only know E.E. Cummings (at right) from his poetry, then you have a treat in store here in a short humorous narrative from 1925 which begins with the sentence, “Calvin Coolidge laughed.”

And then there’s “An Afghan In America,” written in 1916 by Syyed Shaykh Achmed Abdullah, a brief and beautiful tale about old traditions as they play out in a New York ballroom.  “He danced with her for the rest of the evening.  He did several new steps.  He also drank forbidden spirits. Many of them.”

Vanity Fair covers courtesy Conde Nast Publications

Previous recommendations from the Bowery Boys Bookshelf: