Inspiration for a writer comes from many places. For me, pictures and videos of real places and people are primary triggers to inspire the plot lines and help color the characters who are dominating the development of the story. So when I happened across this utterly fantastic photo of Tallulah Bankhead decked out in a feather headdress in the 1920s, I had no choice but to learn more about this fascinating person.
Tallulah Bankhead, born in 1902 in Alabama, was an actress and wild child with a husky voice and a tremendous presence on stage and off. She partied hard, smoked marijuana and used cocaine. She was a regular at the Algonquin Hotel in NY, and a participant in the Algonquin Round Table where writer Dorothy Parker sharpened her tongue.
Tallulah was said to be wonderfully outrageous and uninhibited, known to peel her clothes off to sit down and have a chat. Tallulah was a huge celebrity both here in the US as well as on the London stage and was known for calling everyone “Dahling”. She said it was because she never could remember names.
She tested for the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, but at the age of 36 she was considered too old for the part. Scarlett is 16 at the opening of the story.
Tallulah, witty and charming, is also an influence on a one of my characters. For now her name is CC, and she is an American heiress who marries a penniless count.
Now back to work…writing that is…
Research is such an appealing type of work avoidance. I really do have to be more disciplined about settling down to continue on with my novel, so please excuse my hasty exit. I’m writing about art forgery in 1914, (a novel yet to be named) and naturally that leads to the need to learn not just about art, the art market, the fabulous world of art collectors in New York society, but also the larger than life people of that era. My story centers on a fantastically talented artist, Arthur Bryant of Paris, who makes fake Claude Monet paintings. He cons one Mr. R. J. Wilkesbury into being his dealer in New York. The material lends itself to an endless trail of delicious distractions in research. The novel is a sequel to Ravenscraig.
One of the highlights of my recent visit to New York was meeting with Kevin Fitzpatrick, author, tour guide and the founder of the Dorothy Parker Society.
I have long been a fan of the writings of Dorothy Parker and have a true fascination with Prohibition in America especially in how it gave rise to nightclubs, the Jazz age, and women drinking in bars for the first time.
Dorothy Parker, witty, depressed, alcoholic, and ever so bold and talented, stands as an icon of the age known as the Roaring Twenties, and makes for fascinating research for a novelist writing about this time period in New York. So it is that I found Kevin Fitzpatrick.
His name is among the first you will find in a google search on Dorothy Parker. Kevin has a clear passion for his subject matter and stands among the foremost experts on the Algonquin Round Table. His website, DorothyParker.com, provides a great deal of information about Mrs. Parker’s life in addition to her most famous quotes, audio files, and links for more information. You can sign up for his newsletter and become one of more than 3,000 people who are counted as members of the Dorothy Parker Society.
Kevin Fitzpatrick is the author of the very popular guide: A Journey into Dorothy Parker’s New York, and has just released a catchy new book, that will provide you with all of the recipes and information you need to dazzle your friends this holiday season with a Speakeasy Cocktail Party. With the cheeky title, Under the Table: a Dorothy Parker Cocktail Guide, it will certainly be a hot gift item this year. He explained that it was one of her poems that inspired the title:
I love a martini
two at the most
three I’m under the table
Four I’m under the host
I was delighted that Kevin accepted my request for an interview. Naturally, we arranged to meet at the wonderful Algonquin Hotel, New York’s most significant literary landmark, according to Kevin. Though polished and modernized in a recent extensive renovation, the Algonquin still holds the charm and glamour of an earlier era. It was here that Dorothy Parker and a cadre of literary luminaries gathered in the 1920s for a daily exchange of wit and gossip. Here they laughed, and lunched, and supported each other and their talents. They formed friendships and collaborations that resulted in novels, plays, a seemingly endless source of material for newspapers, and even the inspiration to launch The New Yorker magazine. All of this without the benefit of a cocktail at the Algonquin. This was in the height of Prohibition, and while The Algonquin followed the law, the Round Tablers who liked a drink or three, as Mrs. Parker certainly did, became intimately acquainted with many secret and illegal nightclubs of New York.
Ninety odd years later, Kevin Fitzpatrick strides into the lobby at the Algonquin, dapper and energetic in a dark suit, white button down shirt and sporty red tie, appearing quite ready to sit down to a discussion of my financial portfolio. He quickly assures me that his attire was chosen to suit his speaking engagement that evening, and that this was quite out of custom with the usual style of dress at MTV where he works as a special projects director.
Our conversation is transcribed below.
I was terribly sorry that my visit did not coincide with an opportunity to take a walking tour with Kevin. What an interesting way to see this part of New York and learn about the vibrant night life of the writers we continue to quote today.
He is tremendously knowledgeable and engaging and struck me as someone who would have comfortably fit in to the Round Table, and would have been quite at home in a top hat, spats, and an evening suit in 1919.
To prepare for such an adventure I recommend you first view the award winning documentary about the Algonquin Round Table, The Ten Year Lunch, which you can see here.
Kevin Fitzpatrick interviewed by Sandi Altner, October, 2013, at the Algonquin Hotel, New York City
What led you to become founder of the Dorothy Parker Society?
Well, my friends and I started the Dorothy Parker Society in 1999 after a walking tour that was at the Algonquin and a speakeasy that was around the corner called Flute. So we went there and people said this is so much fun let’s do it again so we started having get togethers. Now we don’t call them meetings, we call them parties, so the Dorothy Parker Society doesn’t have meetings we only have parties. We have a monthly speakeasy party where everyone dresses up in vintage clothes and we have vintage cocktails and dance to live jazz music from the 1920s and 30s.
(We hear the sound of fire engine racing by) And as you can tell we are in New York.
It sounds like the ladder company is going right down the street on 44th. I hope it’s not here.
We are meeting this afternoon at the Algonquin Hotel which of course is very much a part of the Dorothy Parker story. What can you tell me about the Algonquin?
Well, I like to tell people I think it is New York’s best literary landmark and here’s why. Other places might have a claim to fame for a fictional character going there like the Plaza or the Chelsea Hotel where different ner do wells lived but the Algonquin then as now is a place where writers and editors come to meet and when they come to meet they come to collaborate and work and what comes out of that are books and novels and plays and movies and tv shows. Then as now, for more than 90 years it has been a literary hangout. Dorothy Parker and her friends got together in June, 1919, as a welcome home to New York luncheon or roast for Alexander Woollcott who was a drama critic for the New York Times. So almost daily for ten years the group was coming here right where you are sitting to have lunch together. And out of those came fantastic stories, shows, plays books, comedies and a lot of ink was spilled.
And it fostered the inspiration for a major magazine.
Yes. The New Yorker would not be around if it were not for the Algonquin Round Table because the founders Harold Ross and Jane Grant tapped their friendships at the Algonquin Hotel to get their magazine off the ground. If it wasn’t for the use of the name of people like Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley and Marc Connelly, Harold Ross and Jane Grant probably wouldn’t have had the success they did in getting the magazine launched.
How did you become interested in Dorothy Parker?
In the late ’90s a friend had given me the fantastic Dorothy Parker biography by Marion Meade, What Fresh Hell is This? and I learned that we both lived on the same street 72nd Street on the upper west side and I was looking for a research project at the time to do something on line about New York City history and books and just reading about Parker’s life and then reading her poems and her fiction, I thought, I really like this person a lot. I saw a lot of things in me in her, bad relationships, bad bosses, bad jobs, you know, a freelance writer, so I really identified a lot with her and she really spoke to me. So that really kicked off the research phase that became DorothyParker.com and that led to doing a walking tour of the places on the site which led to the Dorothy Parker society and the book and everything else.
Tell me about the Algonquin Hotel.
Well, it’s between 5th and 6th Avenues, and at the time there was an elevated train going up 6th Avenue and across the street was the Hippodrome Theatre which was Broadway’s biggest ever theatre. The Hippodrome was on 6th Avenue between 43rd and 44th Street. It ran an entire city block. You could have a thousand actors on stage. It was enormous. So that was 6th Avenue. It was kind of a circus with the elevated train going up it. And 5th Avenue, then as now, was always nice. High society people lived there. Great shopping, great retail and if you keep walking east you run right into Grand Central Terminal. So it’s a fantastic location because this block is called Club Row. On this block is The Harvard Club, the Cornell Club, The New York Yacht Club, the Bar Association and down the street you have Yale and around the corner is the Princeton Club and Williams, so this whole street has always had a really nice cozy atmosphere of where to go to meet people.
In the research you did was there anything that changed your view of the Algonquin Round Table? Was there anything that was surprising to you?
What a lot of people don’t know is the group was very political and they were in the era of Sacco and Vinzetti and there was a lot of anarchists in the country and there was the coming change and the rising fascism in Europe and what not and it was at that time that Parker became very political, partly sitting with Donald Ogden Stewart who was very liberal and Robert Benchley who was from Harvard and was also very forward thinking. Parker’s FBI file, which I got from a freedom of information request is three inches thick and parts of it are still redacted almost 50 years after her death. J. Edgar Hoover was following her around for many many years because of all of the left wing causes she was giving her name to. The only time she was ever arrested was in Boston for protesting Vinzetti’s planned execution. So what a lot of people might think is “oh, the Algonquin,” they are going there for a good time and jokes and laughing. They are also talking about very serious issues of the day that later after the stock market crash and the rise of the American depression and so on, that played into what they were working on and really helped color their careers at that time.
Edna Ferber was in this group as well as George Kaufman and many of the group ended up writing in Hollywood. How would you describe the impact of the Round Table not just on New York, but on the nation?
Well, Kaufman and Ferber were a fantastic playwriting team that did meet here at the Algonquin, you are correct. They were at an out of town tryout for one of their shows in Conneticut and the producer said to them: “Well, if it doesn’t work, we can take it on a showboat”. And Edna Ferber was sitting on the floor dejected and she said, “What’s a showboat?” And he told her and within six months she was going up and down the North Carolina Coast looking for the very last showboat. Within a year she had a novel out. And out of that novel came probably the greatest American musical of the era, “Showboat”. It was all because a collaboration was happening here at the hotel. It was a spark of an inspiration to get things going. You know even some of the secondary Round Table members that people don’t talk about
much like Herman Mankiewicz who won an academy Award for Citizen Kane he was a round table member, but all of the experience he got working on New York newspapers and being around William Randolph Hearst, that also was the inspiration that gave him the idea for the screenplay with Orson Welles twenty years later. There were a lot of these little kernels of thought, or networking if you will, with their friends or people sitting next to them at a table and they would then go on to write a show together or collaborate on a script or the forward to a book or things like that. I mean it was here that Dorothy Parker met James Thurber. They both had a shared love of dogs and drinking. Parker wrote all of the forwards to his books because she just thought he was a great cartoonist and a great dog lover and that’s how that came to be, too.
And Dorothy Parker lived here at the Algonquin.
Yes. At different times, she lived in the hotel. She didn’t always pay her bills. There was a joke that she was staying here around Christmas time and they asked her if she was going to hang up a Christmas stocking and she said, “No. but I’m going to hang up Frank Case.” He was the manager of the hotel.
In that time, people would often stay in hotels for long periods of time. They didn’t have kitchens and all of that but they lived in hotels. Is that correct?
Yes. And it was perfect for someone like Parker who had absolutely no domestic skills. I mean she would put her dirty clothes back in the drawer and just expect that the maid would sort through her clothes and take out the dirty and put back the clean.
And did she?
I would hope so. You know someone was around to cook for you and clean for you and take care of your messes and take care of your messages and your telephone calls. That was the real benefit of living in a residential hotel like this.
Kevin, was this strictly a residential hotel at the time, or was this a hotel that took all kinds of visitors?
It had a lot of long term visitors, but the turnover was great because of it’s great location, but no it was never a residential hotel, 100%. It always was open to the public along with having people living here for extended periods.
Do you know what room Dorothy Parker would have stayed in?
I have heard it was on the second or third floor but you know as much as we have looked over the last 15 years you can’t find any kind of records. There is no guest book where she signed in and out of and things like that. And room numbers have changed and the layouts on different floors have changed and there is a beautiful Dorothy Parker Suite here which I would encourage all to try and check into that has some of her letters on the wall and pictures and what not. So , we think that was probably the room she was in but who is to say?
The hotel has been renovated over the years. Are the floor plans thought somewhat similar to what would have been here prior to World War One?
There are less rooms now, because they did change some rooms around but it is very similar. I was here last year. They did a gut renovation of the hotel. It was closed for five months. They did a multi million dollar renovation where they took everything down to the bare bones and the general manager, Gary Budge, took me to the top and we walked all the way down and you got to peer into the actual skeleton of the building. It’s a hundred and ten years old. So they replaced all the pipes, all the heating and air conditioning, because you know if you are staying in a hotel it has to be historic but you really don’t want to be cold or hot in your room so they upgraded everything and they kept their traditions, but it is very very modern at the same time.
You have such a passion for this era, this research. What drives you Kevin?
Well it is just like someone who is a Yankees fan and loves Yankee stadium. I really like New York City history. I like the traditions. And just like you are a baseball fan and follow different players in different generations, it’s the same way here. If you are an Edna Ferber fan you can go out and get Edna Ferber’s books. If you like George S. Kaufman, you can go and see his plays, the Marx Brothers, and you know all of those have a tie in to this building, which is still open for business and you can come and take your friends to tonight, which I think is amazing.
I was told it is the oldest hotel in New York still running in the same location.
I don’t know if it is exactly the longest running. Definiteluy one of the oldest in the neighbourhood but definitely New York’s best literary landmark and I don’t think anything else can take that away from it. And one of the things I like and I tell people is you can come here tonight and there is an editor meeting with a writer. You don’t know who they are because who knows what an author looks like or an editor looks like, but you know that they are plotting something or doing something over that drink which I think is amazing and really nice to do because you are going to honor the tradition of all those other authors who have come before you. Everyone from Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley and William Faulkner and all of the other greats who have come through here and you keep on the tradition because this is the place you want to go to meet.
Tell me first about your books. Let’s start with A Journey into Dorothy Parker’s New York.
This book is 100 locations tied to Mrs. Parker’s New York, so it is all of the homes, haunts, hangouts, offices. She was born and raised on the upper west side so all the locations of her apartments and houses with her family and later in life places she lived, but also a lot of speakeasies, a lot of theatres. She was a Broadway critic for 6 years so all those theatres, where they were, or if they are long gone, or if they are still in business today. and then places associated with the Round Table. some of the hangouts they would go to and the former offices of the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Vogue and all the places that she and her friends worked at. The new book called Under the Table, A Dorothy Parker Cocktail Guidecomes out in November from Lyons Press.
A fabulous title, I must say.
Thank you, thank you. This was a very fun book to work on. It’s 75 recipes for cocktails, 65 from the prohibition era. These are the drinks people would have been having in 1919 to 1933. The other ten are from some of the best places around the country that make speakeasy style drinks and these are from New York, Las Vegas, Boston, LA, San Fransisco. Really amazing drinks. and with every drink you find out the story behind it. You learn about the Manhattan, Rob Roy, a side car, horses neck and a bad romance, all these drinks people used to drink back in the day that we don’t really know about so much anymore, so there is a lot of interesting stories about people in that day, like Flo Zigfeld and Jack Dempsey, who was the heavy weight champion of the world and had a drink named after him.
What’s your next book?
In 2014 we are going to release a book of Mrs. Parker’s Broadway reviews. All of her short fiction has been collected, all of her poetry has been collected, but not her drama reviews. She started writing Broadway reviews when she was 24 for Vanity Fair, so this is 150,000 words that never have been collected of Dorothy Parker’s work. And it is just some fantastic stuff. She saw some of the greats in theatre history: the very first shows by W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers and Eugene O’Neill’s early shows, so she was in the aisle seat for a lot of fantastic shows. A lot of people have never read any of this work, so it’s really fun to get that out. So that will be out in 2014.
A final word from Sandi: To my readers, please know that I will be giving away a copy of Dorothy Parker’s New York. It will go to one of the readers of this post who will be chosen randomly, so please do add your name to my list of subscribers, or email me at email@example.com to enter the draw. The draw will be made on December 1st, 2013.
And I heartily recommend a stay at the Algonquin hotel! I will be writing about the hotel in an upcoming blog post.
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