“We were telling stories, trying to guess if the tale told was fact or fiction. M… came up with this story, chilling in the way it was so wretchedly confessed to us. Most of us thought it was fact, but didn’t really want to believe it.
(read fact or fiction? At the end of the background section)
“Algonquin Round Table writers, a group of town wits who had converged on brand new York in the late 1910s. From their positions as columnists, essayists, and drama critics, this "all-star literary vaudeville," as Edmund Wilson called them, nourished a light, sharp, mocking tone aimed at well-known personalities, among whom they counted themselves. Wartime friends Franklin P. Adams, Harold Ross, Heywood Broun, and Alexander Woollcott were among the bantering quipsters who began meeting for daily lunches at the Algonquin Hotel. With so many clever wordsmiths, this self-named "vicious circle" soon became famous for its ingenious puns, quips, and insults appearing immediately in print in someone’s column.”
The Algonquin Round Table was a celebrated group of brand new York City writers, critics, actors and wits. Gathering initially as part of a practical joke, members of "The Vicious Circle", as they dubbed themselves, met for lunch each day at the Algonquin Hotel from 1919 until roughly 1929. At these luncheons they engaged in wisecracks, wordplay and witticisms that, through the newspaper columns of Round Table members, were disseminated across the country.
"Their form of social media was just that: social. Imagine having the time every day to break for a couple hours to have lunch with your funny, intelligent friends? They didn’t post witty replies on Facebook. They said them face-to-face, such as the time Dorothy Parker was asked to use the word “horticulture” in a sentence: “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.” Was her quick response.
Daily association with each other, both at the luncheons and outside of them, inspired members of the Circle to collaborate creatively. The entire group worked together successfully only once, however, to create a revue called No Sirree! which helped launch a Hollywood career for Round Tabler Robert Benchley.
In its ten years of association, the Round Table and a number of its members acquired national reputations both for their contributions to literature and for their sparkling wit. Although some of their contemporaries, and later in life even some of its members, disparaged the group, its reputation has endured long after its dissolution.
An elderly lady known to one of us was from the States, was visited with quite often before she passed on. She was a school chum of Tallulah and related this Roundtable tale told to her.
We would be quite interested to learn more of the story and possibly about the incident retold below. If anyone is aware of an occurrence similar to this one in or even outside of Pennsylvania please feel free to tell us about it.
Fact or Fiction?
As Related to Emily over afternoon Tea one spring day……..
“We were playing a game, telling each other stories, and then trying to guess if the story was fact or fiction. Darling Harpo had suggested playing it after the reaction he had received for mischievously calling out a distraught Bea on the facts for a bit of society gossip she had been relating….”
“ We gone midway round the circle, and When challenged, M… came up with this story, chilling in the way it was so wretchedly confessed to us. Most of us thought it was fact, but didn’t really want to believe it had occurred. “
“I give the story as best I can through memory, only ever hearing it the one time years ago right now. I believe I have captured its’ essence, but I could never in words captured the tortured look, or trembling manner that was shown when it was told before the group. All I can say is, either way; it was a masterful performance….”
The Confession ( story):
M lit a cigarette, and after sending a few wisps of smoke up to dance upon the ceiling, began the tale…
“I have done may things in my life I have later regretted, but this one, in particular, I have never told a living soul until right now….” Drawing a deep breath, the story was continued.
“I have always had a curious streak to observe people’s reactions when in various situations. To get a better grasp of how my characters should act. It greatly piqued me to watch, without being seen, a person’s true emotions coming into play. Ralph Waldo Emerson once famously quoted that “ People do not seem to realize that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character” … and that intriguing thought was what originally sent me on my quest..
Sometimes I was the protagonist behind the scenes whom, unbeknownst to the victims, had set them up. Sometimes I just followed and watched their behavior. I never intended for anyone to get hurt, emotionally or physically. But sometimes they did! Then I would solace my conscience by telling it that I was only doing it to improve upon my craft. But, then this one time, I probably did go a little bit too far….”
Sends a few more puffs of his cigarette wafting in smoky curls upwards as if in thought on how to actually begin…
“As a young man I would attend all different sorts of functions from all different levels of society to come up with ideas. I ran the gauntlet, from cock fights, hobo’s gathering around a campfire, to a wedding reception worthy of the Rockefellers. I noticed that I felt more at home with the hobos, than the fat cats. A condition, I am sure, caused by some flaw in my character. “
“But this instance, the function I encountered definitely belonged to the latter, Rockefeller fat cat , set.
The event, I soon learned, was the Homecoming of a tiny private College in a wealthy Pennsylvania community. Not my Alma Mater, but just a place I happened to be passing through which I had stopped whilst traveling home. “
“That there was a function going on in that little place was not hard to miss; the attendees were pouring out onto the streets from all sorts of establishments, and into others, including the bar I was holed up in. After a while I noticed a change in dress of the revelers costumes. School blazers and sensible dresses began to be replaced by tuxes and swishing satin gowns and colourful frocks. Their adornments also changed, from school ties to bow ties, Boaters (straw hats) to top hats for the men: Gold jewelry was replaced by sparkling necklaces and rings upon gloved hands for the ladies.”
“Another change was, that by then, the lot of them was pretty much plastered, but then, so was I!”
“ Finally I was flushed out of my hiding spot , and went for a walk outside to escape the noisy crowd.
I started to circle the upper portion of a large rural park that ran next to my late hiding spot. As I strolled, I noticed a man with a heavy coat and cap, rather sinisterly watching the crowd, standing against a tree just up ahead of me. When he saw me coming towards him, he turned down a path leading into the shadowy depths of the woods. I watched him go down for a minute, and observed that it led down to a tiny valley, where in the middle, surrounded by trees, stood a quite deserted football field. The path less traveled tonight, I thought to myself.
I kept to the path well-travelled however, and soon after turning a corner, came upon a young couple snogging on a bench. I stopped to watch, my mind racing with a mixture of drink inspired contemplations upon the little scene before me! “
“She was dolled up like a picture actress. Wearing a slithery glossy red gown that shined in the gas lamps pooling light, with matching gloves and a shimmering gold purse, she was a breathing Pygmalion . The jewels she was adorned with, rhinestones, I assumed, glittered happily as she moved. He was in a tux, an Errol Flynn moustache and gold watch chain and fob at his waist. They had no idea anyone was near them! Of course, Then, my cursed foot gave me away all too soon, as it stepped upon a twig, snapping it loudly, calling the couples attention to my peeping. Seeing me they got up and walked past me, snooty noses up in the air. She made a rude noise that would have better fitted an old mare in a barn. Well pardon my eyes I though, stinging from the obvious smite upon my character, which I always had held in high regard. Why dress in that manner and think no one deserves to take notice unless they meet with your approval? The princess was obviously not amused…”
“ I watched with disdain, and then , still transfixed, followed at a discreet distance as they walked back the way I had come. For some reason I was mesmerized by the pair of snobs, watching as they moved, her red gown swishing and swirling like a red waterfall upon the paved stones. They were holding closely onto one another, once again totally oblivious to their surroundings. There was a story there, if only…. “
“They stopped, and I went into the shadow of a tree. Looking back up the path they had come, I thought they may have seen my shadow. For they then looking again to each other, she murmured something and they turned down the very path, the path less travelled, that the heavy coated man had slinked away down. I felt maybe I should have run up and cautioned them against taking that path, but I was still stung by their rude reaction… Besides, I was rather curious to see if anything would happen.
In for pence, in for a pound I remember repeating to myself, as I discreetly continued my stalk.”
“I went into the shadows, seeing a large set of rocks beside the path I climbed up, getting a view of the path winding down into the tiny valley. I was just above a gas lamp that lit the path as it reached the valley floor below. The lamps lite effectively shadowed the rock whence I was perched. I could see the pair walking in and out of the shadows of the trees. Just as they reached the circle of light below me they stopped and embraced. I watched, totally unabashed.
Then, as I grew bored, or maybe my drink induced fog was started to clear my mind back to reality, I slowly started to make an exit stage right , when a shadow detached itself from a tree directly below me. I stayed mute and froze in my tracks, watching the event I knew was going to occur, began to unfold. The man’s shadowy figure approached the oblivious couple carefully, I could see his head jerking about making sure that the couple was alone, and unprotected. Picking up a chunk of wood he entered the circle of light, which right now formed a tiny stage where a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare was most likely about to unfold!”
“I watched as the startled lovers became aware and tried to stare down the newcomer.
right now in the light, I could see He had shed his coat and gained a mask, but it was definitely the same sinister man I had seen earlier, obviously up to no not bad. The Errol Flynn wannabe put the girl behind him in defense, the masked man merely raised branch and whacked him on the side of his head, it broke with a sickening crunch, and her gallant defender went down like a sack of cement.
The sinister figure then turned his attention to the right now helpless damsel in distress. Raising a cupped hand up he said something in a raspy voice that startled her. Apparently he was asking for her jewels, and the horror struck damsel had arrogantly not yet realized she was being mugged. The ladies long earrings shimmering as she shook her head no in response. The rings on her gloved fingers flashed as her hand went to her throat as she clearly cried out,” not my necklace”, in a hapless act of defiance. In my mind came a picture of a tiny kitten trying to defy a snarling wolf. She threw the gold purse at him, but he merely caught it, and placed it in his pocket. I remember feeling strangely detached, It may have been shock, but I found myself watching without one ounce of regret. The only thought I could remember was her glittering necklace, maybe they had not been rhinestones, which meant that she actually was wealthy and probably had been looking down her snooty nose upon me, like she probably did her own servants !!.
Well than she obviously did not desire my help, I decided, like she had quite rudely not desired my looking at her earlier… and after all , in her world, servants should be standing quietly in the background, seen but not heard. So, I decided that I wasn’t going to help unless absolutely life or death. Let the little lamb be trimmed of her rich wool I said to myself. She did show spunk, I will admit, but that’s all it was, a show. She went limp as he reached up, grabbing her hand away, than began pulling of the rings as she stood mute with disbelief. The diamond bracelet was wrenched unceremoniously from her wrist. Dropping her hand, he pocketed her rings and bracelet. Than he once again went for her necklace, and she backed up, shaking her head, earrings again shimmering as the pair innocently bounced away from her long hair. Then I saw a flash of silver in his hand, and she fainted dead away at the sight of his ugly blade…”.
“The masked man knelt over to her fallen body. The shiny red gown had spilled around her on the ground, Laying about her inert svelte figure like a pool of red lava. Reaching down and in he claimed her necklace, grasping it up and away from her throat. He looked at it for a few seconds, letting it sparkle in the moon’s light like slivery falling rain.
Then squatting beside her, he pulled away her hair, and yanked her taunting earrings free. He methodically felt along her figure, missing nothing. Then he again produced the knife, slicing off the brooch from her gown’s sash.
He pulled off her red high heels and threw tem deep into the woods.
Then he left her and went over to the unconscious escort, the bloody limb next to him” in quick, precise fashion, ‘Errol’s’, watch chain and fob were pulled free and pocketed. Then he reached in and pulled out the unlucky devils pocket book. Then pulling off ‘Errol’s’ shoes they soon joined the ladies high heels.
Arising calmly, he slowly looked around as he stowed the stolen articles and his knife away. He spent a split second longer on the area I was hidden, causing a shiver to make itself felt! Then, removing the mask he walked to where his long coat lay, and reclaiming it, he continued serenely on his way down the path. I watched in heavy silence as he disappeared in the woods, only to reappear by the football field. It was then that I stole away back up the path, careful not to be seen.”
“And no, I did not give any cry of alarm, did not involve myself by seeking or giving the hapless couple aid. I simply turned and left. I came away with nothing, no ideas, no brand new feelings for a character, just a sour taste in my mouth and an upset stomach, which I soon tried to relieve by stopping in at the next drinking establishment I came across. Beer didn’t help, so I switched to Scotch…!”
“ About an hour later I heard a siren and sensed commotion outside the confides of my prison. I did not go out to investigate.”
“After a fit less night of unrestful sleep, I left the next morning, daring not to read a paper, or stop there for breakfast ( having a late tea later a few hours away , I put the place and its memories to my back. “
“Ashamedly I did not render any assistance those poor souls, and I admit what I what I did was criminal.. But then in my defense , they ………………….., ”
“It was at this point that the confession was interrupted by the appearance of a messenger boy sent for M….. Who took his leave, with a wicked smile that seemed to convey relief that an outcome of the story would not have to be faced?
Obliviously loving the mystery it created by the timely appearance of the messenger.” He never could be persuaded to return to his story only smiling that wicked little smile.
So, the worse of it was we never knew… because of the messenger boy’s interruption, never to learn to our satisfaction if the story was true or not..”
“How we all did hate that!”
There is some question as to the identity of M…. There are six members with M in their initial. It could have been a non-regular or even a nickname. If anyone else has heard of this tale, or could place a finger for us as to who M… may have been, we would welcome the enlightenment.
Charter members of the Round Table included:
Franklin Pierce Adams, columnist
Robert Benchley, humorist and actor
Heywood Broun, columnist and sportswriter (married to Ruth Hale)
Marc Connelly, playwright
Ruth Hale, freelance writer who worked for women’s rights
George S. Kaufman, playwright and director
“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”
“If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”
“What fresh hell is this?”
Robert E. Sherwood, author and playwright
John Peter Toohey, publicist
Alexander Woollcott, critic and journalist
"The English have an extraordinary ability for flying into a great calm."
Membership was not official or fixed for so many others who moved in and out of the Circle. Some of these included:
Tallulah Bankhead, actress
Edna Ferber, author and playwright
Margalo Gillmore, actress
Jane Grant, journalist and feminist (married to Ross)
Beatrice Kaufman, editor and playwright (married to George S. Kaufman)
Margaret Leech, writer and historian
Neysa McMein, magazine illustrator
Harpo Marx, comedian and film star
Alice Duer Miller, writer
Donald Ogden Stewart, playwright and screenwriter
Frank Sullivan, journalist and humorist
Deems Taylor, composer
Estelle Winwood, actress
Peggy Wood, actress
Courtesy of Chatwick University Archives
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