Overheard at the Algonquin


   "Men don't make passes at girls who wear glasses," joked Nick Turner to his friend and fellow Algonquin Hotel waiter Eddie Benson. Turner was about to serve a steaming plate of goulash to none other than Dorothy Parker, she of the rapier wit and a founding member of the Algonquin Roundtable, the fabled group of literary luminaries who gathered regularly at Nick's table to unleash their brilliant badinage and memorable bon mots upon one another, and the world.
   "Thanks, Nick," Mrs. Parker cracked in that inimitable deadpan of hers, "it looks good enough to eat."
   This prompted the famed theater critic Alexander Woolcott, with the full intention of being quoted in the next day's columns, to quip: "Dotty, if you eat that whole plate, you'll gain a whole lot of weight."
   "All the things I really like to do are either immoral, illegal, or fattening," Nick remarked to Eddie, out of earshot.
   "Waiter," called out Robert Benchley, whom many consider this century's greatest humorist, "I'd like some ice water." Nick grabbed a pitcher and poured it as fast as would seem humanly possible, but not fast enough for the quick-witted Mr. Benchley. "Where the hell were you, waiter sitting on your ass?" he inquired in a cleverly mocking tone. Nick, only slightly chastened, tried to match the immense man with the Brobdingnagian wit. "I do most of my work sitting down," Nick replied. "That's where I shine."
   Taking this all in, Dorothy Parker, three sheets to the wind (thanks to a handy hip flask), slurred something unintelligible, but brilliant, and then passed out face first into the goulash. Eddie was shocked, but Nick had seen it all before, many times.
   Merciless, as was their wont, the still-conscious Roundtable members took their best shots at the gravy-faced Mrs. Parker.
   "She's drunk as a skunk," Benchley tossed off, as only he could.
   "What a mess," Woolcott opined wickedly, after some thought.
   "She's a drunken mess," contributed Harpo Marx, another regular Roundtable wag just in from the West Coast.
   Even Nick and Eddie got into the act, Eddie noting of the often poker-faced Mrs. Parker that she "runs the gamut of emotions from A to B."
   "That woman speaks eighteen languages and can't say 'no' in any of them," Nick added, referring to her Jazz Age morals.
   "Waiter my water glass is dirty!" an angry Benchley groused. Nick rushed over and poured a new glass of water for the celebrated wit, at the same time mumbling to Eddie, sotto voce, "Gratitude the meanest and most sniveling attribute in the world."
   The two waiters retreated to the kitchen where Eddie told Nick how envious he was of him having the opportunity, day in and day out, to serve some of the smartest, funniest, and most original minds of the twentieth century. Eddie lamented the fact that at his table the diners were usually wisecracking nitwits and never, ever funny.
   "There's a helluva distance between wisecracking and wit," he mused. "Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words."
   Nick nodded in agreement, then grabbed a basket of hot rolls.


Return to Selected Works