The Ten-Year Lunch: Watch the Award-Winning Documentary About the Great Writers Who Sat at the Algonquin Round Table

After reach­ing the rank of Sergeant dur­ing World War I, Alexan­der Wooll­cott returned to New York to become a dra­ma crit­ic for the New York Times. Wooll­cott was a man of large bulk and out­sized per­son­al­i­ty, whose sharp, acer­bic wit made him pop­u­lar with his read­ers. Accord­ing to The Ten-Year Lunch, an Oscar-win­ning doc­u­men­tary about the New York group of writ­ers and jour­nal­ists known as the Algo­nquin Round Table, Woollcott’s quick tongue made his bom­bas­tic pres­ence near­ly unbear­able to his friends:

When he returned from the war, Wooll­cott boast­ed of his mil­i­tary adven­tures so often and so loud­ly that his friends grew tired of lis­ten­ing. He began every sen­tence with “When I was in the the­atre of war…” Irri­tat­ed by his pom­pos­i­ty, press agent Mur­doch Pem­ber­ton lured Wooll­cott [to the Algo­nquin Hotel] with the promise of an ace pas­try chef. The idea was to hold a sort of roast, at which a num­ber of crit­ics and jour­nal­ists from around town would come and poke fun at him.

For bet­ter or worse, the attempt to punc­ture Woollcott’s ego at the Algo­nquin Hotel was unsuc­cess­ful. Rather than take offence, Wooll­cott was flat­tered by the atten­tion, and the var­i­ous fig­ures in atten­dance also thor­ough­ly enjoyed them­selves. Serendip­i­tous­ly, the leg­endary lun­cheons of the Algo­nquin Round Table were born.

Most of the Table’s mem­bers had tak­en part in the war, to one degree or anoth­er: jour­nal­ist Ruth Hale and her syn­di­cat­ed-colum­nist hus­band Hey­wood Broun had been war cor­re­spon­dents; New York­er founder Harold Ross had edit­ed the mil­i­tary news­pa­per Stars & Stripes; acclaimed colum­nist Franklin Pierce Adams had made Cap­tain. Oth­er mem­bers includ­ed poet and crit­ic Dorothy Park­er, a trag­ic roman­tic who had become the city’s most quotable woman. (Parker’s inex­haustible sup­ply of wit­ti­cisms still feels fresh today: when asked to use the word hor­ti­cul­ture in a sen­tence, Park­er replied, “You can lead a whore to cul­ture, but you can’t make her think.”) Parker’s best friend was humorist and essay­ist Robert Bench­ley, who had once writ­ten an essay explor­ing New­found­land fish­ing rights for his Inter­na­tion­al Law class at Har­vard from the unortho­dox per­spec­tive of the fish. Fre­quent­ly join­ing them was Neysa McNein, a sought-after illus­tra­tor who host­ed the Table’s after­noon gath­er­ings in her stu­dio, where Irv­ing Berlin could occa­sion­al­ly be found play­ing the piano.

The near-dai­ly meet­ings at the Algo­nquin Hotel fos­tered a close-knit cul­tur­al fra­ter­ni­ty of New York’s best writ­ers, illus­tra­tors, and artists. The group vaca­tioned togeth­er at their joint­ly-owned Ver­mont island, played games of pok­er wager­ing hous­es and hon­ey­moons, and crit­i­cized each other’s work. When­ev­er a mem­ber of the Round Table would make a con­ceit­ed remark, every­one would imme­di­ate­ly rise and bow, hon­or­ing their friend’s regal affec­ta­tions. The only excep­tion to the rule was Wooll­cott, whose bread and but­ter pom­pos­i­ty was tol­er­at­ed by virtue of its reg­u­lar­i­ty.

With its inter­views of orig­i­nal Table mem­bers, the doc­u­men­tary is a tan­ta­liz­ing look at the lives of the men and women who ruled New York’s cul­tur­al milieu dur­ing the hey­day of the print­ed word. Equal parts wish for the idyl­lic past and his­to­ry of New York’s biggest cul­tur­al play­ers, The Ten-Year Lunch leaves one with a pang of odd­ly potent nos­tal­gia. We can’t rec­om­mend it enough.

In the image above, see Art Samuels, Char­lie MacArthur, Har­po Marx, Dorothy Park­er and Alexan­der Wooll­cott

Ilia Blin­d­er­man is a Mon­tre­al-based cul­ture and sci­ence writer. Fol­low him at @iliablinderman.

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