A Full House

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A key to the drawing on pages 64-65: Will Cotton’s pastel, done in 1920, caught the Thanatopsians in the midst of a typical game—and near the peak of their creative powers. The players were: 1-drama critic Alexander Woollcott, who had just begun writing “Shouts and Murmurs” for The New Yorker ; 2-Harpo Marx, who ever since I’ll Say She Is in 1922 had been a favorite of the Algonquin set; 3-textile manufacturer—and future diplomat and novelist—Paul Hyde Bonner; 4-playwright George S. Kaufman, then riding high as co-author of June Moon , Royal Family , and Animal Crackers ; 5-Raoul Fleischmann, publisher of The New Yorker ; 6-socialile Gerald Brooks; 7-Henry Wise Miller, a banker; 8- Franklin P. Adams, whose sophisticated “Conning Tower” was then gracing the columns of the New York World ; 9-columnist Heywood Broun. The kibitzers were: 10-poet, short-story writer, and drama critic Dorothy Parker; 11-humorist Robert Benchley, who that year switched from the drama desk of pre-Luce Life to that of The New Yorker , and was making the, first of his movie shorts; 12-Irving Berlin, who since The Follies of 1927 had been writing songs for Hollywood musicals; 13-Harold Ross, editor of The New Yorker ; 14-Beatrice Kaufman, the playwright’s wife, whose own game was championship bridge; 15-Alice Duer Miller, grande dame , writer of popular fiction for the women’s magazines, and wife of Henry; 16-Herbert Bayard Swope, who that year retired as executive editor of the World ; 17-George Backer, a newspaper reporter and future publisher of the New York Post ; 18-Joyce Barbour, an English actress appearing on Broadway that season in Spring Is Here ; 19-Crosby Gaige, theatrical producer and bon vivant . The picture was commissioned by Bonner.

The origins of the Thanatopsis Pleasure and Inside Straight Club lie somewhere between a bar in Paris and the apartment of Harold Ross, its dissolution somewhere between a room above the Colony Restaurant and the Long Island home of Herbert Bayard Swope.

At its zenith it occupied quarters in the Algonquin Hotel and the Saturday nights of as colorful a group of poker players as ever sat down together outside a Bret Harte short story. It was sometimes called the Thanatopsis Literary and Inside Straight Club, and the honor of founding it was, at different times, claimed by or for F. P. Adams, Alexander Woollcott, Ross, and a press agent named John Peter Toohey.

The Thanatopsis was a part of New York in the twenties, a city and a time that seem as far away and wonderful to us now as Athens and the Age of Pericles appeared to the lonely literates of the early Middle Ages. New York was then a city of infinite promise to the talented. Loose inside its skin like a healthy puppy, the town had lots of room for the dreamers who poured into it after World War I, ready to set the place on its ear with plays, poems, novels, paintings, sculpture, music, acting and all the other ways of shooting a rocket at the bright star of fame. In those days there were plenty of lofts for artists, garrets for poets, walk-ups for playwrights and actors; and at lunchtime there was the Round Table in the Rose Room of the Algonquin.

New York is an old dog now, with smoke-dimmed eyes and office buildings for fleas. The artists and writers are thinly scattered across its boroughs and suburbs, and no single group wields the critical power or sets the cultural tone of the city as did the circle that lunched at the Round Table and, with some changes of cast, played poker at the Thanatopsis Club.

“The first game was played,” wrote Frank Adams years afterward, “at the apartment then jointly occupied by two recently returned members of the 1918 Stars and Stripes staff, Pvt. Harold W. Ross and Pvt. John T. Winterich. Sgt. Alexander Woollcott, Heywood Broun and I were at that first game.”

The name was stolen from Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street: “And of course there’s our women’s study club—the Thanatopsis Club…they’ve made the city plant ever so many trees, and they run the rest room for farmers’ wives. And they do take such an interest in refinement and culture. So—in fact, so very unique.”

After meeting for a while in various other apartments, the club settled into the Algonquin, whose owner, Frank Case, had offered them the use of a room. The Thanatopsians stayed there for a number of years, usually starting right after the Round Table broke up its Saturday luncheon and continuing, on occasion, straight through to Monday morning. Along the way there would be cases of what Adams called “Winners’ Sleeping Sickness” and “Losers’ Insomnia, or Broun’s Disease,” but new players were recruited from the ring of kibitzers which always surrounded the table. Some of these were subs waiting the call from the bench; some were friends or wives of the contestants; many were wide-eyed newcomers from Colorado or Kansas. These younger people were much awed by the Presences and remained alertly attentive to the possibility of profound, or at least witty, remarks.