December 1966 | Volume 18, Issue 1
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.
Much of what they heard sounded like the dialogue at a game in the cellar of a fraternity house. When, for instance, Raoul Fleischmann drew the perfect poker hand, there was a good deal of merriment over calling him Royal Flushman all evening.
My father, given some indifferent wine on a rainy night, remarked, “Oh well, any port in a storm,” a remark so well received that he looked forward to bad weather and wine so that he might repeat the performance.
Although the two lowest cards in the deck get you off to a bad start in a stud game, George Kaufman would always take them so he could remark as he folded that he had been “trey-deuced.”
A frequent kibitzer at these games was a wide-eyed, sweet-faced, priggish little boy, myself, whose principal function was to act as straight man in a small vaudeville routine of my father’s. It would begin by his remarking to me as I wandered around the table that he had recently been to the zoo. Obediently I would ask if he had seen any beasts that particularly interested him. Yes, he would reply, there had been a pair of fascinating oxlike animals, and when he stood between their cages he had been reminded of a cigar. Prompted by a piping “Which cigar?” he would say, “Between the Yaks.”
There were group rituals, such as intoning “As the girl said to the sailor” in chorus after some remark deemed appropriate to the tag, which was left over from an A.E.F. story not suitable for reprinting in whole or part; rising and singing “He remains a god-damn fool,” to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “He Remains an Englishman,” after bad poker plays; addressing Toohey as Our Founder, alter which Toohey always rose and bowed; and a whole clutch of other cries, songs, and clubby “inside” things.
The usual pattern of the game itself was three rounds of draw followed by a round of stud, no wild cards and no seven-card games. It was, in fact, very much like a game on Main Street, except that one cannot imagine Harpo Marx in Gopher Prairie, and there were more ladies on the edge of the game, or in it, than there were likely to have been in Minnesota.
The country-born club members weren’t too happy about women in the game, but Viola Toohey was accounted a good player, as was Margaret Swope. Ross’s wife, Jane Grant, occasionally took a hand to hold the franchise for woman’s rights. My mother, Ruth Hale, another feminist leader, claimed she could play as well as the men if she wanted to play a game as dull as poker.
Helen Hayes, Ina Claire, Lynn Fontanne, Margalo Gillmore, and other great ladies of the theater watched almost every Saturday night after their performances, but the only G. L. of the T. who ever played was Alice Brady, who had the whole club to her apartment and by cheerfully inept play lost a great deal of money, distressing the more gallant of her guests. The worriers were later cheered to discover that Miss Brady had just signed a Hollywood contract for more money than was earned by a whole table of editors, writers, and press agents.
Dorothy Parker was often present, never played, said little, and missed nothing.
It’s perhaps a little unfair to leave the impression that nothing but cracker-barrel japery was ever heard around the poker board. After all, with so many black-belt wits in the game, so many who could splinter a plank with the edge of a phrase, there were bound to be some wonderful falls taken at one time or another. It is simply that the general feeling was one of unbuttoned relaxation, very different from the Mermaid Tavern competitions of the Round Table downstairs. The Thanatopsis Club was perhaps the one place where all the erstwhile smalltown boys who had to slick their hair down and talk fancy most of the time could get off the treadmill of sophistication for a few hours.
A question asked every Saturday night was “What are we playing for?” Almost every night the announced stakes were a little steeper as the country moved into the great boom, as the talents of the players began to be more richly rewarded in the outside world, as some of the already well-to-do players like Swope, Fleischmann, and Gerald Brooks wanted more action.
Our house on Eighty-fifth Street became ours because my father had a good streak at the Thanatopsis in 1921, picking up $1,000 over the course of several sessions. For this sum and his signature on four, count ’em, four mortgages, we were able to move into the house. If any fact were needed to show you the faraway and long-ago quality of New York in those days, it is that such a sum could make you the proprietor of a four-story brownstone.
Boom psychology was everywhere, as the twenties roared to a close, and the Thanatopsis said good-bye to the Algonquin—where they used to bypass room service and bring in bags of delicatessen—and moved to a room above the Colony Restaurant, where a touch of a button brought a soft-footed servitor with a menu and a wine list. The soft-footed servitors didn’t hear much laughter, however, as the game kept getting bigger, and relaxation was chased up the wall by anxiety.
In F.P.A.’s Diary of Our Own Samuel Pepys , a loose chronicle of the doings of himself and his cronies, there are mentions of “tiny meetings” of the club and occasional weekday meetings when it appeared that Saturday was too full of other things to do. Once near the turn of the magic decade he wonders, “Whatever happened to the silly old Thanatopsis?” It is mentioned again after that, and it probably held a last meeting sometime in 1931, by which time most of the really big poker players had moved on to Swope’s house in Sands Point, which could hold a clutch of Thanatopsians and a gaggle of society folk anxious to meet the fur-trimmed Bohemians whose jokes they read in the columns, whose plays they saw, whose books they read, whose somehow special lives they envied.
The world had long been an oyster for the club members, and now in the high noon of their careers they began to gather the pearls. Royalties, salaries, and fees were up along with the market, and out to Long Island the talented parvenus went to meet Society on the croquet lawn, over the backgammon board, and at the poker table. They didn’t need support from each other any more, and their ways began to diverge as they went out into a world that still didn’t quite believe there was going to be a depression. By the time everyone believed it, the different ways had become very different indeed, and nostalgia holds a hammer lock on many of them yet.
Still, they had been like their Gopher Prairie sisters, “So—in fact, so very unique,” and unlike the G.P. ladies, busy with their trees and rest rooms, they had filled—at the poker table and away from it—an awful lot of inside straights.