Small-Town Sophisticates

Fans of the 1920s remember the Algonquin Round Table as a group of the finest literary minds of the era, who met regularly to conduct challenging discussions on art and philosophy. It was through the influence of this small circle of big-city literati that American manners and morals began to shift so dramatically during the Jazz Age.

This is an inaccurate impression.

The Jazz Age began in middle America. The hair-bobbing, cigarette-smoking, Charleston-dancing girls of the small towns and cities of the Midwest were a much greater force in the 1920s than the handful of Hollywood stars or New York personalities who occasionally made headlines. The revolution of manners and morals was a grass-roots movement that started with the citizens on Main Street.

Among these citizens was a man named Harold Ross. Born in Colorado and armed with a high-school education, he  worked for a series of small-town newspapers, served in the Army, and eventually found his way to New York, where he worked as an editor. He married a reporter named Jane Grant; the couple bought two brownstones in Hell’s Kitchen, knocked down the adjoining wall, and then began hosting big all-night parties that soon attracted some of the city’s up-and-coming young writers and artists. In 1920, some of these friends began to meet with Harold and Jane for lunch at New York’s venerable Algonquin Hotel. When the hotel management moved the group to a large circular table in the middle of the Rose Room, the Algonquin Round Table was born.

The Round Table participants included popular newspaper writers and columnists like Alexander Woollcott and Franklin Adams, editors like Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Robert Sherwood, and press agents John Peter Toohey and Murdock Pemberton. These individuals were primarily small-town folks, born and bred, who had somehow ended up in New York and gained a measure of sophistication in the process. Rather than discussing great art and lofty ideas, they primarily told and repeated wisecracks: intelligent and wordy small-town folks poking fun at the cultural conventions that all of them shared.

A group of friends being clever over lunch would never have gained national attention if not for the fact that each of the group members was uniquely associated with the popular press. These people didn’t wait for fame, they went out and created it themselves. Within weeks, Adams and Woollcott were reporting the group’s witticisms in their own columns; Toohey and Pemberton began feeding stories about the group to their friends in various editorial departments. Frank Case, manager and part owner of the Algonquin did his part: he quietly bribed columnists to report on “overheard” wisecracks.

This shameless self-promotion paid off; by the mid-1920s tourists were dropping by the Algonquin at lunchtime to get a glimpse of these supposedly cutting-edge intellectuals, and in 1924 Ross and Grant were able to raise $45,000 to start a new magazine called The New Yorker. With the self-conscious sophistication of small-town kids newly arrived in the big city, the magazine’s editors promised their new venture would not be edited for “the old lady in Dubuque.”

With thoughtmakers like these leading the way, small-town Americans were soon taught to think of the Jazz Age as a phenomenon that had begun in New York City.

(Zeitz 79-86)

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