CALL ME an old school paranoiac, but even though most unhappy readers make their displeasure known in the comments section these days, I think it’s still prudent to be wary of strange packages on the doorstep.
I poked at the mysterious rectangle with my toe for a few minutes before picking it up. Bracing myself for a deafening explosion and flames, I carefully peeled back the plain brown paper to reveal ... an old encyclopedia.
Like, what is that? asked the kids, their thumbs tappity-tap-tapping on their glowing little boxes.
Like the internet, only alphabetized, I murmured, touching the gold “D” on the worn leather.
And harmless, unless a dusting of anthrax awaited when I cracked the spine.
But the only things tucked within the pages were two wax-sealed envelopes, hand-lettered with my and my husband’s names. It seemed that instead of being stalked by a Lowcountry version of the Unabomber, we’d been invited to a rath-uh special dinner party.
Always one to dial down to the delicious details, artisan chocolatier Adam Turoni conceived “A Night at the Algonquin Round Table” to pay homage to the legendary wits of New York City’s literary scene of the 1920s, set in the magical afterhours ambience of The Book Lady. Our encyclopedia stated a couple of stipulations for guests: We had to come in period costume, and we had to come prepared to discuss the character assigned to us on the heavy card stock—hence the separate invitations.
Basically, book nerd heaven.
Also known as “The Vicious Circle” for the scathing shade they threw at each other and anyone else who had the misfortune to step into their lexical crosshairs, The Algonquin Round Table was a group of influential writers, critics and performers who gathered for lunch every day in the lobby of the swankypants Algonquin Hotel near Times Square (unsurprisingly, the starving writers reportedly only ordered eggs.) It was the heady decade between the end of WWI and the Great Depression, when flappers threw their corsets to the wind and Prohibition meant you just drank bootleg whiskey from a teacup, and these were the liberal-minded commentators who checked the privilege and politics of the day.
As a child, I’d always hoped to end up bitter and revered like famous Algonquin member Dorothy Parker, but I was delighted to delve into the lesser-known legacy of Edna Ferber, whose social justice-themed essays and novels became the blockbuster movies Showboat and Giant and who was known for the adage “a closed mind is a dying mind.”
My hubs researched thoughtful patriot and Vanity Fair humorist Robert Sherwood, who, due to his towering height, resembled “a pipe organ” when he walked next to the petite Parker and her paramour Robert Benchley, whose womanizing inspired the Parker maxim, “serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard.”
My charming bastard and I arrived on Liberty Street just as the gaslights came on, stepping down into the Book Lady’s candlelit realm.
“Bubbles?” asked our host Adam, handing me a fluted glass as we made our way among the shelves to the round table stanchioned off with red velvet ropes.
Surely the servers at the Algonquin never laid a tablescape this enchanting for a bunch of cranky egg-eating writers. Gilt-edged bone china and 14-carat plated flatware (all of the forks!) lay on top of carefully-arranged pages of a yellowed dictionary, place settings marked with library “borrower cards.” A vintage globe served as the dramatic centerpiece as well as an effective cover as I surreptitiously snapped just a few pictures—the harsh white light of the phone glare couldn’t have been more incongruous with the iridescent elegance.
I was glad I’d dug out my bubbe’s long strand of real pearls as this crowd took the authenticity of the assignment quite seriously. Poet-teacher Mimi Vaquer and her beau Sean Farrell were perfectly matched in Gatsby-esque glamour. Surrealist painter and curator Ben Tollefson somehow managed to look both sharply classic and edgily contemporary in his bow tie and suit, as did aerospace engineer James Fowlkes, who claimed to have “just thrown together” his dapper ensemble.
Renowned raconteur and sometimes Savannahian George Dawes Green and the lovely Esther Blessing had just flown in from New York, the glittery essence of the city still clinging to their cloaks.
Of course, the grandest entrance was made by the white-clad Alexandra Trujillo de Taylor, a.k.a. HRH The Duchess of State, and her haberdashing husband Daniel Taylor, who later delivered a hilarious monologue dripping in Algonquin drama critic Alexander Woollcott’s signature self-deprecating arrogance.
The bookish fete was a glam installment of the Savannah Supper Club, launched by the Taylors in 2009 to take their entertaining to the next level.
The exclusive group rotates the monthly parties, each with its own theme, attire and conversation starters, and past affairs have included a full-blown formal soirée on the beach and an evening dedicated to the Surrealists, when the couple arrived in bowler hats carrying frames à la Magritte.
“We want to inspire each other to create own experiences in this city,” explained the Duchess in her Spanish-inflected singsong. “Yes, it takes a lot of time and work to put together, but it’s worth it, no?”
The hosts get to dictate the menu and guest list, though they must follow the Duchess’ strict rules if they want to stay on the coveted circuit. Invitations must be physically mailed or delivered, and it must be a sit-down meal with four courses plus dessert.
“No buffets!” she admonishes. “God help us, we’re not savages!”
It’s so rare that people put in the hours to not only honor but emulate a time gone by, and a century melted away in the rose gold glow. It was especially exquisite to be surrounded by books, books and more books, their heavy presence a reminder that written words have weight, even if they now fly through the ether at the speed of light.
The round table crackled with conversation as Adam brought out the first course of orange-jicama salad tossed in lime oil and ancho pepper, followed by a deconstructed lobster roll, then a delicate peppery lasagna, ending with a luscious tart. There was a palate-cleansing lemon sorbet in there somewhere, and between clearings each guest presented their Algonquin counterpart, some more captious than others.
“I enjoyed the research, but I found his writing rather grueling,” confessed George, creator of the Moth and a New York Times bestseller himself, of playwright Marc Connelly.
“Humor doesn’t seem to have aged as well as the other disciplines.”
We toasted to poor Connelly and his efforts made irrelevant by time, an occupational hazard that will come for all but the most perspicacious of us—even legends themselves aren’t so sacrosanct.
It just so happened that my gentleman and I were in New York just a few days after this sumptuous reenactment and had the occasion to visit the real Algonquin Hotel. Instead of finding bright minds trading snappy comebacks and biting barbs against a government increasingly dispassionate towards its suffering working class, the lobby was full of bougie businessmen sipping overpriced cocktails and talking over terrible muzak-y jazz.
When a pack of tourists filed in to snap photos of the portrait of the Vicious Circle above the venerated worn wooded table, phone flashes blazing, I could almost see Dorothy and the crew cringe.
On the bright side, the publishing industry reported last week that physical book sales are up for the second year running, perhaps a sign that we are learning to value the weight and authenticity over convenience and cheap thrills.
On the other hand, I’ll take the crappy online comments over hand-delivered hate mail any day.