Lunching with Legends: The NEA supports Aviva Slesin's documentary The Ten-Year Lunch: The Wit and Legend of the Algonquin Round Table
In 1919, at the end of World War I, a group of New York City writers gathered at the Algonquin Hotel in midtown Manhattan for a lunchtime "roast" to celebrate the return of theater critic Alexander Woolcott from his service as a war correspondent. Thus began a decade-long daily ritual for some of the era's most prominent artist-intellectuals. Dubbed "the Algonquin Round Table," regulars included Woolcott, writer and critic Dorothy Parker, playwright George S. Kaufman, actor and screenwriter Robert Benchley, novelist Edna Ferber, performer Harpo Marx, and Harold Ross, founder of The New Yorker magazine.
Famous for their stinging wit and merciless criticism, Dorothy Parker called her lunch partners "the vicious circle," while Edna Ferber referred to them as "the poison squad." Woolcott, for example, once sent Kaufman and his wife Beatrice anniversary greetings saying, "I have been looking around for an appropriate wooden gift and am pleased hereby to present you with Elsie Ferguson's performance in her new play."
Credited with influencing the style of writers including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, the group's daily exchange of ideas, opinions, and witticisms was regularly reported on in newspaper society columns. In the Round Table's final years lunching together, they had become famous enough to have become a tourist attraction, drawing many gawkers to the hotel's lunch room.
In 1980, filmmaker Aviva Slesin received an NEA Media Arts grant of $48,000, distributed through the New York Foundation for the Arts, to make a documentary about the Algonquin Round Table. A second grant in 1981 added an additional $40,000 to the film's $400,000 production budget. The NEA's support was crucial to the project as Slesin was often forced to halt production because of funding difficulties. Slesin ultimately took seven years to complete the film.
"You can't make money making documentaries," Slesin remarked in an interview about the film. "It's unbelievably difficult to get funding for documentaries because it's not a money-making proposition.
The Ten-Hour Lunch combines photos, newspaper articles, literary excerpts, home movies, and interviews with the group's last surviving members, including playwright Marc Connelly and actress Ruth Gordon. Despite the fact that most of the group's members had died, and meetings were never recorded on film, Slesin succeeded in capturing the atmosphere of the Round Table and the 1920s literary scene. PBS aired the film as part of its American Masters series in 1987, and The Ten-Year Lunch garnered that year's Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature."
Having again been immortalized on film in the 1994 feature Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, the Algonquin Round Table today retains its stature as one of the 20th-Century's most influential literary groups. As drama critic Brook Atkinson once wrote, "By force of character, they changed the nature of American comedy and established the tastes of a new period in the arts and theatre."
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