April 10, 2008

Classic New York: The Algonquin

From Times Square, making my way east along 44th Street, the crowds dispersed as I crossed 6th Avenue. It was a noticeable break between Frantic and Serene. The block along 44th, between 6th and 5th Avenues, regains the polished luster of Classic New York. Of course it does. It's the block, among other things, of the Algonquin Hotel, at 59 W. 44th.

Mame Dennis once worked as a personal shopper at the Algonquin, but, according to Patrick Dennis, the hotel didn't fare well enough in the poor days of 1931 to keep around a woman with expensive taste. He writes, "So she passed most of that spring chatting with old friends in the lounge."

The doorman opened the door for me, and I had to adjust my eyes to the dark surroundings. At around 5 o'clock yesterday afternoon, the lobby was in full swing, with couples and larger groups chatting around cocktails, giving the impression they had been there since breakfast. The first creature I noticed was Matilda, the Algonquin Cat, perched at the reception desk. Now 13, she could care less who walks through the front door. I asked directions to the Blue Bar, and the host escorted me through the lobby to an adjacent room. "Welcome to the Blue Bar," he said, and he said it like he meant it.

I took my place at the far end of the bar. I started up a conversation with the bartender, ordering a "Matilda," a lemony orange vodka concoction finished with a touch of good champagne. The drink is named, of course, for the Cat Who Could Care Less. Finding whatever I said Dorothy Parkerish, the couple next to me struck up a conversation, asked me where I was from ("Greenwich Village, by way of Texas," as part of a lengthier monologue), and said that I just missed a posse of Texans from San Antonio. I'm sorry I missed them, but the bar was clear enough at that point for me to look around at the Al Hirschfeld theater drawings, the subdued blue backlights along the ceiling, and what was on the three television sets.

The presence of TVs in the bar (which would have been impossible in the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis) - tuned yesterday, by the way, to the General Petraeus hearings, the Par 3 round at the Masters, and on the largest, Animal Planet, keep the Algonquin not only a comfortable and friendly place with a rich history but also a living entity in contemporary life. Don't you know there's a war on? How about that Tiger Woods? And, what about that tiger? Sitting at the bar in the Algonquin, I realized that Classic New York is still accessible to the living, not something long gone and in the past, and given political progress since the days of Mame in matters of civil rights and justice, more accessible to more people than at any time before. The matter now, I'm afraid, concerns how many people can afford these kinds of drinks in a contracting economy, an issue Mame faced in 1931.

The hotel and the bar, while beautifully restored, doesn't come across as a set piece, with its best days far behind, but a place where I would like to bring friends to have a drink and to write our own fresh dialogue for 21st-century New York.

Website for The Algonquin Hotel.

Image: by Walking Off the Big Apple. April 9, 2008.

See related posts:
Classic New York: A Walk, and a Map
The Classic New York of Mame Dennis: A Coda, on Bank Street
Classic New York: 59th and Fifth: A Slideshow
Classic New York: Times Square
Classic New York: A Visit to Macy's, in April
Classic New York: Henri Bendel
Classic New York: The King Cole Bar at the St. Regis
The Classic New York of Mame Dennis
A Walk in Turtle Bay: Beekman Place, the U.N., Tudor City, and E. 42nd St.
The Liberation Theology of Mame Dennis
Grand Central Theatre, and A New Walk Begins

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