by Stanley Turkel, CMHS
Hotel History: The Algonquin Hotel (181 rooms)
The Algonquin Hotel was originally planned as an apartment hotel with the idea of renting unfurnished rooms and suites on yearly leases to permanent tenants. When few leases sold, the owner decided to turn it into a transient hotel, which he was going to name “The Puritan”. Frank Case, the first general manager, objected and told the owner “it… contradicts the spirit of innkeeping. It is cold, forbidding and grim. I don’t like it.” When the owner replied, “You think yourself so smart, suppose you find a better name,” Case went to the public library to find out who were the first and strongest people in this neighborhood. He stumbled on the Algonquins, liked the word, liked the way it fit the mouth, and prevailed upon the boss to accept it.
The Algonquin Hotel was designed by architect Goldwin Starrett with 181 rooms. General Manager Frank Case assumed the lease in 1907 and then bought the hotel in 1927. Case remained owner and manager until his death in 1946.
The famous Algonquin Round Table was initiated by General Manager Case with a group of New York City actors, journalists, publicists, critics and writers who met daily at lunch starting in June 1919. They met for the better part of ten years in the Pergola Room (now called the Oak Room). Charter members included Franklin P. Adams, columnist; Robert Benchley, humorist and actor; Heywood Broun, columnist and sportswriter; Marc Connelly, playwright; George S. Kaufman, playwright and director; Dorothy Parker, poet and screenwriter; Harold Ross, editor of the New Yorker; Robert Sherwood, author and playwright; John Peter Toohey, publicist; and Alexander Woollcott, critic and journalist. By 1930, the original Round Table members had scattered, but the so-called “Vicious Circle” remained alive in the mellow and pleasant memory. When asked what became of the Round Table, Frank Case would answer “What became of the reservoir at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street? These things do not last forever. The Round Table lasted longer than any other unorganized gathering that I know of.” Case continued. “I know of no other (group) where the percentage of success was so high. There was scarcely a man among them who failed to place his name high in the field in which he worked, and while perhaps I was rather casual, taking the whole thing for granted, I wasn’t stupid enough not to realize that it was a definite asset to the hotel in a business way, and a constant personal delight to me to be sure of good company every day. That, I think, is one of the pleasantest aspects of hotel keeping especially if your hotel be small; the good companions, good talk, and general gaiety of life. You don’t even have to make any effort; it is delivered fresh every day, charges prepaid.”
In October 1946, Ben and Mary Bodne of Charleston, SC, bought the Algonquin for just over $1 million. They had fallen in love with the hotel on their honeymoon. During their stay, they spotted Will Rogers, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Sinclair Lewis, Eddie Cantor and Beatrice Lily. For the former Mary Mazo (Bodne), the Algonquin was the final address in an odyssey that began in Odessa, Ukraine, where she was the second child in a large Jewish family that fled the pogroms when she was an infant. The Mazo family emigrated to Charleston, where her father Elihu opened the city’s first Jewish delicatessen. When George Gershwin and Du Bose Heyward were working on “Porgy and Bess, they were frequent customers. They would also discuss the creation of the show at dinners in the Mazo family home. Decades later, the Mazo tradition of hospitality would continue at the Algonquin. Mary Bodne cooked chicken soup for an ailing Laurence Olivier, and she babysat for Simone Signoret, who called her “one of my three truest friends.”
The Bodnes played host to a new generation of literary and show business celebrities – like the writer John Henry Falk, when he was blacklisted and exiled from Hollywood. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe made so much noise working on a new musical that other guests complained: the show was the hugely successful “My Fair Lady.”
Mr. Bodne, who died in 1992, said that he would sell the Algonquin when it needed self-service elevators. He sold it in 1987 to Aoki Corporation, the Brazilian subsidiary of a Japanese corporation which installed self-service elevators in 1991. In 1997, Aoki sold the hotel to the Camberley Hotel Company which embarked on a $4 million renovation. The company’s British-born president, Ian Lloyd-Jones, hired interior designer Alexandra Champalimaud to update the public spaces without destroying the feeling and character of the historic Algonquin.
In 2002, Miller Global Properties bought the hotel and hired Destination Hotels and Resorts to manage and update its operation. For example, they installed a cutting-edge computerized check-in database that instantly retrieves the personal preferences for arriving guests. Following a $3 million renovation, the hotel was sold again in 2005 to HEI Hotels & Resorts, owner and operator of 25 other full-service properties. HEI embarked on a $4.5 million renovation to upgrade the lobby, the Oak Room restaurant and cabaret, the Blue Bar, the renowned Round Table Room and all suites and guestrooms.
The Algonquin was designated a New York City Historic Landmark in 1987 and National Literary landmark by the Friends of Libraries USA in 1996. The Algonquin historic guest list is a Who’s Who in world culture; Irving Berlin, Charlie Chaplin, William Faulkner, Ella Fitzgerald, Charles Laughton, Maya Angelou, Angela Lansbury, Harpo Marx, Brendan Behan, Noel Coward, Anthony Hopkins, Jeremy Irons, Tom Stoppard, among many others.
More recently, the hotel’s Oak Room has featured Harry Connick, Jr., Andrea, Marcovicci, Diana Krall, Peter Cinotti, Michael Feinstein, Jane Monheit, Steve Ross, Sandy Stewart and Bill Charlap, Barbara Carroll, Maude Maggart, Karen Akers, among others.
When Frank Case, the first General Manager (and later owner) of the Algonquin wrote his memoir. “Tales of a Wayward Inn” in 1938, he asked 30 regular guests to write their recollections. The more famous were Jack Barrymore, Rex Beach, Louis Bromfield, Irvin S. Cobb, Edna Ferber, Fannie Hurst, H. L. Mencken, Robert Nathan, Frank Sullivan, Louis Untermayer, Henrik Willen Van Loon. However, Frank Case’s wife Bertha had the last word, She wrote,
October 10, 1938
The general tone of the letter to you from friends is scarcely what one might call a knock; in fact while reading them I think of the funeral where the friends of the deceased spoke so glowingly, so fulsomely, of the deceased that the (widow) seated among the mourners, leaned over to her young son, saying, “Tommy, run up now, take a peek and see if that is your father in the box.”
On September 21, 2010, the Algonquin Hotel announced its affiliation with the Autograph Collection, a Marriott Hotel Collection.
My New Book “Hotel Mavens Volume 3: Bob and Larry Tisch, Curt Strand, Ralph Hitz, Cesar Ritz, Raymond Orteig” has been published.
My Other Published Hotel Books
- Great American Hoteliers: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry (2009)
- Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels in New York (2011)
- Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi (2013)
- Hotel Mavens: Lucius M. Boomer, George C. Boldt, Oscar of the Waldorf (2014)
- Great American Hoteliers Volume 2: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry (2016)
- Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels West of the Mississippi (2017)
- Hotel Mavens Volume 2: Henry Morrison Flagler, Henry Bradley Plant, Carl Graham Fisher (2018)
- Great American Hotel Architects Volume I (2019)
- Hotel Mavens: Volume 3: Bob and Larry Tisch, Ralph Hitz, Cesar Ritz, Curt Strand
All of these books can be ordered from AuthorHouse by visiting www.stanleyturkel.com and clicking on the book’s title.
If You Need an Expert Witness:
For the past twenty-seven years, I have served as an expert witness in more than 42 hotel-related cases. My extensive hotel operating experience is beneficial in cases involving:
- slip and fall accidents
- wrongful deaths
- fire and carbon monoxide injuries
- hotel security issues
- dram shop requirements
- hurricane damage and/or business interruption cases
Feel free to call me at no charge on 917-628-8549 to discuss any hotel-related expert witness assignment.