Frank Case: Head Man at the Algonquin

James Montgomery Flagg’s portrait of Case

We don’t usually make forays into hospitality writing here at Travalanche, but today we wanted to leave a large tip for a hotelier whose patronage actually had a big impact on American arts and letters, Frank Case (1872-1946) of the Algonquin Hotel.

As a teenager Case had worked as an usher at a local vaudeville theatre in his native Buffalo (more than likely a Mike Shea house, for that was Shea’s town.) From here he went on to be a night clerk at the Genesee Hotel, and that is where he learned the ropes from the ground up. By 1902 he had managed several hotels and had enough experience under his belt to accept a post at a brand new joint that was opening in Manhattan at 59 West 44th Street. For some historical perspective: at the time, this neighborhood had only recently become New York’s theatre district. The subway was not yet finished, and the area would not be called Times Square for two more years. The major vaudeville house at the time in what was then known as Longacre Square was Hammerstein’s Victoria; the Palace would not open until 1913. But still the place naturally catered to high end show-folk. Douglas Fairbanks, then just attaining fame as a movie star, was the best man at Case’s wedding in 1916.

In addition to proximity to theatres, then as now, media had headquarters nearby. Obviously The New York Times was there (after 1904). Vanity Fair had offices right down the street. Towards the end of the teens, Vanity Fair writers Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and Robert E. Sherwood began lunching (and drinking) regularly at the Algonquin. With the encouragement of Case, they were soon joined on a regular basis by the likes of Alexander Woolcott, George S. Kaufman, FPA (Franklin P. Adams), Heywood Broun, Edna Ferber, Harold Ross (co-founder of The New Yorker in 1925), and even Harpo Marx (oddly, the literary Marx Brother, Groucho, was not part of the gang, only dropping in a couple of times.) Heywood Broun’s wife the feminist Ruth Hale, a distant relative of mine, was also one of the dozens of others who claimed “membership”. (The Algonquin Roundtable is kind of like the Keystone Kops. If everyone who claimed to be a member attended on a daily basis, the table would have to be the size of a stadium).

Case knew a good thing when he saw one. This was a lot of celebrity for one hotel, and he aimed to keep it that way. He gave the gang freebies and discounts, and dedicated spaces of their own in which to cavort, or, in a pinch, write. He started giving every guest at the hotel a complimentary copy of The New Yorker. Originally just the manager of the hotel, Case acquired the lease in 1907, and purchased the land on which it was built in 1927, making him outight owner.

By the early ’30s, most of the leading lights of the Algonquin brain trust had gone out to Hollywood to be screenwriters, but there was still glamor enough back in New York with Broadway, publishing and radio sending famous faces through the doors for decades thereafter.

In time, Case dabbled in the literary field himself, turning out three books: Tales of a Wayward Inn (1938), Do Not Disturb (1940), and Feeding the Lions (1942). In 1951, his daughter, Margaret Case Harriman (c.1906-1966), who grew up in the hotel, penned the memoir The Vicious Circle: The Story of the Algonquin Round Table. Surely this was an inspiration for the title at least of Alan Rudolph’s 1994 film. Carroll Case, Frank’s son, was married to Josephine Dunn.

An anecdote to end on. The man who built the hotel originally wanted to call it “The Puritan”. What a hilarious name for a hotel. It would have been the butt of jokes for decades, especially during the 1970s. It was Case who suggested “The Algonquin”, though the native inhabitants of this region are more properly known as “Algonquians”, which is a little tougher to say. I learned the difference between Algonquins and Algonquians when I was working on this project, which I dearly hoope you will partake of, especially my upcoming performances on November 11 and 13!

And for all things Algonquin, Mrs. Parker, and such-like, I refer you now to my good friend, author Kevin Fitzpatrick, who has forgotten more than I’ll ever know on such matteres!