By Suzanne Kamata
My daughter’s first question upon checking into the Algonquin Hotel near Times Square in New York City is “Do they have Wi-Fi here?”
As for me, I glance around the dark wooded tables of the Round Table restaurant, eager to channel past visitors through less modern means. Perhaps the ghost of one-time resident legendary actor John Barrymore here, or the spirits of the rapier-witted writer Dorothy Parker, who worked a couple of streets over at the offices of Vogue and Vanity Fair, or Pulitzer Prize winner Edna Ferber, who penned Showboat and Giant, among other successful novels and screenplays. The latter two were part of the so-called Vicious Circle, a.k.a. the Round Table, a group of writers and critics who met for lunch and barbed banter in the hotel’s lobby restaurant for ten years. The group became a literary legend. Even President John F. Kennedy once said that he dreamed of being part of the “Ten-year lunch at the Algonquin.” Just before the elevator arrives, I snap a photo of the painting of the original Round Table members which hangs over the area where they were said to dine.
We take out bags up to the ninth floor. The walls in the corridor are hung with posters of vintage New Yorker covers and cartoons. Editor Harold Ross raised money to launch the prestigious magazine here, making him part of Algonquin lore. Each door is hung with a framed quote by a Round Table member. Our room, just around the corner from the marble staircase with its filigreed black cast iron railing, features the words of writer Robert Benchley: “Anyone can do any amount of work provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at the moment.” Indeed.
Although the hotel dates back to 1902, making it the longest continuously running hotel in New York City, it is now equipped with all of the modern amenities, including a fitness center. I open the door with a key card to a well-appointed room with a flat-screen TV, the latest copy of The New Yorker, and, yes, free Wi-Fi. “The Gonk,” as the hotel is affectionately nicknamed, also has a cat, which we haven’t yet encountered.
The following morning I descend to the Blue Bar adjacent to the lobby where “prohibition-style” cocktails are served in the evening. At night, the room is illuminated with blue bulbs which are said to cast a flattering light in accordance with John Barrymore’s declaration that Broadway players preferred complexion-enhancing blue tones onstage. Framed caricatures of famous New Yorkers by Al Hirsch, a renowned artist himself, add to the ambiance.
During the day, the Blue Bar is where hotel guests line up to get their morning coffee. As I stand behind another woman waiting for my complimentary beverage, I ask her if she’s seen the cat.
She smiles. “Last I saw her, she was in the window.”
I nod, resisting the urge to correct the woman. It’s a he. His name is Hamlet. He’s a tabby with his own Facebook page and Twitter feed. Every year the hotel holds a birthday party for him, at which there is a cat fashion show and a charity auction. To be fair, I only learned about Hamlet recently myself from the picture book Hamlet, the Algonquin Cat, written by Leslie Martini, and illustrated by Massimo Mongiardo, whose artwork was inspired by that on the Round Table’s menus.
The current Hamlet is the latest in a long line of cats, beginning with a stray brought in by Barrymore in the 1930s and named Hamlet. Ever since then, the hotel has had a feline in residence. The males have all been named Hamlet, while the females have always been called Matilda.
Cup of coffee in hand, I step out onto the sidewalk and see a ball of fluffy orange fur curled up in the window in his special cat house. Hamlet is sleeping. A sign pleads that visitors do not tap on the glass to get his attention. Although I want to see his face, I don’t try to wake him.
The Algonquin Hotel is smack in the theater district, and in walking distance of a variety of shops and restaurants. My daughter and I go around the block to try out the famous cheesecake at Junior’s. On the way, we pass food carts selling halal hot dogs, T-shirt vendors, and the notorious Naked Cowboy, strumming a guitar in underpants. Later, we visit a bookstore on Fifth Avenue, and take in a musical at the Minskoff Theater. When we return to the hotel, Hamlet is again sleeping in the window, but this time we can see his sweet face and catch a glimpse of his blue collar.
I imagine that the ghost of animal-lover Dorothy Parker is lingering somewhere nearby, admiring him as well. Parker wrote, “New York is always a little more than you had hoped for.” The same could be said for this charming hotel.
Suzanne Kamata is the author of A Girls’ Guide to the Islands (Gemma Open Door, 2018) and Squeaky Wheels: Travels with My Daughter by Train, Plane, Metro, Tuk-tuk and Wheelchair (Wyatt-Mackenzie Publishing, 2019). Her travel writing has appeared in Wingspan, ANA’s inflight magazine; The Japan Times, the anthologies The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Vol. 11, A Pink Suitcase: 22 True Tales of Women’s Travel, and many other places.