by Michael Elihu Colby
Part 4: Dreams of Camelot
Was it the Algonquin Hotel that sparked my interest in theatre? Not necessarily. It may have been nature as much as nurture. In 1955, when I was 4, my first report card—from teacher Gladys Starkenweather—stated:
“Michael is a very endearing child with a good knowledge of stories. He enjoys dramatic play and loves to dress up.”
This was before I’d ever attended a Broadway show.
As a kid, I was more interested in being an actor than a writer. It seemed to me writers were people who gathered in the Blue Bar till closing, trying to outdo each other with bon mots and libations. Or they were like Norman Mailer, who knew every Algonquin waiter and bartender by name and who, in a 1958 interview there, made comments like “I mean, a guy just wouldn’t push his wife out of a window in Los Angeles—for one thing, there aren’t that many high windows!” 1 (This was two years before he drunkenly stabbed his second wife with a penknife—fortunately, she survived and he subsequently proved the pen is mightier than the penknife).
Worse, Grandma Mary often frightened me with tales of legendary writers who’d stayed at the hotel. Among them: Preston Sturges, one of the greatest writers of comedy—both on Broadway (Strictly Dishonorable) and then movies. Sturges died at the Algonquin in 1959. At one time he was in such demand, he made seven films in four years. 2 An Oscar winner for his screenplayThe Great McGinty, his classic films included The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. In 1959, Preston Sturges’ career as a writer/director had met several setbacks, capped by failed and aborted projects. However, he was hard at work on an autobiography for Henry Holt publishers.3 According to an article in Vanity Fair, “He did not give up… But in a jarring breach of tone that matched the ones from his films, just as things seemed to be turning around, he had a heart attack in his room at the Algonquin Hotel. Doctors tried to revive him with a shot of adrenaline, but they could not.” 4
That was not the tale Grandma told me. According to her, one night, Sturges took a break from writing and decided to go out for a Mexican dinner. He returned inebriated and sick from the food. That’s when he suffered his heart attack, taking a fatal spill down the hotel’s second-floor stairs. Ironically, according to reports, Sturges intended to title his autobiography The Events Leading Up to My Death. 5
Grandma seized on episodes like this to remind me, “It’s the hotel business you should go into. You want a happier, healthier future, don’t you?” But how could I dream of just assisting actors in the lobby when I was witnessing them captivating audiences in shows like My Fair Lady, The Music Man, Gypsy, and The Sound of Music? Then came what I imagined would be my “big break”!
Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe were back at the hotel, writing the musical that would become Camelot. By that time, Grandma often invited me weekends to “Come ‘pend de night” (Paraphrasing an expression I used when I was four, “Grandma, can I ‘pend de night with you and Grandpa?”). I took every opportunity to accept her Southern hospitality. One day in the lobby, when Grandma had me dressed up in a cute blue suit, Frederick Loewe came over. After a few exchanges, he said to me, “You know, you’d be just right to play the King’s page in our show.” Thunderstruck, I replied something like, “Oh, Mr. Loewe. Do you really mean it!?” He answered, “Yes. Would you like that—to play the page?” “Oh, that would be incredible, Mr. Loewe! Just tell me one thing—what’s a King’s page?”
For months after that, I went around telling everyone I was going to play the page—that is, “King Arthur’s young attendant”—in a new musical by the writers of My Fair Lady. Sad to say, nobody took me seriously at Woodmere Academy, the school I attended (from kindergarten through 12th Grade). I was something of an anomaly at this Long Island school: a kid with a heavy Southern accent, which I’d inherited from my grandparents and mother, whose deep Southern drawl was like a confederate soldier refusing to surrender. Even though 90% of the kids at Woodmere Academy were Jewish, I often felt like a foreigner there. Besides being forced to take special coaching so I could speak like a “propah Lawn Guylandah,” I took training to get rid of my left-handedness (The Southern accent faded but I’m still a Southpaw). But matters could have been worse. I was also so bad at sports, I’d have felt even more inept had Grandpa Ben bought the Pittsburgh Pirates instead of the Algonquin.
Still, my confidence reversed that summer at sleep-away Camp Swago. The Drama Counselor was so impressed that an eight year-old camper knew about Camelot—and professedly “was promised a part”—he cast me in lead roles in both of our camp shows. My favorite role was the debonair King in Rumpelstilskin, where I got to sing most of the ballads, even though I sounded a bit like Afalfa of The Little Rascals. Leaving camp, like a seasoned pro, I was just raring to make my Broadway debut in Camelot. Then, instead of an advance check, I got a reality check as Fall fell: my parents told me I wasn’t about to leave school in Hewlett for the road to Camelot and that Frederick Loewe had cast a professional child actor.
Though dreams were dashed, Grandma Mary gave me a wonderful consolation prize. On December 3, 1960, I was her date to the Broadway premiere of Camelot —my first opening night and most treasured until decades later when my show Charlotte Sweet opened off-Broadway. But Grandma also used the history of Camelot to remind me of the pitfalls of theatre, detailing how—during its development—Lerner was hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer, director Moss Hart suffered his second heart attack, and costume designer Adrian died of his own heart attack—even before rehearsals. She stressed, “Nothing like that happens to people in the hotel business.”
Camelot wasn’t the only musical in 1960 with a prominent member in residence at the Algonquin. There was a charming actor at the hotel who was about to get his big break. Taking a special interest in him, Grandma stayed up late to phone his room and report rave opening night reviews. It was the night that Dick Van Dyke became a star in Bye Bye Birdie. Through the years, Grandma similarly played den mother to Algonquin residents making their Broadway debuts—such as Anthony Hopkins (Equus) and Whoopi Goldberg.
While Grandma was playing hostess, Grandpa was busy establishing his own version of the Algonquin Roundtable. In the Oak Room—rather than the original Rose Room location—he presided over luncheons populated by illustrious guests such as David Susskind, Joe DiMaggio, Louis Nizer, Leon Uris, John Hersey, record producer Norman Granz, and an occasional Marx Brother. On daily rounds, Leonard Lyons might likewise sit in, culling items for his NY Post column, “The Lyons Den.”
When my brother Douglas and I would visit, Grandma often had us shake hands with members of the new Round Table—like they were knights of a modern-day Camelot. Then she’d lunch with Douglas and me at a table across from them. One afternoon, she pointed out another Algonquin notable in the corner of the room, an elegant woman whose expression will always haunt me. It was Margaret Case Harriman, who’d written books about the hotel, which her father Frank Case once owned. She looked lost in reverie, gazing at the room, her face both beaming and somewhat sad. Today, as another person who once lived at the Algonquin but who’s now just a visitor, I can almost imagine the kaleidoscope of feelings she experienced.
The new Algonquin Round Table only lasted a short while and never provided such immortal quotes as, say, when Dorothy Parker announced, “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.” But Grandpa Ben had his own wicked wit and could find humor in everything, even Grandma’s carpal tunnel syndrome. I’ll never forget how he described the night Grandma’s hand bothered her so much, she woke Grandpa out of a deep sleep. “Ben, Ben,” she exclaimed. “I’m in such pain I’d jump out the bedroom window if I could only fit. Ben, what should I do, what should I do?” He answered, “Lose weight.”
I must say there was one Algonquin guest—among them all—who gave me the greatest thrill when Grandma introduced her. The occasion was shortly after I’d been home ill and watched TV reruns of the movie Mighty Joe Young. Consequently, I was a nine-year old with a mad crush on the film’s beautiful star, Terry Moore. She was right in the lobby with her mother when Grandma introduced me. I stammered and gushed. Then, when she gave me a little kiss on the face, my cheeks blushed redder than the Rose Room. And I didn’t even discern I’d been kissed by an Oscar nominee (for Come Back Little Sheba)!
With or without an active Round Table, the Algonquin remained the place-to-be for writers and playwrights, a modern-day equivalent of London’s Mermaid Tavern—where the likes of Ben Johnson, John Donne, and Beaumont & Fletcher gathered—or Bloomsbury. A new influx of British up-and-comers made the Algonquin their American headquarters. In 1957, it was where John Osborne looked back in delight as Look Back In Anger became a Broadway smash. In 1962, it was where you’d find playwright Robert Bolt and star Paul Scofield holding the season’s Tonys for A Man For All Seasons. In the early 60’s, you might pass playwright Harold Pinter, busy with The Caretaker, actor/playwright Peter Ustinov between plays and movies, actress/singer Georgia Brown about to rehearse Oliver!, or long-time regular Noel Coward skippering his latest musical Sail Away.
There are numerous stories about Noel Coward’s stays at the hotel. One such story is how he ran into writer Edna Ferber (Show Boat, Stage Door), who wore a suit resembling his own. Greeting her, Coward remarked, “You look almost like a man,” to which she responded, “So do you.” 7 My father told me Noel Coward’s eccentricities included having eight pillows when he slept, beyond just a room with a view. What may be most surprising about Coward is that, along with his self-taught erudition, Coward was the kindliest of men: my family thought him an exceptionally gracious and generous guest, quietly giving guidance and financial aid to many any actor and actress in need (which Grandma Mary reminded me was a bottomless well).
Not so suave was writer/poet Brendan Behan, who first stayed at the hotel when his drama The Hostage played Broadway in 1960. The hard-drinking Irishman—who’d been jailed for his Irish Republican Army activities—was often a boisterous presence in the lobby. Husky and unkempt, he would plow forward and say hello—when I visited Grandma Mary—exuding the unmistakable aroma of inebriation. Grandma worried about Behan. As reported by Leonard Lyons in “The Lyons Den,” Behan was about to leave the Algonquin on a freezing day, when he realized he didn’t have his coat. Witnessing this, Grandma hurried upstairs fetching one of Grandpa’s coats to loan. Donning the coat, the grateful Brendan Behan declared, “May you be the mother of a bishop,” 8 not recalling Grandma was Jewish and the mother of two daughters. In 1964, Behan reportedly made a similar proclamation (“Bless you sister. May you be the mother of a bishop.”) addressing an old nun who tended him on his deathbed. 9 Heaven knows how many other women heard those words during inapt situations.
Behan’s drinking and brawling led to ill health and, eventually, his being barred from places like the Algonquin. He died in 1964 at the age of 41. Behan was another prime example of a show business casualty whom Grandma Mary could cite while telling me that the hotel business was much more sanguine. However, a sharp counter example was evolving at the Colby household. Back in 1952, during my father Sidney’s early days working at the Algonquin, he seemed to be living the American Dream. There are homey photos of Dad working side by side with Grandpa Ben. There’s a publicity picture of him happily mingling with guests and cast members of the hit revue New Faces of 1952 (including Carol Lawrence and Virginia de Luce). The Algonquin brochures accentuate only two names as heads of the hotel, “Ben B. Bone President” and “S. J. Colby General Manager.” But, Grandpa Ben, spurred by a bad temper, grew increasingly difficult for my father to work with. By 1956, the dynamic was exacerbated by Dad’s insecurities when he began sharing managerial duties with my uncle, Andrew Anspach, who’d just married Aunt Barbara and already had a successful track record in the hotel business (unlike Dad who started from scratch at the Algonquin). Adding fuel to the flame was a vicious circle ever since my parents moved to Long Island. My mother felt isolated while my father spent most of the day in New York City. She didn’t like him coming home late. Having inherited my grandfather’s temper, she increasingly fought with Dad when he got home. Then she’d phone details to Grandma Mary, who in turn vented at my father at the hotel—making it all the harder for him to work well.
Still, the most devastating blow for Dad came in 1957 when his beloved mother Dora Cohen—his strongest ally and buffer—suddenly died of a heart attack at age 54. The life that Dad first envisioned as (paraphrasing Camelot ) “happ’ly ever after-ing” was not to be. The strain between my mother and father intensified. Shortly thereafter, the smell of alcohol I’d detected on Brendan Behan became evident on Dad. Fights at home gradually grew worse. And it was impossible for me to know what to expect.
Until I was eleven or so, I had three illusions about families: I thought most were Jewish, saw shows every weekend, and fought in between. Soon enough, I’d learn that wasn’t typical. But at least I had those magical weekends at the Algonquin.
(Hotel Algonquin Brochures Above – 1950s)
Next part: Somewhere Between Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor
1 Canby, Vincent. “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, It’s Norman Mailer” in The New York Times, New York. October 27, 1958.
2 McGrath, Douglas. “The Seven Wonders of Preston Sturges” in Vanity Fair, New York, May 2010.
3 Sturges, Sandy. “Preston Sturges Biography” on The Official Preston Sturges Site. http://www.prestonsturges.net/biography.html.
4 McGrath, Douglas. Ibid.
5 McGrath, Douglas. Ibid.
6 Keats, John. You Might As Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker. New York: Paragon House Publishers, September 1970.
7 “Interesting Facts,” Algonquin Hotel website. http://www.algonquinhotel.com/interesting-facts
8 Lyons. Jeffrey. Stories My Father Told Me: Notes From “The Lyons Den”. New York: Abbeville Press, June 2011.
9 “admin.” Writers Club: Brendan Behan (1923-1964) from Writers Tears Irish Whiskey. 2010: http://www.writerstears.com/?p=216.
*No copyright Infringement Intended. For Entertainment Purposes Only.