I am a sucker for old, historic hotels and among the many I love is the Algonquin in New York City. Not because the rooms are great – they aren’t. Not because the restaurant is fabulous – it isn’t. I love the place for the atmosphere, the history, for the famed Algonquin Roundtable.
In the 1920’s, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker and Robert Sherwood, among others, lunched every day at the round table in the Algonquin lobby and cracked wise about politics, matters literary and popular culture. Great one liners have survived and many are displayed in the hotel.
Benchley, all but forgotten by many today, was an actor and writer and edited Vanity Fair. He famously said after returning home in a driving rain storm, “Let’s get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini.”
Eighty years ago, a sorry looking cat sauntered into the hotel lobby from West 44th Street and stayed as stray cats who are fed and find a warm place to sleep are wont to do. Ever since the Algonquin lobby has had a cat – always named Matilda - who has pretty much had the run of the place – until last week.
The New York City Health Department says Matilda is in violation of the portion of the city’s health regulations that require animals be kept away from places where food is served. No, seriously. This is not news of the weird. It is the end, potentially, of a sweet and old tradition. This is also in the category of a solution in search of a problem.
I’ve always kind of liked the big city’s well-heeled mayor, Mike Bloomberg. Never met the guy, but like that he seems to have an independent streak and doesn’t appear to suffer fools easily. One day he is telling off President Obama for punting on the Super Committee and the next evicting the Occupy Wall Street crowd. He’s still regularly mentioned – I’m sure he likes it – as a credible third party candidate in 2012. This cat story is going to test his leadership skills to the max. There is – believe me – a very strong cat lobby in these United States.
Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post broke the Algonquin cat story – under the headline “Meow’trage at Algonquin” – and has been all over these developments like cat hair on a black sweater. One column blared: “In Bloombergistan, government lackeys have gone mad.” The columnist didn’t like the city’s cat edict, apparently.
Post Columnist Kyle Smith noted, as I have every time I’ve been at the Algonquin, that the cat is typically, day and night, asleep under an wing chair in the lobby bar, far from food. The lobby bar, by the way, is ground zero for old money New York. Some duffer in a bow tie sips a cocktail, while talking with some ancient woman drowning in pearls about the art gallery he had just visited or the charity dinner they are soon to attend.
As I said earlier, people don’t come here for the food. They come because the place feels classy and old. The drinks aren’t bad, either.
The real story here, big surprise, is that the Algonquin cats I’ve observed never – never – come near anyone. Few self respecting cats do that sort of thing. Matilda obviously knows that old money is so yesterday, so, well boring. Why cozy up to an wrinkled old New Yorker working on his third Manhattan when you can sleep under a wing chair?
I’ll be disappointed if Mayor B doesn’t find a way to make this ill-fated cat decision go away. The guy was, after all, able to finesse the one-time limitation on a New York Mayor seeking a third term. He ought to be able to talk to someone over in the health department about this little 80-year tradition at the Algonquin. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile, I have plumbed the great and witty depths of Dorothy Parkerisms for a suitable quote to illustrate what, I suspect, most folks will see as a silly case of political correctness run wild.
Before I get to the punchline, however, a quick reminder of what the very witty Ms. Parker was capable of:
“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy,” she said.
And, of Katherine Hepburn as an actress, Parker said: “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.”
And this: “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”
What might Ms. Parker have said about the New York Health Department’s banning of the Algonquin cat?
How about this: “You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks.”
Mayor Bloomberg, fix this outrage. There must be an historic preservation exception. If not, create one. Some things simply need to be maintained, including the Algonquin Hotel cat.