New York City in the 1920s was famous for fostering flamboyant lifestyles, bright ambitions, and tenuous fortunes. Jane Grant made bathtub gin during prohibition and got caught breaking the rules. Yet, as a member of the Algonquin Round Table, co-founder of The New Yorker, and den mother at 412 West 47th street, she remained unflappable. Grant directed the day-to-day operations of a communal household, worked at The New York Timesand still insisted on going out dancing at night--usually leaving her husband, Ross, behind. In many respects, Jane Grant was a modern woman of her time, ablaze with adventure and verve.
After a year of performing in Paris during World War I, Grant returned to New York and her job at The New York Times,this time promoted to, as she described it, "Editor of Hotel News." It was at the Timesthat Grant first met Alexander Woollcott, the soon-to-be-famous drama critic. Grant befriended Aleck, as he was better known, and followed him to Paris during the war. Later, it was through Woollcott that Grant was invited to join the Algonquin Hotel's infamous Round Table crowd. The group, known as "The Vicious Circle" for their barbed wire wit and outrageous antics, was memorialized in the 1994 film by Alan Rudolph, "Dorothy Parker and Her Vicious Circle."
The Vicious Circle became infamous for their "No Sirree!" performance, described in the evening's playbill as "An Anonymous Entertainment." It was Woollcott who had the idea for a stage revue and the needed contacts to secure the 49th Street Theater. Each performer handpicked his or her guests--ensuring an ideal and enthusiastic audience. Jane Grant played the role of a "First Nighter" along with Round Table regulars Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, and Neysa McMein. Only Harold Ross, founder of The New Yorker magazine and Grant's husband at the time, was forbidden from appearing on stage. This may have been because as Harpo Marx put it, "Ross looked to all the world like a cow hand who had lost his horse."
Just a month prior to the group's theatrical debut, Jane Grant had stage managed a different kind of event. On March 27, 1920 Grant and Ross were secretly married. Although it was Ross who initially proposed, it was Grant who rejected his idea of a standard engagement. Instead, she gave him two days to get ready for married life. "It will be Saturday or..." she declared. But their relationship had certainly not been love at first sight. Grant's initial impression of Ross had been memorable if not flattering. "I decided he was really the homeliest man I had ever met," she later wrote in her memoir, Ross, The New Yorker, and Me.
Part of Ross's desire for an extended engagement was practical. He was still uncertain whether he had a job in New York or not. Grant assured him that her job was secure. They would live off her earnings and save Ross's salary to invest in their dream of creating a magazine. What could Ross say? They sealed their arrangement with a kiss.
After their marriage, Grant and Ross began looking for a home of their own. Grant favored getting an apartment, but Ross preferred a house. In the end, they reached an odd compromise: they would purchase a house to please Ross and then divide it into apartments to please Grant. The result? An infamous brownstone at 412-414 West 47th Street where they lived with Kate Oglebay, Aleck Woollcott, Hawley Truax and Bill Powell. "412," as it was known, became a magnet for extravagant dinners, dance parties and practical jokes. It was not unusual on any given night for Jane to serve dinner to upward of thirty guests. Friends and friends of friends would show up at all hours ready to dance.
From 1922 until 1928, when Grant and Ross divorced, number 412 was a Mecca for artists, actors, journalists, and wayfarers--anyone ready for an elaborate party. However, not long after all the residents had moved on, Grant learned from neighbors that the house was haunted. Perhaps. Or maybe it was a few wandering guests not ready to say good-bye to those earlier, exuberant times.