1. The Algonquin Round Table
Ringleader: Dorothy Parker, a writer, poet, and critic for such venerable publications as The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Esquire. Yet Parker is perhaps most famous for her memorable witticisms, including “I love a martini—but two at the most. Three, I’m under the table; four, I’m under the host” (currently printed on the cocktail napkins at The Algonquin Hotel bar in New York).
Core Crew: What started as an afternoon roast of The New York Times drama critic Alexander Woollcott soon morphed into a daily luncheon that would establish the most celebrated entourage in the history of American letters. In addition to Parker and Wollcott, the literary group included Robert Benchley (Life drama editor), Franklin P. Adams (New York Tribune columnist), Robert E. Sherwood (Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright), Harpo Marx (the “silent” Marx Brother), Harold Ross (editor of The New Yorker), George S. Kaufman (Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright), and Heywood Broun (founder of the American Newspaper Guild).
Turf: New York City
Mission: From 1919 to 1929 “The Vicious Circle” (as they referred to themselves) met every weekday at The Algonquin Hotel to share ideas and opinions and unleash savage barbs—often at one another’s expense. A sampling:
Parker: “That woman speaks 18 languages and can’t say ‘no’ in any of them.”
Kaufman: “Epitaph for a dead waiter—God finally caught his eye.”
Benchley: “Drinking makes such fools of people, and people are such fools to begin with that it’s compounding a felony.”
By the mid-1920s, a spot at the entourage’s table was incredibly coveted. Mrs. Parker and her cronies had standing reservations, but other notables—such as actor-playwright Noel Coward, actress Tallulah Bankhead, and humorist Will Rogers—were known to drop in to share in the nips and quips.
While best known for their much-ballyhooed drollness, The Vicious Circle’s impact reached far beyond heavy boozing and memorable zingers. Harold Ross, for instance, used the lunches to secure funding for a new magazine he planned to launch and edit: The New Yorker. Not only that, but he recruited Parker and Benchley as his respective book and drama critics.
Perhaps the entourage’s most enduring influence, however, was the way it shaped the artistic tastes and sensibilities of the times. Having such tremendous influence and reach in the press (even into the 1930s), the group effectively redefined American humor with its off-the-cuff observations. It was reported, for example, that when Parker was informed that President Coolidge had died, she responded, “How can they tell?”
The group’s aesthetic changed the tenor of book, movie, and stage reviews and profoundly influenced modern media criticism. The Algonquin’s widely circulated irreverence underlined not just its members own rebelliousness, but also the spirit of the Roaring Twenties that saw this entourage at its peak.
2. Jesus & Co.
Ringleader: Jesus Christ
Core Crew: The disciples or, as they were called after Jesus’ death, apostles. The posse included two guys named James, two Simons, and to use J.C.’s words, eight other “fishers of men.”
Turf: Galilee, Jerusalem, Nazareth, and other Mideast hotspots
Mission: Experts estimate that the core of this God squad was formed in the 20s—meaning around 26 CE. That’s when Jesus picked up key members John and Andrew via their connection to John the Baptist, who—as you may recall from either the Bible or your high school’s production of Godspell—earned his name by dunking the faithful and preparing the way of the Lord. He was way ahead of the curve in declaring Jesus the Son of God.
After that, the group expanded by luring family and friends. Andrew brought his brother, Simon, into the mix. Then Philip, from Andrew’s hometown of Bethsaida, joined along with his buddy, Nathanael (otherwise known as Bartholomew). Simon’s fishing partners, brothers James and John, caught wind of the charismatic healer next, as did tax collector Matthew down in Cana—and so on and so forth.
If we take the Gospel writers’ word for it, this scruffy dozen toured the holy lands in support of Jesus’ teachings and did a good job of staying in the background. With one notorious exception (we’re looking at you, Judas Iscariot), this was a darn loyal group. How loyal? During his public ministry years, Jesus is estimated to have legged about 3,125 miles, and you better believe his boys were with him most of the way. That’s a pretty impressive series of road trips—and they didn’t stop there. Even after their boss moved on to the newly ungated promised land (thanks in part to a political climate that didn’t welcome his ideas), this posse aggressively kept the faith, preaching their way from India to Ethiopia to Spain. Needless to say, all that walking paid off. Today, Christianity has spread around the world, with an estimated 2 billion believers worldwide.
3. The Junto Society (later, the American Philosophical Society)
Ringleader: Ben Franklin
Core Crew: A dozen pals who formed the ultimate intellectual entourage. By the time the Junto merged with the American Philosophical Society in 1769, its members included George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson—and basically every other Revolutionary bigwig. Later, notables such as Charles Darwin, Robert Frost, John James Audubon, Margaret Mead, and Thomas Edison joined in the high-minded fun.
Mission: Formed in 1727, the group met every Friday evening to wind down in a decidedly heady fashion. Junto rules demanded that each member bring to the table one or more questions dealing with morals, politics, or physics; then it was open season on discussion. Debate was to be held “without fondness for dispute or desire of victory,” and violators faced “small pecuniary penalties.” But rather than rely solely on questions from the group, Franklin had a handy list of prompts at the ready. Among them: “Have you lately observed any defect in the laws of your country, of which it would be proper to move the legislature an amendment?” As such, Franklin managed to avoid awkward silences and stimulate new ideas.
At its core, the Junto served as a cross between a book club, a civic-minded men’s group, and a neighborhood watch. Want to know the quality of work provided by that new bricklayer in town? Ask the Junto. Got a brilliant idea about how to deal with, say, sewage? Take it to the Junto. Unfortunately, minutes from the meetings don’t exist, although we do know those guys were doing more than shooting the breeze. The Junto Society has been traced as the source for such nifty ideas as paved streets, police departments, and the first public hospital in America. Not a bad group to be associated with. Today, the American Philosophical Society claims nearly 1,000 members.
4. The Merry Pranksters
Ringleader: Author Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Sometimes a Great Notion, etc.)
Core Crew: Kenneth “Intrepid Traveler” Babbs, Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Adams, Neal “Speed Limit” Cassady, George “Hardly Visible” Walker, Mike “Mal Function” Hagen, Steve “Zonker” Lambrecht, Ron “Hassler” Bevirt, Paula “Gretchen Fetchin” Sundsten, and Sandy “Dis-Mount” Lehman-Haupt.
Turf: La Honda, Calif., Mexico, and the open road
Mission: In the spring of 1964, Ken Kesey and his motley band of iridescent-clad cronies painted a school bus in psychedelic colors and christened it their mother ship, “Furthur” (later renamed “Further”). In so doing, they created not only a vehicular metaphor for the entourage’s collective mission, but also an indelible symbol for the 1960s’ counterculture movement. Even their mantra, “You’re either on the bus or you’re off the bus,” became ensconced in the lingo of the time.
Kesey was definitely on the bus. He’d already written the great American novel (Cuckoo’s Nest) and was looking for an unprecedented form of artistic expression. His goal: to achieve higher consciousness through a personal and communal journey. Needless to say, his primary means to this end was LSD. Together, The Merry Pranksters brought America’s burgeoning drug culture out from the shadowy underground and into the technicolor forefront. Whereas Timothy Leary and his followers experimented with hallucinogens in the name of intellectualism, The Pranksters saw their lifestyle as pure art.
Arguably the most significant impetus behind the 1960s counterculture movement, The Merry Pranksters’ fingerprints are all over music (acid rock), fashion (day-glo wardrobes), and art (psychedelic posters). A little group called the Grateful Dead was often the house band during Kesey & Co.’s “acid tests,” and years later, The Pranksters’ own “Mountain Girl” won the title of Mrs. Jerry Garcia. But perhaps no Prankster better represented the cultural shift from the beatnik era to the dawning of the Age of Aquarius than Neal Cassady. The very embodiment of the Beat generation, Cassidy served as the inspiration for the character Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Cassady stayed on the road as The Pranksters’ bus driver, proudly trucking toward a new cultural landscape and taking the whole entourage with him.
5. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., et al.
Core Crew: Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Dr. Benjamin Hooks, and Jesse Jackson
Turf: Washington, Tennessee, Chicago, Alabama, and other points South
Mission: In an effort to achieve equal rights for all, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., helped lead the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott that’d been sparked by Rosa Parks’ protest against racism. Espousing nonviolence, King and fellow bus boycotter Ralph Abernathy helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and, through years of activism, attracted a core group of buddies, including future political heavyweights Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson.
Not surprisingly, the entourage didn’t exactly keep a low profile. Members traveled the country speaking, organizing, rallying, and marching—not to mention getting wiretapped and doing jail time in the process. But even as they ruffled the feathers of everyone from Alabama governor George Wallace to Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X, they also inspired millions.
After King’s assassination in 1968, the crew continued to carry the torch. Benjamin Hooks spent 15 years as executive director of the NAACP; Jesse Jackson formed Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) and ran for President of the United States a few times; and Abernathy took over leadership of the SCLC before making a bid for Congress. Andrew Young—who had a pillow fight with King on the day he was assassinated—became a member of the House of Representatives, the first African-American U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and the mayor of Atlanta. It says something when your entourage stays in the spotlight after you’re gone.
6. The Chicago Seven
Ringleaders: Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin
Core Crew: David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Tom Hayden, and Lee Weiner
Mission: In a grand show of opposition against the Vietnam War and the hypocrisy of the Democratic National Convention, protestors from around the country descended on Chicago in 1968. Among them were the Yippies (members of the Youth International Party), who were led by political activists Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin and armed with confusing slogans like “Rise up and abandon the creeping meatball.”
Not wanting the Windy City to be known as “that” kind of town, city officials declared an 11 p.m. curfew, stepped up the police presence, and called in the National Guard. Predictably, things got out of hand, and the resulting confrontations (the “blood on the streets in the town of Chicago” referred to in The Doors song “Peace Frog”) led to a grand jury indictment of eight Yippies on charges of conspiracy.
An exercise in absurdity from beginning to end, the trial was a media frenzy the likes of the O.J. Simpson case. It started off with Judge Julius Hoffman (no relation to Abbie) throwing out most of the defense attorney’s questions for potential jurors. Among them: “Do you know who Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix are?” And it only got worse. Making a statement on behalf of their entourage, Hoffman and Rubin wore robes, blew kisses across the courtroom, and otherwise ignored efforts to make a convincing case to the alleged jury of their peers. The chaos escalated when defendant and fellow Yippie Bobby Seale called the judge a “fascist dog.” A few outbursts later, Seale was silenced and sentenced for contempt of court. Thus, the Chicago Eight was downgraded to the Chicago Seven.
After testimony from such notables as Arlo Guthrie, Judy Collins, Phil Ochs, Timothy Leary, Richard Daley, Dick Gregory, Jesse Jackson, and Alan Ginsberg, a verdict was finally returned. Five of the seven were found guilty of violating the Anti-Riot Act of 1968. But after the Yippie entourage witnessed its leaders get taken down by the Man, belated justice came four years later when the verdicts were reversed.
Putting the ‘Mental’ in Group Mentality: Oftentimes, entourages are made up of principled individuals sharing in common ideals. Other times, the modus operandi is less noble. The following is our personal favorite case in point.
7. Project Mayhem / The Cacophony Society
Ringleader: author Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club, Stranger Than Fiction)
Core Crew: “The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club.”
Turf: Various underground lodges scattered across the United States.
Mission: In the introduction to his book Stranger Than Fiction, bestselling author and cult hero Chuck Palahniuk writes: “My pet theory about Fight Club’s success is that the story presented a structure for people to be together. People want to see new ways for connecting.” Indeed, Fight Club is about an entourage of wayward souls who gather weekly to beat the living crap out of each other and by doing so, you know, remind themselves they’re alive. And when that got a bit stale, they created a satellite club called Project Mayhem, in which they basically bomb the living crap out of buildings as part of, you know, that reminder thing again.
Palahniuk modeled the fictional Project Mayhem on his real-life participation in a group called the Cacophony Society—a mysterious body of subversives dedicated to impossibly absurd endeavors. Far from adopting the kinds of terror tactics that Project Mayhem did, the Cacophony Society simply served as the spark to Palahniuk’s powder keg of an imagination. The result was a memorable fact-meets-fiction entourage that specialized in the absurd. In 1994, for instance, the Cacophony Society staged its first “SantaCon,” in which participants performed bawdy improvisational numbers and naughty Christmas carols while donning tattered St. Nick attire. And then they exchanged gifts. Not necessarily the stuff of bestselling fiction (or a red flag from the FBI, for that matter), but enough to spark a brilliant idea in Chuck Palahniuk’s twisted little mind.
________________________________The article above, written by Lou Harry and Todd Tobias, appeared in the September - October 2007 issue of mental_floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.
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