Time was when New York's legendary Algonquin Hotel was known and frequented largely because of its famous literary and theatrical clientele. But now a curious turn to this trend is afoot, or perhaps one should say "apaw."
This is because Hamlet, a white- and gray-spotted cat, is stealing the show from the likes of Bette Middler, Julie Cristie, Richard Chamberlain, and Arthur Miller.
In the oak-paneled lobby these days, what first catches the eye of many people is Hamlet asleep beside the venerable grandfather's clock, or jumping through a cat-size square in a door off the lobby, or grandly occupying an overstuffed chair, daring patrons to displace him.
"I am still a little ambivalent about the cat becoming a celebrity," says Algonquin managing director Andrew A. Anspach. "But for the moment, at least, a mere cat seems to be hogging the spotlight. We named him Hamlet because he is a ham, not after Shakespeare's 'Hamlet.'"
It seems safe to presume that Hamlet, the cat, will never be as famous as Shakespeare's melancholy Danish prince. However, Delacorte Press has recently published a book about Hamlet (the cat) entitled simply "Algonquin Cat." And the fuss being generated in Hamlet's honor is quite the cat's meow.
The Algonquin is holding a citywide contest for the cat with the most personality. Cats themselves are not scampering into the hotel, but their photographs are. The winner will have its picture drawn by Hilary Knight, who illustrated "Algonquin Cat," and the "Eloise" children's books.
Competition is intense. Last week, socialite Barbara de Porgato instructed her chauffeur to drive her cat over to a photography studio pronto. Actress Paula Lawrence is having her cat, Michi, photographed by Broadway star Jim Dale, who has the lead role in the hit musical "Barnum." Mitzi Newhouse, widow of the late millionaire newspaper czar, Sam Newhouse, is entering a photograph of her cat, Omar.
"I thought we'd get six pictures. But people are wild about their cats," says a hotel employee coordinating the contest. Adds Anspach, "I, too, am a little surprised by the number of people sending in photographs."
Although there is a rule against people, even celebrities, bringing pets into the hotel, the rule has been broken over and over again.
Not long ago, Anspach says, a maid was cleaning a room and heard a spashing sound in the bathtub. "It was a little disconcerting for her to turn back the shower curtain and find a baby alligator swimming around. The people had brought up their 'pet' from Florida."
In another case, one prominent Broadway drama critic broke the rule -- with hotel's reluctant permission. Once when he was living in a suite on the third floor, the telephone rang and the familiar voice of Miss Bush, the Algonquin telephone operator, said: "Your raccoon has arrived at the front desk."
"Send him up, Miss Bush," the critic requested.
But gradually, neighbors began to complain about the fishy smell of the raccoon's food, and it had to be moved. Next stop, the roof, where bellboys helped feet it. Eventually, the raccoon was transferred to a local zoo for safekeeping.
"Everyone writes and says, 'My pet won't do any dam age,'" Anspach laments. "But it just doesn't turn out that way, so we try to stick to the rule."
Hamlet, however, is different. He even brings in business -- not that the Algonquin really needs it because it has the highest occupancy rate of any hotel in the city.
"I've always thought the glamorous part of the hotel was the people," the managing director continued. "I'm not so sure now."