A Place at the Table

By Heywood Hale Broun, Coffee House member since 1951; an address delivered at the annual New Members’ Dinner, October 29, 1996.

—Embedded in the long table is a silver design com­memorating the Coffee House membership of Jo Mielziner.  He was a distinguished stage designer, and nearly half a century ago created the settings for a Henry Fonda play called Point of No Return.  In the cast of that play was an obscure actor in a part the very name of which best speaks its narrow scope: “The Second Bank Clerk.” That actor, nibbling at the outer edge of the theatrical pie, was me, and I was quite startled to receive a letter from Mielziner indicating that he wished to put me up for the Coffee House Club.  I could not understand the eligibility of the failed son of a famous man, but quickly discovered that my sponsor saw me not as a failure or a success, but simply as one who might add a harmonious note to the conversational music of the round table.

—As the years passed and my career wound its chancy way, I realized that my place at the table meant more than my place on the ladder—that none of us was a success or a failure—all of us were simply Coffee House members, people devoted to agreeable, civilized conversation.

—You will, I am sure, remember those old fantasies about the weary traveler who, at twilight, takes a side road to a strangely antique inn and a lot of merriment among men in three-cornered hats and women in mobcaps. The traveler has the time of his life but, later, can never find the road or the inn again.

—The good thing about our magic inn is that West 45th Street is easy to find and, though the hats are ordi­nary, the timeless ease and good cheer match any fourth dimension refuge.

—G.K. Chesterton thought of heaven as “The Inn At the End of the World.” In my long years at the Coffee House, a lot of men and, more lately, women, have departed our table, leaving only merriment behind.  Sydney Smith, the 19th century clergyman who aspired to eat paté de foie to the sound of trumpets, which he considered a suitable entrance to the hereafter, thought of heaven as a march up a winding staircase to a place where a footman threw open a door to an eternal luncheon party.

—I hope there is somewhere out ahead of me an eternal Coffee House where I will meet Hoby Weekes, Nat Benchley, Paul Bonner, Jo Mielziner, and all the others who took me into a luncheon party sadly not eternal, but one where care never climbed the stairs.

—To you, new members, I extend the hope that your stay here will be as long and as happy as mine, and that everything will stay the same except the subject of conversation.