By Terry Trucco
As one of New York’s oldest and most storied hotels, The Algonquin has long been catnip for wags and writers. For decades, nearly everyone associated with the place, from the Vicious Circle and beyond, has shared stories about the hotel and its history. Everyone, it seems, except Matilda, the Algonquin cat.
That has changed. In a new illustrated children’s book, aptly titled Matilda, the Algonquin Cat, the hotel’s resident blonde in fur tells all about the hotel she’s called home for most of her nine lives.
Like a feline Eloise, Matilda divulges the high points of her day — napping on a luggage cart, lapping up champagne, snoozing in a laundry basket, suggesting a night at the theater (“Cats,” naturally). In her spare time, she runs the place.
“Francine is the manager,” writes Matilda. “She is very funny. She thinks she is in charge.”
Matilda’s Boswell is Leslie Martini, a journalist from Marblehead, Massachusetts and a life-long Matilda fan. As a child growing up in Pittsburgh, Martini visited the Algonquin (and Matilda) during her family’s frequent trips New York. As Martini recalls, “My mom was obsessed with New York history and the history of the Algonquin, which she made sure we learned. But when I was little all I cared about was seeing the cat.”
Mom’s indoctrination took hold, fueling Martini’s interest in New York culture and the Algonquin’s rich history. With two daughters of her own, Martini saw to it that they got more than a taste both, including a chance to visit Matilda whenever they came to New York. “The cat is a cultural icon,” she says.
Her daughters agreed. It was at their suggestion that Martini decided to tell Matilda’s story.
Matilda is not known for giving interviews, but that didn’t stop Martini from hanging out with her subject, who mostly swans around the check-in desk and communes with cat-loving guests. Joining Martini on her cat sightings was artist Massimo Mongiardo, whose nimble pen and ink illustrations capture Matilda’s changing moods.
The book is written for children, but fledgling history buffs can flip to the end pages for the skinny on the hotel and its top cat. They’ll learn of owner Frank Case’s fortuitous discovery that his new hotel stood on land once occupied by the Native American Algonquin tribe, thus sparing guests the weirdness of checking into The Puritan, as he originally planned to call the place.
As for Matilda, her forebears stretch back to Billy, the hotel’s first cat who took up residence in 1914. Three days after his demise in 1932, a ginger stray dubbed Rusty wandered in. The hotel has housed a cat ever since. Males are named Hamlet, a custom attributed to actor John Barrymore, an Algonquin habitué who re-named Rusty for the Danish prince he was playing on Broadway at the time. Female cats are called Matilda, “for unknown reasons,” Martini writes.
The hotel’s custom of taking in strays continues. The current cat, the Algonquin’s 11th and their third Matilda, arrived in 2010, fresh from the North Shore Animal Shelter in Port Washington, New York, where someone left her in a box at the front door.
Like previous Algonquin females, Matilda III is a fluffy-haired ragdoll, a docile, even-tempered breed that tolerates people. A dog-like breed, in other words, as Martini, the owner of a ragdoll named Pearl, observes.
But as a Theater District cat living large at a swanky hotel, Matilda wields a big personality. Or as her biographer puts it, “She’s confident, curious, playful, irreverent and lovable.” In other words, she’s a diva — “but not over the top.”