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The Algonquin Hotel's Feline Celebrity

The lobby of New York's Algonquin hotel is filled with overstuffed chairs and sofas for the guests, but one seat is reserved. The miniature chaise lounge just to the left of the entrance is home to the Algonquin cat.

Alice de Almeida, an administrative assistant at the hotel, says the cat tradition began with a general manager in the 1930s, Frank Case. "The story goes that a stray cat wandered in off the street," she says, "It was all raggly-taggly and everything. He felt sorry for the cat and he kept it."

That first cat reportedly drank milk out of a champagne glass. Actor John Barrymore insisted he have a theatrical name, so he was called Hamlet. The idea inaugurated a tradition: When the Algonquin cat is male, he's Hamlet; when female, she's called Matilda. No one knows why.

Over the years, the Algonquin cat has been memorialized in a children's book and a 24-karat gold pendant. Now, you can even send Matilda an e-mail. Hotel assistant De Almeida is Matilda's ghostwriter, and always closes Matilda's messages the same way: "Have a PURRfect day."

The reigning Matilda is an 11-year-old Ragdoll, an exotic breed that resembles a fluffy Siamese. She will be having a purrfect day in November, when she takes a limo to White Plains, N.Y. and is crowned cat of the year at the Westchester Cat Show.

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Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.