Dorothy Parker was a collection of contradictions. She was a masterful short story writer, but never managed the full-length novel she always wanted to write. For much of her life, she was a drunk, but she actually detested the taste of alcohol when she married Eddie Parker in 1917. She spent years in near poverty, working hard to distance herself from her not so humble beginnings as part of the wealthy Rothschild family of the Upper West Side. Her disdain for people and society was never subtle, and yet she was once arrested for marching in protest at the 1927 execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. The one constant in her life was the love of her dogs.
I can’t pinpoint exactly what I love about Dorothy Parker, but if you ask A., he’ll tell you that it’s my love of snark and general state of contrariness that gives me an affinity for her and her caustic wit. She was insulting, uncooperative, self-destructive and often depressed, and terrible at choosing men, but she was also brilliant, funny, insightful, talented, and accomplished. I admire her work, her intelligence, and her independence in an age when women were barely seen fit to vote.
Today is Dorothy Parker’s birthday. She was born 118 years ago in New Jersey and spent most of her life in New York, perhaps even serving as a very symbol of the city as it was in the heyday of the 1920s. She made her way as a writer first for Vogue, where she wrote product reviews, and then for Vanity Fair, where she eventually replaced P.G. Wodehouse as drama critic until her dismissal in 1920 for drama reviews that proved a bit too sharp for the magazine. When Harold Ross founded The New Yorker in 1925, she was an editor and early contributor with short stories and acidic little poems. Here’s an example:Lady, lady should you meet One whose ways are all discreet, One who murmurs that his wife Is the lodestar of his life, One who keeps assuring you That he never was untrue, Never loved another one… Lady, lady, better run!
This is the writing for which she became most known. Her stories and poems caught the cynical, self-deprecating, scathing judgment Parker had for herself, for fellow writers, and for society. She published three volumes of verse and three of short stories between 1926 and 1936. Her wit was legendary, delivered at lightning speed in her distinctive affected way of speaking. When asked, for example, to use ‘horticulture’ in a sentence, she spat out this: “You can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think.” She’s also the author of the well-known quip that instructs us ladies that, “Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.”
In the 1930s and 40s, she wrote screenplays for Hollywood, including the 1937 A Star Was Born, for which she and co-writers Robert Carson and husband Alan Campbell received an Oscar nomination. Her reputation for her one-line invectives followed her to Hollywood, and in 1941, Alfred Hitchcock asked her to contribute one of her famous zingers for his movie, Saboteurs. She not only delivered, but was seen with Hitchcock in his obligatory appearance in the movie. (Watch from the start until 1:15 of this clip to see the scene.)
Parker’s relationships with men were fraught with trouble. Her first marriage to Eddie Parker was defined by his morphine addiction and her discovery of Scotch as a way to cope with loneliness. Her affair with Charles MacArthur led to an abortion and her first suicide attempt. “How like me, to put all my eggs in one bastard.” Her second marriage to Alan Campbell was a roller coaster, partly because he was, as she claimed, “queer as a billy goat,” but also a raging alcoholic, which only exacerbated Parker’s increasing abuse of alcohol. The couple divorced and then remarried three years later. Though they separated, they never officially divorced. They tried one more reconciliation in 1961, during which they were both drunk for most of the time. Campbell committed suicide in 1963.
As dysfunctional as it likely was, her relationship with Robert Benchley was possibly one of the healthiest relationships she had with any male other than her dogs. They met at Vanity Fair and were devoted companions for a decade, referring to each other as Mrs.Parker and Mr.Benchley. He even quit in protest when Parker was fired from the magazine. Benchley was also an accomplished humor writer and performer and is perhaps underappreciated compared to his sharp-tongued contemporary. In the early 1930s, their relationship cooled as Parker devoted her time to her marriage with Campbell. Though they never regained their previous closeness, she was devastated when he died unexpectedly in 1945.
Of course, there is no mentioning Dorothy Parker without bringing up the famous Algonquin Round Table. It all started with Alexander Woollcott, the drama critic for the New York Times. In 1919, he invited a number of friends and colleagues, including Parker, to a luncheon at the Algonquin Hotel to celebrate his return from the war. People from that original lunch, in various configurations, began having lunch regularly at the hotel, their raucous energy creating an inimitable banter that quickly gained them national attention. It lasted through the Roaring Twenties and faded away with the scattering of some of its key members.
Dorothy Parker once said of the Algonquin Round Table: “These were no giants. Think who was writing in those days–Lardner, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway. Those were the real giants. The Round Table was just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were. Just a bunch of loudmouths showing off, saving their gags for days, waiting for a chance to spring them…. There was no truth in anything they said. It was the terrible day of the wisecrack, so there didn’t have to be any truth….” (Herrmann, p.85)
Her last years were spent at the Volney Hotel in Manhattan in the company of her dog, Troy, and a few remaining friends and some admirers. Her drinking never abated and her writing and personal life suffered for it. She died of a heart attack in 1967 at the age of 73. She bequeathed her entire estate to the Dr.Martin Luther King Jr. Foundation, which in turn went to the NAACP upon King’s death. Perhaps she was more hopeful about humanity’s potential than she let on during her turbulent life.
Dorothy Parker was a force – cynical, drunken, and erratic, but a force nonetheless. Perhaps she exhibited a few more of the imperfections that most of us carry around with us, but all in all, I imagine there are worse things than to be influenced by a flawed woman’s imagination, talent, and wit.
See The Dorothy Parker Society if you want to know more than you ever thought you would know about Dorothy Parker. There are even recordings of her reading some of her poems at the age of 70, two years before she died.
Who are your favorite authors?
- Herrmann, Dorothy (1982). With Malice Toward All: The Quips, Lives and Loves of Some Celebrated 20th-Century American Wits. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. p. 78.
- Meade, Marion (1987). Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? New York: Penguin Books.
- Wikipedia.org. Dorothy Parker. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_Parker