It has been forty-eight years since the death Dorothy Parker in 1967 and she is probably best known for being a part of the Algonquin Club, and her wisecracks recorded therein. (When looking for a new apartment she said, “I just need enough room to lay my hat and a few friends.”) In her time she was famous for her verse and short stories but they are rarely read today (I did, however, hear one read on PBS the other night.). This might be unfortunate since she lambasted the Algonquin Club in the latter part of her life as being a bunch of cynical do-nothings, and she resented being notorious primarily for her acid humor. But her legacy lives on and her name is still recognizable today. The names of most of the regulars of the Algonquin Table have faded with time. (I ate lunch at the Algonquin Hotel in New York several years ago, opposite The Table, and had a turkey sandwich, coffee and dessert, for twenty-five dollars: the food was average and the price could easily be deemed exorbitant. No wonder Dorothy was so cynical.)
Dorothy Parker was born in New Jersey in 1893 and had a rather tumultuous upbringing. Her mother died when she was five and her stepmother when she was nine, and she accused her father of being abusive. She graduated from a finishing school at age eighteen and sold her first poem to Vanity Fair (yes, the same Vanity Fair that exists today) at age twenty-one, later becoming a staff writer for the magazine, including theater criticism, which ultimately catapulted her into notoriety (“The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”) She began hanging around with fellow writers and having lunch with them at the Algonquin Hotel. Other writers joined in and eventually a legend was created.
A great deal of acid wit was thrown around during these gatherings, with Dorothy’s being known as the wittiest and most acidic. When the famously taciturn president of the United States Calvin Coolidge (he of the never-changing expression) died, she was heard to remark, “He died? How can you tell?” Such remarks were passed from mouth to mouth all over New York, often ending up in the local newspapers.
(“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”)
The literary Parker was best known in the beginning for her verse (she preferred this term to “poetry”) and published a considerable number of them in magazines such as Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Vogue. Her first book of verse, Enough Rope, was published in 1926 and sold 47,000 copies.
By the time you swear you’re his,
Shivering and sighing.
And he vows his passion is,
Lady make note of this—
One of you is lying.
Eventually she moved into the short story genre, for which she is more likely to be read today. Her stories rarely had a complicated plot and generally detailed the peccadilloes of ordinary people, often in an ironic or bittersweet manner. In 1929 her tale, “Big Blonde” won the O’Henry Award for best story of the year. Her caustic wit, however, came from a genuinely troubled psyche and she attempted suicide four times.
(“Razors pain you, Rivers are damp, Acids stain you, And drugs cause cramp, Guns aren’t lawful, Nooses give, Gas smells awful. You might as well live.”
She offended many people, and even her friends often considered her a pain in the ass. Depending on which biography one reads, she can come across as a vastly interesting and laudatory human being or a whiney, exhausting woman who constantly struggles to find any happiness. But no one would argue that she was not an original.
I recently read an essay of hers that originally appeared in Vanity Fair in 1916 when she was but twenty-three years old, entitled “Why I Haven’t Married” in which she describes her involvement with seven different men. A synopsis:
Ralph: “His greatest fault was his lack of them.”
Max: “I learned to make sweeping gestures with my bent-back thumb, to smile tolerantly at the mention of John Sargent; to use all the technical terms when I discussed Neo-Malthusianism.”
Jim: “We used to sit, a table’s breadth apart, at cabarets, and shriek soft nothings at each other above the blare of the Nubian band, while waiters literally groveled at our feet.”
Cyril: “He was intelligent. In fact he had such a disconcertingly remarkable memory that every time I said a clever thing, he remembered just who had written it.”
Lorenzo: “He specialized in parlor tricks. Give him but a length of string, three matches, and a lump of sugar, and he would be the life of the party for an entire evening.”
Bob: “He spoke tenderly and at great length of his horse, which, I gathered from his conversation, shared his pillow.”
But, alas, he left her for a “rounded” blonde.
Once she was invited to a weekend party on a private island outside of New York City (I read this long ago and don’t remember the location of the island.). When she got off the boat, she doffed her clothes sans a wide brimmed hat, and passed the entire weekend eating, drinking, and chatting with the other guests au naturel. Frankly, I would have loved to have been there, not just to ogle Parker’s body, which everyone seems to agree was quite comely, but to interact with individuals who were willing to put up with this unconventional behavior with such begrudging tolerance. I can just imagine some of the conversations they had.
Parker was married three times, twice to the same man, Alan Campbell, who was reputed to be bisexual. The two had a tumultuous marriage with violent arguments, but were still together at his death by suicide in 1963. (“She was pleased to see him come and never sorry to see him go.”) In her lifetime she was reputed to have had many affairs and was fond of discussing them with anyone willing to listen. (“Take me or leave me; or, as is the usual order of things, both.”) She also had a relatively serious alcohol problem.
I’d like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I’m under the table
after four I’m under my host.
In the latter half of her life she became increasingly involved in civil rights, civil liberties, and other liberal causes. She was suspected of being a Communist during the McCarthy era and was placed on the Hollywood blacklist. (She and Alan Campbell had lived in the film city writing screenplays for number of years.) Apparently she became increasingly bitter as age took its invariable toll (“That woman speaks eighteen languages and can’t say ’No’ in any of them.”), and when she died at age seventy-three, she left her entire estate (what there was of it since she was not known to deprive herself) to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and eventually to the NAACP. Her remains now lie on the grounds of their Baltimore headquarters.
“That would be a good thing for them to cut on my tombstone: Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.”
And I conclude with one of her best: “If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”