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Feminist, activist, writer, poet, dramatist, raconteur extraordinaire. Get familiar with the peerless Dorothy Parker.
Dorothy Parker is remembered for her sharp, often scathing wit and her membership of New York’s celebrated Algonquin Round Table.
She’s the woman who famously reviewed a book with the words: “This is not a book to be cast aside lightly. It should be hurled with great force.”
The woman who commented that “If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”
The woman who once told her editor that her copy was late because she was “Too fucking busy – and vice versa.”
It was the Algonquin that made Dorothy famous as a wit par excellence. She was quick with a clever comeback or a biting riposte. Like Oscar Wilde, also a renowned wit, it helped that someone was always seemingly available to record her bon mots for posterity.
Yet she was much more – drama critic, journalist, book reviewer, dramatist, award-winning writer of short fiction, screenwriter, two-time Academy Award nominee, best-selling poet, feminist and civil rights activist.
Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) was well-educated, highly intelligent and motivated. At the age of 24, she was invited to join Vanity Fair magazine as a writer. This was in 1917, the same year she married Edwin Parker, whose name she kept after their divorce in 1928 and even after she’d married actor and screenwriter Alan Campbell in 1933. (She married Campbell twice. They divorced in 1947 and married again in 1950, staying together till his death in 1963.)
Mrs Parker, as she was always referred to (although she was Dottie to her friends), had a regular column, “Constant Reader” in The New Yorker, which published its first edition in 1925. She was also on the editorial board of that publication. A year later, her first volume of poems, Enough Rope, was released and became a runaway hit. Two more volumes of poetry came in 1928 (Sunset Gun) and 1931 (Death and Taxes). All three poetry books appeared together in Collected Poems: Not So Deep as a Well (1936).
Some of the poems are humorous, but many cover topics like wrestling with depression, faithless men, suicide attempts, abortion, selfishness, even the bravery of soldiers (she’d been in Spain during that country’s civil war). They’re cynical, sad, satirical, reflective, subversive, ironic. Sometimes humour masks the sorrow. There’s a whole lot more to Parker’s poetry than at first meets the eye.
In Plea, for example, she exposes the notion of “free love” as flawed and that couples shouldn’t have secrets from each other, but as Nina Miller points out, the relationship is far from equal, because the male lover wants to reduce the woman’s importance so he can appear to be the greater “sexual adventurer”.
Parker’s short stories cover similar ground. She comments on what it meant to be a woman dealing with society’s strictures.
In Big Blonde (1929), Hazel assumes the role she believes society expects of her – party-girl and “good sport” – and thinks that popularity is the key to happiness. It’s all a charade and when she marries, she hopes to find contentment and sense of self, away from false merrymaking. Unfortunately, her husband was in love with the persona, and they soon divorce.
Hazel is depressed, but disguised behind a cheery façade, she has a series of relationships with men, all of whom use her pretty unthinkingly. She drinks too much trying to dull the pain:
“Whisky could still soothe her for most of the time, but there were sudden, inexplicable moments when the cloud fell treacherously away from her, and she was saved by the sorrow and bewilderment and nuisance of all living … She dreamed by day of never putting on tight shoes, of never having to laugh and listen and admire, of never more being a good sport. Never.”
Hazel makes a botched suicide attempt. We feel her despair. The last line of the story is just five words long, but so full of pathos. Parker exposes the unsoundness of society’s expectations of women; it was the “Jazz Age” after all and women were supposed to have more freedom. It’s an ineffably sad story, and won Parker the O. Henry award for short fiction.
Her stories and poems ring true because Dorothy understood the depths of despair. She’d been there herself. She’d had a largely unhappy childhood and suffered from depression; she attempted suicide on a number of occasions.
She used humour to camouflage pain. After an abortion, she fell into a period of despondency, but her public remarks were characteristically witty: “It serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard.”
On a happier note, Dorothy had success as a screenwriter. She and Alan Campbell lived in Hollywood for a time and together wrote screenplays for some 15 movies. They were nominated for an Oscar for 1937’s A Star is Born. (She shared her other Oscar nomination with Frank Cavett for 1947’s Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman.)
Parker also had a strong social conscience. After the Spanish civil war, she was involved with the Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee dedicated to helping Spanish refugees. One consequence of this was that the House Un-American Activities decided that this had Communist connections and Dorothy was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Such a travesty.
Parker was a great believer in civil rights and made sure people knew it. Her story Arrangement in Black and White (1927) exposes those people who say they’re not racist but whose actions just ooze pure prejudice. Read it; there are still plenty of people like that around.
It was Parker’s belief in the civil rights movement that led her to leave her entire estate to Dr Martin Luther King. After his assassination, it went to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
There’s a fascinating sidebar to this story. Parker had appointed playwright Lillian Hellman as her literary executor. Hellman was so piqued that she didn’t inherit Parker’s estate that she not only contested the will, but left Parker’s ashes at the crematorium for six years, after which she sent them to a law firm, where they rested in a filing cabinet until 1988. The NAACP finally interred her remains in a garden in Baltimore, her epitaph “Excuse My Dust” – her own choice. Parker’s royalties still go to the NAACP.
Dorothy Parker can inspire writers and all creative artists. Here’s a Parker quote to motivate: “Creativity is a wild mind and a disciplined eye.” She still has much to offer modern readers.