Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)
Dorothy Parker was an American poet, short story writer, critic, screenwriter, and satirist best known for her wit and wisecracks especially in the 1920’s when she was a member of the Algonquin Round Table group or writers, critics, actors and artists. The Algonquin Round Table or “The Vicious Circle” circle as they dubbed themselves met for lunch every day at the Algonquin Hotel from 1919-1929. At these luncheons they engaged in wisecracks, wordplay and witticisms. Several of its members gained national reputations for their contributions to literature and for their wit. There was no official membership, however the founding or charter members included : Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley (humorist and actor), Franklin Pierce Adams (columnist), Heywood Broun (columnist and sportswriter), Marc Connelly (playwright), Ruth Hale (Freelance writer and feminist), George S. Kaufman (playwright and director), Harold Ross (the “New Yorker” editor), Robert E. Sherwood (author and playwright), John Peter Toohey (publicist), and Alexander Wollcott (critic and journalist).
In later years Dorothy Parker would go on to criticize the group, “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…” While it may be true that some members are perhaps now “famous for being famous” as opposed to their literary output, members did significantly contribute to the literary landscape. Including Pulitzer prizes won by Kaufman, Connelly and Sherwood (who won four), also sometime member author and playwright Edna Ferber also won a Pulitzer Prize. The continuing legacy of Ross’s New Yorker is also of major significance.
Parker sold her first poem to “Vanity Fair” in 1914 and a few months later was hired as an editorial assistant to another Condé Nast magazine, “Vogue.” She would move to “Vanity Fair” two years later as a staff writer. In 1918 she began writing theater criticism, originally as a stand in for a vacationing P.G. Wodehouse and her career really took off. It was here that she formed a close friendship with Robert Benchley and Robert E. Sherwood. The three of them began lunching at the Algonquin Hotel. In 1920 she was fired from “Vanity Fair” after her criticisms and caustic wit caused too many producers to be offended. Benchley and Sherwood both resigned in protest. With the founding of the “New Yorker” both Parker and Benchley were part of its board of editors set up to allay concerns of the investors. Her first piece for the magazine appeared in the second issue.
She became famous for her short, viciously humorous poems, many about her unsuccessful romantic affairs and her considering the appeal of suicide. In the 1920’s she published some three-hundred poems in “Vanity Fair,” “Vogue,” “The Coming Tower,” “New Yorker,” Life,” “McCall’s,” and “The New Republic.” In 1926 she published her first collection of poetry, “Enough Rope.” It garnered good reviews and sold 47,000 copies. “The Nation,” reviewed it as, “caked with a salty humor, rough with splinters of disillusion, and tarred with a bright black authenticity.” The volume helped to solidify her reputation for sparkling wit. She would go on to publish two more volumes of poetry, “Sunset Gun (1928),” and “Death and Taxes (1931).” She also published three short story collections “Laments for the Living (1930),” “After Such Pleasures (1933),” and “Not So Deep a Well (1936).” Her best known short story “Big Blonde” was awarded the O. Henry Award as the best short story of 1929. In the late 1920’s she began to become politically aware and active to a lifetime commitment to left-leaning causes which would eventually lead to her being blacklisted.
In 1934 she married Alan Campbell and they moved to Hollywood. They signed a 10 week contract with Paramount with Campbell earning $250 per week and Parker $1,000 per week. They would eventually earn up to $5,000 per week freelancing for various studios. They worked on more than fifteen films together.
With the entry of the United States she entered into a collaboration with Alexander Collcott on an anthology of her work with Viking Press for servicemen stationed overseas. It was released in 1944 in the United States as “The Portable Dorothy Parker,” One of only three in the series to continuously be in print, the other two being Shakespeare and the Bible.
During the 1930’s and 1940’s she became a vocal advocate for civil liberties, civil rights, and a critic of authority. She would report on the loyalist cause in Spain for the “New Masses” magazine. In 1936 she helped found the Hollywood anti-Nazi league. Its membership eventually grew to over 4,000. She was also chair of the Joint Anti-Fascist Rescue Committee. She helped to transport loyalist veterans to Mexico, headed the Spanish Children’s relief and allowed her name to be associated with many left-wing causes and organizations. In the 1950’s Parker was listed as a communist by the publication “Red Channels.” During the McCarthy era the FBI built a 1,000 page dossier on her and as a result was placed on the Hollywood blacklist by the movie studios.
She moved back to New York in 1952 and from 1957 to 1962 wrote book reviews for “Esquire.” She died June 7th, 1967 of a heart attack at age 73. She bequeathed her estate to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Following his death her estate was passed on to the NAACP. Her ashes remained unclaimed for some seventeen years. In 1988 the NAACP claimed her remains and designated a memorial garden for them outside their Baltimore headquarters. The Plaque reads:
“Here lie the ashes of Dorothy Parker (1893–1967) humorist, writer, critic. Defender of human and civil rights. For her epitaph she suggested, ‘Excuse my dust’. This memorial garden is dedicated to her noble spirit which celebrated the oneness of humankind and to the bonds of everlasting friendship between black and Jewish people. Dedicated by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. October 28, 1988.” On August 22nd, 1992 the 99thanniversary of her birth the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in the Library of Arts series. In 1987 The Algonquin Hotel was designated a New York City Historic Landmark.
A few short quotes :
“Heterosexuality is not normal, it’s just common.”
“You can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think.”
“I’d like to have money. And I’d like to be a good writer. These two can come together, and I hope they will, but if that’s too adorable, I’d rather have money.”
“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
~ Dorothy Parker