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Dorothy Parker

On August 23, 1893, an extraordinary event exploded across the universe.  On that day, the indomitable, wise-cracking Dorothy Rothschild Parker decided to join the party. 

Parker was born and raised in West End, New Jersey, to a Jewish father and a Scottish mother who died when her daughter was only five.  The loss initially devastated her, although in time she grew to rely more heavily on her father, who had amassed a small fortune in the garment industry.  Father and daughter soon developed a strong bond, and Parker shared with him all of the secrets and joys that only a young child can know.  Two years later, he married a strict Roman Catholic woman, and trouble loomed in paradise.

Parker disliked her step-mother intensely, and the feeling was mutual.  As a young girl, she was enrolled at a Catholic school for girls in Manhattan, later transferring to Miss Dana's Boarding School.  Her father told school authorities that she was Episcopalian, although her dark Jewishness marked her as an outsider.  She maintained that image of herself--dark, brooding, alone--and in the face of early alienation and disappointment, she developed a biting and irreverent sense of humor to help her cope with her loneliness.  Late in life, she described herself as "one of those awful children who wrote verses."

Despite her earliest literary inclinations, Parker left school suddenly at the age of fourteen, never to return, to take care of her ill father, who had once again become a widower.

When her father died in 1913, Parker moved to New York City to seek a better life.  She wrote by day and earned money playing the piano at the Manhattan School of Dance by night.  Few people who knew her then would have guessed that she would work herself up to become a legendary figure in New York's literary scene, as well as one of the most talked about, revered, and feared critics in literary history.

Parker began selling poetry to the prestigious Vogue magazine at the age of 19 and soon accepted an editorial position there.  From 1917 to 1920, she also worked as a freelance critic for Vanity Fair and formed, along with Robert Benchley and Robert Sherwood, the nucleus of a group they dubbed the Algonquin Round Table, an informal luncheon clique held at New York City's Algonquin Hotel on Forty-Fourth Street.  Other Round Table members included writers Ring Lardner, James Thurber, and Harold Ross, who created the New Yorker magazine. 

Ross said later that he borrowed the tone of voice for his magazine--irreverent, witty, and sarcastic--from those early meetings.  Parker was the only female member of the club and often the only woman in attendance.

Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Roumania. - from Comment

Parker began her literary career shortly after World War I during an era when slick magazines were one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the country.  The best writers of the day relied heavily on sarcasm, adopting a sophisticated, wise-cracking tone of voice.  Parker soon proved that she could be just as sassy as any man.

An enigma of the day, she stood barely four feet-eleven inches tall.  She loved to drink, she loved to dance, she loved to smoke, she loved to swear.  And she loved to fall in love with men who didn't love her back.  Drama critic Alexander Woollcott described her as "A blend of Little Nell and Lady Macbeth."  Parker replied, "[I'm] just a little Jewish girl, trying to be cute."

In 1920, Parker was fired from Vanity Fair because her drama reviews had become too harsh and heartless, so she decided to put her cutting-edge cynicism to work in her first book of poems, Enough Rope, which became a national bestseller when it hit the shelves in 1926.  Perfectly suited to the role of the Queen of the Flappers, she bobbed her hair, endured several extra-marital affairs, suffered frequent bouts with alcoholism, and attempted suicide on three (or possibly four, but who was counting?) occasions.  Through it all, she somehow managed to maintain the high quality of her writing.

She managed, too, despite her cynicism, to take a lifelong if intermittent interest in political activism.  One of those projects would affect her for the remainder of her life.  It was her "pet" project, or so she called it--a demand for the release of two Italian immigrants who had been arrested for murder.  She brought the project to the Algonquin where she engaged the other members of the club in heated debate.  She felt strongly that long-time political anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti had been set up to take the rap for a crime they didn't commit, and she worked diligently at getting their death sentence overturned.  She enticed several other celebrities into joining her, and she was arrested while marching with Robert Benchley and Heywood Broun for the Italians' release.

It was only one of her political crusades that included going to Spain to work against Franco in the Spanish Civil War (the "proudest thing" she ever did), organizing Hollywood screenwriters into a protective guild, and getting blacklisted by the House on Un-American Activities Committee for her leftist social views.

But Parker the Activist had to reconcile herself to Parker the working girl; and, in 1927, she joined the staff of The New Yorker magazine where she wrote book reviews under the pen name, Constant Reader.  While she was there, she became famous for her two-line quip,

Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses.

Independent and feisty, Parker--by now an established author--followed up her first book with Sunset Guns (1928) and Death and Taxes (1931), which were collected in Collected Poems: Not So Deep as a Well (1936).  Her works in verse were sardonic, dry, and elegantly written commentaries on lost love or on the shallowness of modern life.

Why is it no one sent me yet
One perfect limousine, do you suppose?
Ah, no, it's always just my luck to get
One perfect rose.

Parker's short stories, which were collected in After Such Pleasures (1932) and Here Lies (1939), illuminated her deep knowledge and understanding of human nature.  Among her best-known tales are A Big Blonde and A Telephone Call.

During the 1930s, Parker moved with her second husband, Alan Campbell, to Hollywood where she worked as a screenwriter on A Star Is Born (1937), directed by William Wellman and starring Janet Gaynor, Fredric March, and Adolphe Menjou. She received An Academy Award for the screenplay, along  with Campbell and Robert Carson.  She also collaborated with Peter Vierter and Joan Harrison on Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur (1940).

But her success in Hollywood failed to quench her thirst for sardonic wit, much to the chagrin of many big-name celebrities of the day.  Once, after meeting Joan Crawford, who was married at the time to Franchot Tone, Parker said, "You can take a whore to culture, but you can't make her think."  Of the acting talents of Katherine Hepburn, she wrote, "She ran the whole gamut of emotions, from A to B."

When Parker turned 70, she said, "If I had any decency, I'd be dead.  Most of my friends are."  She also said, "Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words."

Much of Parker's best writing was collected in the Portable Dorothy Parker, which has been in print since 1944.  Of the first ten Portables published by Viking, only the Portable Shakespeare and the Portable Bible have sold as well and as steadily.

 
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. - from Resume

Besides her witty limericks, Parker contributed several words and phrases to America's pop vernacular, including bobbed (hairstyle: 1915), queer (homosexual: 1929), bundle of nerves (1915), it's a small world (1915), and what the hell (colloquial: 1923), not to mention the ubiquitous high society, one-night stand, and, appropriately enough, wisecrack.

Dorothy Parker, who once said, "I don't care what is written about me so long as it isn't true" and "People are more fun than anybody," penned her last sardonic quip on June 7, 1967.  She died alone and broken in the New York hotel she had helped to make famous and that had become her final home.

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