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
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
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
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.
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
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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;
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,
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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