The incomparable Dorothy Parker
“The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.” ―Dorothy Parker
On August 22, 1893, writer, poet, critic, and all-around awesome chick Dorothy Parker was born in West End, New Jersey. Her wit, irreverence, and scathing sense of humor enthralled audiences from the Jazz Age through the Swinging Sixties.
Parker’s childhood was a lonely and unhappy one. Her mother died in 1897, and her father’s new wife was definitely not to her liking. Dorothy attended a Catholic boarding school but didn’t stick around to graduate (ew — who could blame her?) Instead, she amassed her formidable store of knowledge via her voracious reading habit.
Dorothy was working as a dance instructor when her first poem was published by Vanity Fair magazine in 1914. Two years later, she was hired as a staff writer for the magazine and worked as their drama critic until 1920. Parker’s scathing yet hilarious reviews proved popular — initially at least. Vanity Fair gave her the boot after too many powerful theater owners and producers complained about her caustic (yet oh-so-accurate) write-ups.
A review she did of Tolstoy’s “Redemption” read in part:
I went into the Plymouth Theater a comparatively young woman, and I staggered out of it, three hours later, twenty years older…
Some people are completely humor-deficient because that right there is comedy gold.
The last straw with Vanity Fair was her brutal, yet honest, assessment of popular actress Billie Burke’s talents, who happened to be the main squeeze of one of the producers.
“If you don’t knit, bring a book”
Solid, practical advice in my book.
When Vanity Fair inevitably fired Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Robert Sherwood also resigned as a show of solidarity.
Around this time, Parker formed the inner circle of what became known as the Algonquin Round Table. Her fellow writers and champions, Benchley and Sherwood, were also founding members. Like-minded literati met at the Algonquin Hotel to enjoy lunch and intellectual discourse, the witty repartee impeccably timed and expertly delivered.
No-one did this with more flair than Dorothy Parker, whose quick turns of phrase made her a favorite among many prominent Jazz Age newspaper columnists.
Before long, columnists Alexander Woollcott and Franklin Pierce Adams joined the Algonquin Round Table. Even in such exalted literary company, Parker quickly became known as the group’s undisputed leader of snappy comebacks and one-liners.
Dorothy was already legendary. She personified the sophisticated/bordering-on-jaded New York City flapper of the 1920s to a tee.
Adams printed many of Parker’s off-the-cuff quips in his column The Conning Tower. Dorothy’s rep as a great wit (served up with a heaping helping of venom) began to get around. One of Parker’s best-known off-the-cuff retorts was her reaction when informed that the notoriously taciturn ex-President Calvin Coolidge had just died. Dorothy immediately asked:
“How could they tell?”
That’s a gazillionty different kinds of awesome.
Parker returned to magazine writing in 1925, and worked for The New Yorker almost from its inception. Incredibly, given her track record as a critic, she was tasked with writing theater reviews for the magazine. Not surprisingly, Dorothy didn't tone it down or censor herself. She proclaimed that a young actress named Katharine Hepburn :
Ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.
Brilliant in its simplicity.
Also not surprisingly, Dorothy's days of reviewing plays were numbered. On April 11, 1931, she resigned from The New Yorker to work on her own writing projects. It was a capital idea. During this time, Parker wrote many of her more well-known and most-loved poems. It could be argued that Dorothy’s humorously depressing or depressingly humorous poems based on her unsuccessful romantic escapades are her greatest professional achievements and her legacy.
Dorothy's poems may seem simplistic, but they cut right to the bone. Your first impression after reading a Parker poem is, “this is some funny shit.” Then you think on it a sec, and go sob in the corner for a wee bit. But before you know it, it’s funny again. Sheer genius.
Even almost a century later, Dorothy Parker’s poetry still sounds fresh and contemporary.
“Enough Rope,” Parker’s first collection of poetry, was published in 1926. Over the next 15 years, Dorothy experienced her highest level of productivity and acclaim. Her life took on the surface sparkle of the Roaring ’20s — trips to Europe, parties, speakeasies, and endless droll wise-cracking.
Parker was one of the most quoted women of the time. Her volumes of poetry, to her great surprise, did very well commercially. More accolades followed for her autobiographical short story Big Blonde which won the O. Henry award in 1929. Dorothy was on a roll.
Unfortunately, none of this success brought Dorothy more than transient happiness. Her personal life did not mirror her professional successes. But without her trainwreck relationships haunting her pysche, Dorothy may have lacked the inspiration for some of her best work. But then again, maybe she would’ve chosen happily married anonymity over acclaim.
In any case, Parker had several disastrous love affairs, an abortion, and attempted to commit suicide at least twice. Plenty of fodder for her poetry, that's for sure.
In 1934, Dorothy and her new husband, writer Alan Campbell (11 years her junior), moved to Hollywood where she contributed to or wrote the screenplays for 39 films, including the classic A Star Is Born. Even though she helped form and served on the Screen Writers’ Guild, Dorothy was always highly ambivalent about the work she did during her years in Hollywood. It made her feel like a bit of a sell-out.
She also began working as a critic again (giggle) during the 1930s — this time for The New Yorker. Again.
But writing wasn't Dorothy’s only passion. Parker was a true social justice warrior before the term was even invented. She became a socialist in the late 1920s. Dorothy was arrested at a protest demanding the release of Sacco and Vanzetti. She went to Spain and joined the fight against Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Parker was blacklisted during the McCarthy Era for her pro-Left stance.
In short, Dorothy was a free-thinking badass.
Back at home, after divorcing, remarrying, separating, and reconciling with Dorothy in an unending square-dance of codependency, Alan Campbell overdosed in 1963. Parker herself died alone of a heart attack in a New York hotel room on June 7, 1967. A longtime champion and vocal supporter of the civil rights movement, she bequeathed her entire estate to Martin Luther King, Jr.
The NAACP designed a memorial garden for Parker outside their Baltimore headquarters. Her remains are interred there, marked by a plaque that 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.
She was, by any reckoning, one of a kind.