Short-story writer, poet, dramatist, and critic
"Guns aren’t lawful,/ Nooses give;/Gas smells awful;/You might as well live."
Dorothy Parker's sharply witty voice was one of the most memorable of the Roaring Twenties. She was a member of the talented circle of writers and critics who gathered every week at New York City's Algonquin Hotel to trade gossip and humorous comments. Parker would later prefer, however, to be known as the author of insightful criticism, moving short stories, and deceptively light verse. As someone who did not express herself in the polite, gracious manner expected of women, Parker embodied the shift in attitudes about female behavior that began in the 1920s. She would become a role model for younger women seeking success in the male-dominated realms of literature and journalism.
A sharp tongue and a talent for writing
Dorothy Parker was born Dorothy Rothschild in West End, New Jersey, a suburb of New York City. Her father was a wealthy Jewish businessman and her mother a Protestant of Scottish heritage who died when Parker was four. In the years to come, Parker would describe her mixed ethnic background in negative terms. Her father subsequently married a highly
religious Catholic woman who attempted to force Parker into the same mold by enrolling her in a Catholic school. Parker attended the Blessed Sacrament Convent School from the age of seven until she was fourteen. She was finally expelled for acting disrespectful, and she would later joke that all she learned at this school was that pencil erasers would erase ink when dampened.
In 1907 Parker entered Miss Dana's School in Morristown, New Jersey. She was not much happier at this exclusive private academy for girls, but she did acquire a good education there. She graduated in 1911 and moved into a New York City boardinghouse, writing during the day while supporting herself by playing piano in a dancing school. She began selling her poems to various magazines and was finally hired by Vogue as a copywriter, assigned to write captions for fashion illustrations.
Parker's witty style soon caught the attention of Frank Crowninshield, the editor of a sophisticated magazine called Vanity Fair that was owned by the same publisher as Vogue. He hired Parker, and her critical essays, satirical writing, and poetry began appearing in the magazine. She began to gain a reputation for her devastating wit, which both delighted and shocked readers.
In June 1917 Parker married businessman Edwin Pond Parker II, who soon enlisted in the army and was sent overseas to serve in World War I (a global conflict fought between 1914 and 1918, which the United States entered in 1917). Parker's career continued to develop. She became Vanity Fair's drama critic in 1918, and the next year she became friends with Robert Benchley (1889–1945) and Robert E. Sherwood (1896–1955), who had joined the magazine as staff writers.
The Algonquin Round Table
Parker, Benchley, and Sherwood began having weekly lunches together at the Algonquin Hotel. Soon they were joined by critic Alexander Woolcott (1887–1943), newspaper columnist Franklin P. Adams (1881–1960), and Harold Ross (1892–1951), who would found the New Yorker magazine in 1925. Other notable writers, such as humorists Ring Lardner (1885–1933) and James Thurber (1894–1961), would show up occasionally at what came to be called the Algonquin Round Table. Parker was usually the only woman present.
Adams publicized the group's gatherings, which became famous for their witty exchanges and lively conversation. Parker's role was particularly noteworthy for its radical departure from tradition. Whereas women were expected to be mild-mannered and gentle, she delighted in being tough and sarcastic, even to the point of nastiness. But Parker's sharp tongue got her into trouble in 1920. She was fired from her job at Vanity Fair for reportedly poking fun at the wife of one of the magazine's financial backers.
Ring Lardner: Satire and Sports
The popularity of witty writers like Dorothy Parker and James Thurber during the Roaring Twenties highlights the appreciation that the people of this period had for humor writing and satire. One of the best known writers in this category was Ring Lardner.
Ringgold "Ring" Lardner was born into a wealthy family in Niles, Michigan, in 1885. After he finished high school, his father insisted that he enter engineering school. He soon flunked out. In 1905 he got a job as a reporter for a South Bend, Indiana newspaper, the Times. Two years later Lardner moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he worked as a sports columnist for several of the city's newspapers, including the Tribune. As time went by he became known for the humorous, informal, engaging style that would characterize his fiction and that would be imitated by other sportswriters for generations to come.
In 1915 Lardner wrote a story in the form of a letter from a dimwitted, obnoxious baseball pitcher named Jack Keefe to a friend back home. Originally published in the Saturday Evening Post magazine, the story was so popular that Lardner wrote a whole series of letters, which appeared in 1916 as a book called You Know Me, Al. Lardner was much admired for his cynical humor and skillful rendering of slang, and the book became a classic of U.S. sports fiction. In 1917 Lardner served briefly as a World War I correspondent for Colliers magazine, but he soon returned to his stateside writing career. He started writing a weekly newspaper column in 1919.
Some of Lardner's best short stories were published during the Roaring Twenties. Such tales as "Champion," "Some Like Them Cold," "Haircut," and "Golden Honeymoon" were collected in How to Write Short Stories (1924) and The Love Nest and Other Stories (1926). Toward the end of the decade, Lardner collaborated with producer George M. Cohan on a Broadway show called Elmer the Great (1928) and with playwright George S. Kaufman on June Moon (1929). Lardner died of a heart attack in 1933.
Parker was quickly hired to write a monthly theater column for Ainslee's magazine, and she continued to publish humorous pieces, essays, character sketches, and her own brand of funny, epigrammatic (short and witty) verse in such publications as Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, and Everybody's. Already her work demonstrated the qualities for which she would long be praised, including her ability to invoke laughter in the face of tragedy and to expose the contradictions of human behavior.
Productivity and depression
Parker and her husband separated in 1928, and Parker had a love affair that ended badly. This led to a period of depression and the first of her two suicide attempts. For the rest of her life, Parker would alternate between periods of productivity and bouts of depression and heavy drinking.
Her first published short story, "Such a Pretty Little Picture," which featured a theme of failed marriage, appeared in Smart Set at the end of 1922. Her first poetry collection, Enough Rope (1926) included the famous and much-quoted poem "Resume," which treats the subject of suicide in a humorous way, concluding "Guns aren't lawful,/Nooses give;/Gas smells awful;/You might as well live." Many of the poems in this best-selling collection document the costs of false promises and broken romance. Later poems were collected in Sunset Gun (1927) and the even more pessimistic Death and Taxes (1931).
From time to time Parker had contributed pieces to the New Yorker, and in October 1927 she began writing a weekly book review column, which she signed "Constant Reader," for that magazine. Her reviews now began to include more in-depth analysis, and she was recognized as a reliable, insightful judge of literary merit.
The writing skill and understanding of human weakness that Parker showed in her short stories were confirmed in 1929 when she won the O. Henry Memorial Award for "Big Blonde." At the center of this sad story is Hazel Morse, an attractive and pleasant-natured woman with a pathetic dependence on men for both emotional and financial support. In her alcoholism, frequent affairs, and suicide attempt, Hazel bore some resemblance to Parker, who was praised for creating a truly tragic figure who, despite her weaknesses, does not deserve her grim fate.
Despite the success she had achieved in her professional life and her growing reputation as an important figure in the U.S. literary scene, Parker continued to lead a messy personal life. She was divorced from Edwin Parker in 1928 and lost several good friends due to her sharp tongue. She was also drinking too much, which sometimes interfered with her ability to meet deadlines.
From New York to Hollywood and back
In 1934 Parker married a young actor named Alan Campbell, and the pair moved to Hollywood to become screenwriters. Over the next sixteen years, they would collaborate on twenty-two film scripts, including one for the Academy Award-winning film A Star Is Born. Along with dramatist Lillian Hellman (1906–1984) and fiction writer Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961), Parker and her husband helped to organize the Screen Actors Guild, an organization designed to protect the interests of actors involved in the movie industry.
As the 1930s progressed, Parker became increasingly involved in liberal political causes. As early as 1927 she had marched in a protest against the execution of Nicola Sacco (1891–1927) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (1888–1927), Italian immigrants convicted of murder in a trial that many felt had been unfair. She helped to set up the Anti-Nazi League in 1936 and traveled to Spain to report on that nation's civil war for the radical leftist publication New Masses. She was not writing as much poetry and short fiction now, but collections of her work in both of these genres appeared in the last half of the 1930s.
Parker divorced Campbell in 1947. The two would remarry in 1950, but would soon divorce again. Despite her distaste for the superficiality of Hollywood's movie industry, Parker returned to screenwriting. Two years later she collaborated with Ross Evans on a play called The Coast of Illyria, which was based on the lives of the English essayist Charles Lamb and his sister Mary. Her best play, however, and the accomplishment of which she claimed to be most proud, was Ladies ofthe Corridor (1953), which she wrote with Arnaud D'Usseau. This drama centers on the lives of two lonely elderly ladies who live in shabby New York hotel rooms.
Amid the anti-Communist hysteria that prevailed in the United States during the late 1940s and early 1950s, Parker was targeted by Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908–1957) and the House Un-American Activities Committee for her leftist politics and supposed Communist sympathies. In her final decade she continued to write, contributing pieces to the New Yorker, adapting her short stories for television, and writing a monthly book review column for Esquire magazine from 1957 to 1963; she was also a visiting professor at California State College in Los Angeles. She sometimes expressed regret that the reputation for sarcastic wit she had attracted during the Algonquin days had overshadowed her attempts at serious writing.
Parker died of a heart attack in 1967, alone in her room at the Volny Hotel in New York. She left most of her estate to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
For More Information
Calhoun, Randall. Dorothy Parker: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992.
Frewin, Leslie. The Late Mrs. Dorothy Parker. New York: Macmillan, 1986.
Kinney, Arthur. Dorothy Parker. Boston: Twayne, 1978.
Meade, Marion. Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? New York: Penguin, 1989.
Parker, Dorothy. Enough Rope. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1926.
Dorothy Parker (1893–1967). Available online at http://www.levity.com/corduroy/parker.htm. Accessed on June 29, 2005.
"Dorothy Parker (1893–1967)." American Poems. Available online at http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/parker/. Accessed on June 29, 2005.
"Dorothy Parker (1893–1967)—original surname Rothschild." Books and Writers. Available online at http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/dparker.htm. Accessed on June 29, 2005.
Nationality: American. Born: Dorothy Rothschild in West End, New Jersey, 22 August 1893. Education: Blessed Sacrament Convent, New York; Miss Dana's School, Morristown, New Jersey, 1907-11, graduated 1911. Family: Married 1) Edwin Pond Parker II in 1917 (divorced 1928); 2) Alan Campbell in 1933 (divorced 1947; remarried 1950; died 1963). Career: Played piano at a dancing school, New York, 1912-15; editorial staff member, Vogue, New York, 1916-17; staff writer and drama critic, Vanity Fair, New York, 1917-20; founder, with Robert Benchley, Robert E. Sherwood, and others, Algonquin Hotel Round Table, 1920; theater columnist, Ainslee's, 1920-33; book reviewer ("Constant Reader" column), New Yorker, 1925-27; columnist, McCall's, New York, late 1920s; book reviewer, Esquire, New York, 1957-62. Awards: O. Henry award, 1929; Marjorie Peabody Waite award, 1958. Died: 7 June 1967.
The Poetry and Short Stories of Dorothy Parker. 1994.
The Best of Dorothy Parker. 1995.
Laments for the Living. 1930.
Here Lies: The Collected Stories. 1939.
Collected Stories. 1942.
Big Blonde and Other Stories. 1995.
After Such Pleasures. 1933.
Chauve-Souris (revue), with others (produced 1922).
Round the Town (lyrics only; revue) (produced 1924).
Close Harmony; or, The Lady Next Door, with Elmer Rice (produced 1924). 1929.
Business Is Business, with George S. Kaufman (produced 1925).
Sketches, in Shoot the Works (revue) (produced 1931).
The Coast of Illyria, with Ross Evans (produced 1949). 1990.
The Ladies of the Corridor, with Arnaud d'Usseau (produced1953). 1954.
Here Is My Heart (uncredited), with others, 1934;One Hour Late, with others, 1935; The Big Broadcast of 1936, with others, 1935; Mary Burns, Fugitive, with others, 1935; Hands Across the Table, with others, 1935; Paris in Spring, with others, 1935; The Moon's Our Home, with others, 1936; Lady Be Careful, with others, 1936; Three Married Men, with Alan Campbell and Owen Davis, Sr., 1936; Suzy, with others, 1936; A Star Is Born, with others, 1937; Sweethearts, with Alan Campbell, 1938; Trade Winds, with others, 1938; The Little Foxes, with others, 1941; Weekend for Three, with Alan Campbell and Budd Schulberg, 1941; Saboteur, with Peter Viertel and Joan Harrison, 1942; Smash-Up—The Story of a Woman, with others, 1947; The Fan, with Walter Reisch and Ross Evans, 1949.
The Lovely Leave, A Telephone Call, and Dusk Before Fireworks, from her own stories, 1962.
Enough Rope. 1926.
Sunset Gun. 1928.
Death and Taxes. 1931.
Collected Poems: Not So Deep as a Well. 1936; as Collected Poetry, 1944.
Not Much Fun: The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker. 1996.
High Society, with George S. Chappell and Frank Crowninshield. 1920.
Men I'm Not Married To, with Women I'm Not Married To, by Franklin P. Adams. 1922.
The Portable Parker. 1944; as The Indispensable Parker, 1944; asSelected Short Stories, 1944; revised edition, as The Portable Parker, 1973; as The Collected Parker, 1973.
Constant Reader. 1970; as A Month of Saturdays, 1971.
Editor, The Portable F. Scott Fitzgerald. 1945.
Editor, with Frederick B. Shroyer, Short Story: A Thematic Anthology. 1965.*
Dorothy Parker: A Bio-Bibliography by Randall Calhoun, 1993.
An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir by Lillian Hellman, 1969; You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Parker by John Keats, 1970; Parker by Arthur F. Kinney, 1978; The Late Mrs. Parker by Leslie Frewin, 1986; Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? by Marion Meade, 1988; The Rhetoric of Rage: Women in Dorothy Parker by Sondra Melzer, 1997; Dorothy Parker, Revised by Arthur F. Kinney, 1998.* * *
At her best as a witty, suave satirist of urban life in the 1920s, Dorothy Parker depicted in several volumes of light verse and many short stories the conditions of life for alienated city-dwellers. As a skillful reviewer and critic, Parker developed a scathingly epigrammatic style, best displayed in demolishing inept or pretentious literary or dramatic productions. Her criticism of life, like her criticism of literature, was based on ideals of grace and quality that she rarely discovered in practice. Like most effective satirists, Parker was something of a frustrated or disappointed idealist, always amazed that the world is so invariably fraudulent.
Associated with the urbane wits of the Algonquin Round Table and the fledgling New Yorker magazine, Parker was an acute observer of the manners and mores of New York culture and a precursor of such realist-satirist commentators as John O'Hara, John Cheever, and John Updike. Her verse is acrid and in the tradition of neoclassical epigrammatic social satire, and this spare, telegraphic quality is also characteristic of her understated, elegant stories.
Parker's fiction often consists of interior monologues, like in: "A Telephone Call," in which an anxious woman prays desperately to hear from her beloved—"Please, God, let him telephone me now. Dear God, let him call me now. I won't ask anything else of You, truly I won't"; or, the witty and allusive "The Little Hours," in which an insomniac invokes La Rouchefoucauld (also one of Swift's masters) and a horde of half-remembered literary citations in lieu of counting sheep; or, the mordant "Just a Little One," a drunken soliloquy from a speakeasy in 1928.
Other stories are skeletal dialogues, as directly dramatic as oneact plays, like "The Sexes," which outlines a jealous debate, or "Here We Are," which develops the same idea through a young man and woman who have been married only three hours and who argue vituperatively on their honeymoon train ride, ending with an ominous entente:
"We're not going to have any bad starts. Look at us—we're on our honeymoon. Pretty soon we'll be regular old married people. I mean. I mean, in a few minutes we'll be getting into New York, and then everything will be all right. I mean—well, look at us! Here we are married! Here we are!" "Yes, here we are," she said. "Aren't we?"
Another dialogue, "New York to Detroit," based on the newfangled idea of long-distance telephone calls, underscores the basic Parker theme of alienation in the midst of communication.
In 1927 Parker listed three of the greatest American short stories as Ernest Hemingway's "The Killers," Sherwood Anderson's "I'm a Fool," and Ring Lardner's "Some Like Them Cold." These choices show her critical acumen and the style and substance she admired and emulated in her own stories. In a story like "The Lovely Leave," written early in World War II, she achieves some of the effects of these three sardonic, tough-minded observers of the American scene. It depicts Mimi, a young wife, and her self-absorbed husband, Lt. Steve McVicker, home for a brief leave. He revels in the comforts of home, while his mind and heart are with the fliers he trains. She realizes she cannot compete with the intense male world of the war, and he seems impossible to reach. Finally, as he departs he explains:
I can't talk about it. I can't even think about it—because if I did I couldn't do my job. But just because I don't talk about it doesn't mean I want to be doing what I'm doing. I want to be with you, Mimi. That's where I belong.
The brief moment of revelation breaks down the impermeable barrier between the sexes and reassures her in her loneliness and isolation.
The loneliness of individuals cut off from each other is a quintessential Parker theme, often coupled with examples of the human capacity for self-delusion and hypocrisy. For example, "The Waltz" is a monologue story that contrasts the bright social chit-chat of a woman dancing and her darker inner thoughts:
I hate this creature I'm chained to. I hated him the moment I saw his leering, bestial face. And here I've been locked in his noxious embrace for the thirty-five years this waltz has lasted. Is that orchestra never going to stop playing? Or must this obscene travesty of a dance go on until hell burns out? Oh, they're going to play another encore. Oh, goody. Oh, that's lucky. Tired? I should say I'm not tired. I'd like to go on like this forever.
As in most of Parker's stories, the light comedy of the scene is underlined by despair, a feeling of the futility of decorum and manners in a world driven by baseness, selfishness, and deceit.
Her fiction has remained popular, often more widely read than the work of her peers of the 1920s; The Portable Dorothy Parker has been continuously in print since 1944. Her fiction is accessible and in many ways timeless, unlike much social satire or domestic realism. The very basic emotions and situations at the heart of her writing—sexual jealousy and inconstancy, the pressures of aging and change, the bedrock human needs for affection and security—make her stories seem classic, detached from the frivolity and fecklessness of the "roaring twenties." And her liberal sociopolitical concerns are still alive, like those expressed in "Arrangement in Black and White," which exposes the shallow, unconscious racism of middle America. Such incisive observation and portraiture is enduring.
—William J. Schafer
See the essay on "Big Blonde."
PARKER, DOROTHY (1893–1967), U.S. poet and author. Daughter of a Jewish father and a Scottish mother, she began her career by writing reviews for Vogue and Vanity Fair (who found her reviews too harsh) and then for The New Yorker. Her first book of verse, Enough Rope (1926), was a best seller, and was followed by two others, all three later being collected in Not So Deep As a Well (1936). She also became known as a short story writer, her prizewinning tale, "Big Blonde" (1929), being generally considered her best. Collected short stories appeared in Laments for the Living (1930), After Such Pleasures (1933), and Here Lies (1939); in 1944 a collection of her prose and verse appeared as The Portable Dorothy Parker, with an introduction by W. Somerset Maugham. Dorothy Parker was witty, sardonic, elegant, and often profound. She also wrote Hollywood screenplays, and a drama in which she collaborated with Arnaud d'Usseau, Ladies of the Corridor (1953), was successfully staged in New York.
J. Keats, You Might as Well Live (1970); N.W. Yates, American Humorist (1964), 262–73; S.J. Kunitz, Twentieth Century Authors, first supplement (1955); Paris Review, Writers at Work (1958), 69–82.