Parker, Dorothy (1893–1967)
Parker, Dorothy (1893–1967)
American writer and critic whose collections of short stories and verse, along with her well-publicized acerbic wit, made her one of America's most famous and widely quoted women of the 20th century. Born Dorothy Rothschild on August 22, 1893, in West End, New Jersey; died on June 7, 1967, in New York City; one of four children of Eliza Rothschild and Henry Rothschild; attended private and parochial schools in New York City; married Edward Parker, in 1917 (divorced 1928); married Alan Campbell, in 1933 (divorced 1942, remarried 1950); no children.
Began literary career at age 24 as caption writer for Vogue (1916); transferred to Vogue 's sister publication, Vanity Fair (1917); eventually promoted to literary and dramatic criticism and began publishing short stories; joined the staff of Harold Ross' new humor magazine, The New Yorker (1926); became a fixture of New York's literary smart set and a member of the Algonquin Round Table; plagued throughout her life by depression and alcoholism, exacerbated by ruinous love affairs and two ultimately unhappy marriages.
A curious parcel arrived at the office of New York attorney Oscar Bernstien one sultry afternoon in mid-July 1973. The package had been mailed from the Ferncliff Crematory on Long Island, where its contents had been stored for six years. Now, Bernstien learned, the mortal remains of his former client Dorothy Parker were his responsibility, although there were no instructions indicating what he was to do with the small wooden box. For the next 15 years, the ashes of one of America's brightest literary wits would lie forgotten in a filing cabinet of an anonymous Wall Street law firm before finding a permanent resting place, a fate that made one of the epitaphs Dorothy had written for herself, "Excuse My Dust," seem peculiarly apt.
She had not often been of so meek a nature during her lifetime. She had, after all, held her own as one of the few female members of the Algonquin Round Table, that garrulous and acerbic luncheon crowd of literary egotists who gathered each week during the 1920s at the famed hotel on West 44th Street. Between the two World Wars, in fact, Parker was labeled the wittiest woman in America. Her theater reviews in national magazines, her volumes of light verse and her bon mots were endlessly quoted and endlessly misquoted. She wrote serious fiction in the form of short stories, although she described writing as "holy hell"—so much so that friends claimed Parker had to lie down for three hours after composing a telegram. In her private life, she put away alcohol in any number of speakeasies during Prohibition and took lovers when she pleased, entertaining many of them in her rooms at the Algonquin—someplace, she said, where she could "lay my hat and a few friends." She covered her frequent depressions with a layer of wry humor, and the slashed wrists left from the first of several suicide attempts with pale blue ribbons and bows. She seemed at times to enjoy her notoriety, and in one of her early poems had written:
They say of me, and so they should,
It's doubtful if I come to good.
Even her birth had been at least a little notorious, for she had arrived unexpectedly a month early in West End, New Jersey, rather than in the bustling city she would later claim as her own. Henry Rothschild ("No, dear, not those Rothschilds," Dorothy was always quick to point out) had packed his wife Eliza Rothschild and his three children off to the shore for the summer, as he did every year, remaining in New York during the week to look after his prosperous ready-to-wear cloak business on lower Broadway. Since their marriage in 1880, Eliza had given birth to two sons, Harold and Bertram, and a daughter, Helen . In January 1893, six years after Helen's birth, Eliza announced she was expecting a fourth child the following autumn, but went into labor in late August as a hurricane threatened the New Jersey shore. Dorothy was born on August 22, just before the storm pounded West End with torrential rains. Rainswept weather would become a recurring motif in her writings. Her earliest memory, Parker once said, was of the sight of rain falling outside a long-forgotten window, and she would later write that she loved New York best on a rainy day, when its streets were "black and shining as ripe olives."
The Rothschild household was rarely quiet, full of Henry's many sisters and brothers who came visiting and filled the air with their raucous jokes and wisecracks; while the Irish servants came and went with alarming frequency, disappearing under various perceived derelictions of duty loudly argued throughout the house. It was all perfectly normal to young Dorothy, fussed over by aunts and uncles who cooed about her delicate, pale skin and her luxurious brown hair. In June 1898, as usual, the family left sweltering New York for West End. But the next month, Eliza was stricken by coughing fits that left her gasping for breath, and by intestinal disorders that left her weak and nauseated. On July 20, as another storm raged overhead, five-year-old Dorothy learned that her mother had died of "colic," as the doctor wrote on Eliza's death certificate. "My mother," Parker tersely said many years later, "promptly went and died on me." Her mother's passing marked the end of a blissfully normal childhood and the beginning of Parker's lifelong suspicion of domestic tranquillity.
Only weeks after Eliza's death, Henry sold the townhouse and moved his children twice in six months before announcing his marriage to Eleanor Lewis , a retired schoolteacher and the second Christian woman the Jewish Henry had taken to the altar. To make matters worse, Henry did not object when the strictly Catholic Eleanor enrolled Dorothy in the nearby Blessed Sacrament Academy where, Parker complained to her father, the sisters were ill-tempered and her classmates taunted her for having a Jewish father. When Eleanor collapsed and died of a cerebral hemorrhage three years after marrying Henry, Parker was convinced her undisguised hatred for the woman had brought about her demise.
The remainder of Dorothy's adolescence was relatively uneventful, Henry remaining a bachelor for the rest of his life while doting on his youngest daughter, smoothing over her occasional rebellions at Blessed Sacrament and sending her and Helen off to Bellport on Long Island for the summer. By 1907, both Helen and Bert had married and Parker's eldest brother Harold, the black sheep of the family, had disappeared and was never heard from again. Parker herself enrolled at a private girls' school in Morristown, New Jersey. Discovering there were no Jews at the school, and that none were likely to be allowed, Henry placidly wrote on Parker's application that he was Episcopalian. Dorothy lasted precisely six months. She did not return for the fall term in 1908, and at 15, declined to attend any school at all. It was the end of her formal education. She would admit only once in public, many years later, that she had never finished high school. "But, by God, I read," was all she could offer as a defense.
It's not the tragedies that kill us. It's the messes. I can't stand messes.
For the next five years, Dorothy and her father shared a small apartment on New York's West Side, not far from the old family home. Henry had retired from the clothing business by now, and spent his days looking after his investments, taking long walks with his daughter, and trading the doggerel verse he and his youngest daughter liked to compose for each other. "If to your Papa you are good," Henry wrote from New York to Parker in Bellport:
You shall have both clothes and food
You shall live on milk and honey
And never know the need of money.
Parker wrote back:
This morning I received your "pome"
How did you do it all alone?
When you come down on Sunday, Pa….
No, nothing rhymes, except cigar.
Life for Dorothy was ordered, if dull, during these five years. But her father never seemed to recover from the death of one of his brothers on the Titanic in 1912, his health spiraling downward until, just after Christmas 1913, Henry died of a heart attack. Never able to resist dramatic embellishments to her early life, Parker would later portray herself as an abandoned, destitute waif after her father's death. Although it was true that Henry had squandered a good deal of his fortune on questionable investments, there was enough left for Parker to live comfortably in either Helen's or Bert's household, both of which were buffeted by marital difficulties. By now Dorothy's mistrust of placid domesticity had grown to outright loathing, and she longed to set herself free from family ties.
Accordingly, she took a job at a dance school to earn money, playing piano at the height of the dance craze that was sweeping the country. At the same time, she began submitting some of her light verse to New York newspapers and magazines. Such short poems on topics or personalities of the day were then an immensely popular form of social commentary. In late 1914, as war rumbled through Europe, Dorothy submitted a poem to Vanity Fair, edited by Frank Crowninshield. The piece was a sharp bit of social satire on the sort of leisured women who spent long summer afternoons on each other's front porches, leaving the details of making money to their husbands on Wall Street. Parker's deft use of colloquial phrases and clever rhymes attracted Crowninshield's attention. He accepted the poem for publication and sent her a check for $25, all that Parker needed to wheedle her way into a job interview with "Crownie," as his associates called him. The result was the offer of a position as a caption writer for Vanity Fair's sister publication, the fashion magazine Vogue, at $10 a week. Moving into a small room in a boarding house on upper Broadway, Parker eagerly looked forward to her brilliant literary debut. "I thought I was Edith Sitwell ," she later said.
The reality proved somewhat different. As soon as the excitement of having her own room and her own job wore off, the endless procession of fashion illustrations needing descriptive captions had all the makings of a literary dead-end. Parker's growing irritation began to bubble out through her pen. "There was a little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead," Parker scribbled when a photograph of a model wearing a frilly nightgown crossed her desk. "When she was good she was very, very good, and when she was bad she wore this divine nightdress of rose-colored mousseline de soie, trimmed with frothy Valenciennes lace." Vogue's editor, the strait-laced Edna Woolman Chase , was not amused at the sexual innuendo and decided to keep a closer eye on the young woman she described as "treacle-sweet of tongue but vinegar witted."
Crowninshield accepted a few more of her poems for Vanity Fair, notably a diatribe against happy, homemaking women that was so cleverly vitriolic that he forced her to use a pseudonym before he would print it. Soon, prose pieces began to arrive on his desk in the style of writing Crowninshield most favored, a bemused, detached, wry tone once described as the "Elevated Eyebrow School of Journalism." Dorothy became such a master at it that Crowninshield finally began to take her writing, and the idea of a position at his magazine, seriously. "Her perceptions were so sure," he later said, "her judgment
so unerring, that she always seemed to hit the center of the mark."
Meanwhile, Parker was exploring new ground in her personal life. During a vacation at a Connecticut hotel in the summer of 1916, she met the handsome scion of a wealthy Hartford family with a New England lineage so ancient that they truly came over on the Mayflower. This was of no consequence, however, to Edwin Pond Parker II, who delighted Dorothy with his scandalous family stories and his complete indifference to the fact that she was Jewish. Since he was employed at the time as a stockbroker for the family's Wall Street firm, she found herself dining at expensive restaurants after work, while Eddie, as she now called him, consumed the considerable amounts of alcohol that only seemed to make him funnier. Dorothy disliked the taste of alcohol and abstained.
Eddie, Dorothy discovered with some nervousness, was the first man with whom she was actually in love. By the time the United States entered World War I in 1917, he announced his intention of enlisting and asked her to marry him. On June 30 of that year, Dorothy Rothschild became Dorothy Parker in a civil ceremony in Yonkers, New York; a few days later, Eddie enlisted as an ambulance driver and left for his basic training. Alone as soon as she was married, Dorothy was once again betrayed by her visions of domestic bliss. She rarely saw Eddie, except for the few days he was on leave, while the dullness of Army routine rapidly transformed him into a hopeless alcoholic, his skin so pallid that his platoon mates took to calling him "Spook." Many years later, in her short story The Lovely Leave published in the 1940s during another World War, she described the tense hopes with which a young wife waits for her husband's approaching one-day leave:
When they were together again, when they could see and hear and touch each other, there would be no stiltedness. They would talk and laugh together. They would have tenderness and excitement. It would be as if they had never been separated…. "Oh, please let it be all right," she whispered. "Please keep me from doing wrong things. Please let it be lovely."
But with Eddie paying more attention to his bottle than to her during their brief times together, arguments were frequent and mutual accusations bitter. It was almost with relief that Eddie left for the European front late in 1917.
Frank Crowninshield provided the antidote to Parker's bleak domestic situation by offering his young discovery the position of Vanity Fair's drama critic. P.G. Wodehouse had been doing the honors for the past several years, but had announced an indefinite leave of absence to supervise the production of a musical comedy he had co-written. Parker jumped at the opportunity. Her reviews were just as unusual as her position as New York's only female drama critic, entirely different from the sober musings of her newfound peers. In one of her first reviews in June 1918, of a production of Hedda Gabler, she chattily told her readers that the only flaw in the evening for her had been the gunshot with which Hedda dispatches herself at the end of the play. "I do wish that [Mr. Ibsen] had occasionally let the ladies take bichloride of mercury, or turn on the gas, or do something quiet and neat around the house," she complained. "I invariably miss most of the lines in the last act of an Ibsen play; I always have my fingers in my ears, waiting for the loud report that means the heroine has just Passed On." As the months passed, however, Dorothy's subversive wit became more evident. In one review, she declined to print the names of the cast because, she said, she refused "to tell on them"; in another, she advised anyone about to attend a performance, "If you don't knit, bring a book"; and she once was so bored with a show that she chose to ignore it entirely and wrote instead about the efforts of a woman sitting nearby to retrieve a glove that had fallen to the floor. By January 1919, after barely a year as a critic, Parker was precociously lamenting the passing of "the happy days—the days when people rushed gladly to the theater, enjoyed every minute of it, applauded enthusiastically, wished there were more." She might have been describing the enthusiasm of her own readership, for she had become to her intense gratification one of the most popular and widely quoted of Vanity Fair's columnists.
Five months later, Parker arrived at work one morning to discover a sandy-haired, blue-eyed, slender young man sharing her office. He was Robert Benchley, a freelance writer who had been contributing humorous pieces to Vanity Fair for some time, and who had now been hired by Crowninshield as the magazine's new managing editor. The off-beat sense of humor that characterized his writing had been described by one admirer as a "little skid off the hard road and right up to the edge of the swamp," but Benchley's prim behavior gave no such intriguing impressions. He came from a modest, blue-collar Massachusetts background, had attended Harvard thanks to the generosity of a family friend, and now lived in a plain two-bedroom cottage in placidly suburban Larchmont with his wife Gertrude Benchley and two sons. He commuted to work every morning on the train, entering his daily newspaper purchase in a meticulously kept pocket ledger; carefully addressed Dorothy as "Mrs. Parker"; and expressed great shock when Dorothy admitted she had once attended a cocktail party. "Mark my words," he warned her severely, "alcohol will coarsen you."
Several days later, a third cipher took up residence in the office. He was Robert Sherwood, a lanky Canadian journalist afflicted with respiratory problems who had been hired by Crowninshield with no particular position or duties in mind. It was rumored that Sherwood had impressed Crowninshield by showing up for his job interview in a kilt, the military uniform of his wartime regiment, the Canadian Black Watch. Parker and Benchley were at first suspicious of the future Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, who spoke in short bursts because of his difficulties breathing and was so shy that he often turned his back on the stenographer sent to take dictation from him. Parker told Benchley that talking to Sherwood was "like riding the Long Island Railroad—it gets you nowhere in particular," but in a few weeks, this odd little trio could often be seen walking down West 44th Street to lunch; and in the coming months, it would evolve into a rebellious clique within Vanity Fair that would cause Crowninshield to regret his hiring decisions.
In August 1919, Eddie Parker returned from Europe, where he had been stationed in Germany after the war's end a year earlier. Parker had not seen him for nearly two years and was not prepared for the extent of his deterioration. Eddie, Dorothy learned, had become addicted to morphine during treatment for injuries received in a bombing attack, to say nothing of the alcoholism exacerbated by the stress of life on the front lines. Over the coming years, the marriage was buffeted by increasingly violent arguments over Dorothy's social life and plagued by Eddie's jealousy of Parker's success as a writer. Dorothy, on her part, was horrified by Eddie's pleas to return to Hartford with him for a life of housework and dull days at the country club, and by the mid-1920s wrote, in her poem "Day Dreams":
If you and I were one, my dear,
A model life we'd lead.
We'd travel on, from year to year,
At no increase in speed.
Ah, clear to me the vision of
The things that we should do!
And so I think it best, my love,
To string along as two.
Dorothy and Eddie would finally separate in 1924. Four years later, Eddie would not contest Parker's petition for a divorce on grounds of "intolerable cruelty."
Amid the turmoil of her personal life, Parker's relationship with Benchley and Sherwood assumed greater importance. Crowninshield's patrician leadership at Vanity Fair acted as a catalyst for the threesome's more rebellious instincts, and the stream of admonitory notes from Crowninshield about arriving late for work, taking unusually long lunch hours, and Benchley's fondness for pasting photographs of corpses on the office walls was studiously ignored. Parker, meanwhile, began complaining none too subtly about her low wages, and soon had formed a mock labor union with Benchley and Sherwood which peppered the desks of fellow workers with its manifesto. In January 1920, Crowninshield invited Parker to tea to inform her that Wodehouse was returning to the magazine as drama critic and that no new position would be found for her. Dorothy suspected that her scathing reviews of a series of plays produced by some of the magazine's biggest advertisers had something to do with her firing. Crowninshield let Sherwood go that same day, apparently regarding the two of them as bad influences on Benchley. But Benchley surprised everyone, especially Parker, by resigning in protest, even though Gertrude had just given birth to a third son and he had just purchased a new home in Scarsdale. "It was the greatest act of friendship I'd ever known," said Parker.
By the time of her Vanity Fair demise, Dorothy Parker had become a member in good standing of a group of journalists and literary hangers-on that gathered each week for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel, on West 44th Street. It had begun as a publicity stunt for The New York Times' theater critic, Alexander Woollcott, just back from the war in June 1919. The Times' press agents sent out invitations to a number of columnists throughout the city to hear Woollcott's tales of life on the front as a medical intern. Among Parker's fellow diners that first day were, of course, Benchley and Sherwood, and Harold Ross, a tall Midwesterner who had edited the military newspaper Stars and Stripes in Paris during the war and would soon have an idea for a weekly humor magazine he would call The New Yorker. The war stories, jokes and gossip were of such high quality at that first meeting that it was decided to try it again the following week, and thus was born the Algonquin Round Table, the fluctuating membership of which would include over the next decade such luminaries of the stage and page as playwrights George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, novelists Edna Ferber and Ring Lardner, and even actors Harpo Marx and Tallulah Bankhead . The Algonquin's manager at the time, Frank Case, hurriedly moved his raucous customers into a separate room after their first meeting, and sat them around a huge round table; and it was Case who noticed "the young girl" who would "simply sit, now and then saying something at which the others would laugh, and that was the end of it." Woollcott called Parker "a blend of Little Nell and Lady Macbeth."
Dorothy chose to launch her verbal weapons carefully and concisely, delivered with a deadpan expression that associates soon learned was a sign of a pending assault; for while writing was torture to her, Parker's facility with the spoken word was unmatched. She spared no one, especially females of her acquaintance. When told that one such friend had injured her leg while visiting London, Parker suspected it had happened while the woman was "sliding down a barrister"; and when protests against Parker's merciless treatment of another of her victims included the statement that the lady in question wouldn't hurt a fly, Parker shot back, "As long as it was buttoned up." Such was her quick-wittedness that without a moment's hesitation, Parker met the challenge of defining the word "horticulture" with "You can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think."
But wordplay at parties could not pay bills. For some weeks after their departure from Vanity Fair, Parker and Benchley set up shop as free-lance journalists, renting an office on Broadway so tiny that Parker claimed "it would have been adultery" if it was any smaller. They weren't quite sure what they were supposed be doing, and spent much of the time talking about themselves or chatting with friends who dropped in. After a month, Parker found a job as drama critic with a literary magazine called Ainslee's, and supplemented her income by contributing pieces on a variety of topics to Ladies' Home Journal and The Saturday Evening Post. Benchley, too, eventually found a paying position as drama critic for Life, where Sherwood had become assistant editor, and often stayed at Dorothy and Eddie's apartment when he had a close deadline after a show's opening night.
By the early 1920s, Parker's relationship with Benchley was attracting considerable attention. At a gathering at the Round Table, where the two always sat together, a guest turned to Woollcott and asked if Dorothy was Mrs. Benchley. "So I have always understood, but it is Mrs. Parker," was Woollcott's catty reply. If Woollcott's implied sexual affair did exist, it must have been extraordinarily discreet; but since discretion would not have been the first characteristic to come to mind for any of the Round Table's regulars, it must be assumed that the relationship between Parker and Benchley was more in the nature of the affectionate camaraderie of two people who thought uncannily alike. Robert Sherwood described their relationship as an intellectual one; and when Marc Connelly, the last surviving member of the Round Table, told biographer Marion Meade in the early 1980s that all of them "just hated being apart," he could just as well have been describing the state of affairs between Parker and Benchley.
Parker was certainly attractive enough to encourage the opposite sex. A portrait of her painted by Greenwich Village artist Neysa McMein in 1923 hints at the combination of girlish charm and formidable intellect that may have intimidated some men, but irresistibly attracted others. Among her potential suitors was Edmund Wilson, who later wrote that Parker's liberal use of scent, which made him ill, was the only thing that prevented his courting. Screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart, a friend of Robert Sherwood, thought that Parker's delicate figure and large, soulful eyes were "absolutely devastating." Still married at this point, Parker primly avoided romantic entanglements, dealt as best she could with Eddie's alcoholism and abusive behavior, and turned out light pieces for Life and The Saturday Evening Post to keep debtors at bay.
But the pressures were mounting. In her best-known short story, "Big Blonde," published in 1929, Parker depicted a woman who turns to alcohol in the midst of an ill-conceived and hasty marriage to an abusive husband. "She could not recall the definite day that she started drinking," Parker wrote of her alter-ego. "There was nothing separate about her days. Like drops upon a window-pane, they ran together and trickled away." And like "Big Blonde"'s Hazel Morse, Dorothy had found that Scotch, taken neat, eased things considerably. That same year, the previously teetotaling Benchley made much the same discovery, starting with an orange blossom pressed on him by friends while celebrating Jack Dempsey's 1922 championship victory over Georges Carpentier at Tony Soma's on West 49th Street, one of Prohibition's better-known speakeasies. Benchley eventually settled on rye as his drink of choice, and from then on, neither he nor Parker would abandon alcohol's solace for more than a few, hung-over hours.
Parker described in clinical detail for her readers her morning-after ailments, which she called "the Rams." They were, she wrote, "much like the heebie-jeebies, except that they last longer, strike deeper, and are, in general, fancier." Less severe cases she classified as "the German Rams," but both could surely be traced to suspicious food eaten the previous evening, especially celery sticks. Despite these occasional penalties, Parker found alcohol liberating, even stimulating, and it is no coincidence that her first published short story was written at this time. "Such a Pretty Little Picture" was published in H.L. Mencken's Smart Set in 1922. It was a sly, ironic jab at the type of suburban domesticity back in Scarsdale which was driving Benchley to drink, and at the kind of hopeless marriage of which Parker had direct experience. She cast Benchley as her Mr. Wheelock, who clips his hedges on a peaceful suburban street on a peaceful summer evening while dreaming of escaping, "when Adelaide was sewing on buttons, up on the porch, and Sister was playing somewhere about. He would time it so that he'd just make the 6:03 for the city comfortably."
"Such a Pretty Little Picture" appeared in print just as Eddie disappeared for the first of many long absences, and just as Dorothy embarked on the first of her many notorious affairs. One of the newer Round Tablers was a handsome young newspaper reporter from Chicago, Charles MacArthur, who had left a wife behind in the Midwest to seek his fortune in New York as a playwright. Parker's interest in MacArthur was immediate and intensely passionate. She ignored the usual warnings about affairs between two already married people and about MacArthur's roving eye, apparent to everyone but her. Late in 1922, Parker discovered she was pregnant and had an abortion, bitterly characterizing MacArthur's reported $30 contribution to the cost of the procedure as being like Judas giving a refund. MacArthur soon left her to return to Chicago. (He went on to write, with Ben Hecht, The Front Page and eventually married actress Helen Hayes .)
Soon after, on a quiet Sunday afternoon in mid-January, Parker as usual called out to a local restaurant to ask for her dinner to be delivered. Then she went into the bathroom and slit her wrists with one of Eddie's rusty razor blades, thoughtfully leaving the apartment door unlocked and thus allowing the delivery boy to find her unconscious from blood loss when he arrived with her dinner. On her release from the hospital a week later, Eddie returned and tried to patch things up. Parker, for her part, quit her magazine job and settled down to serious writing, producing her second short story, "It's Too Bad," about an estranged couple who try to keep up appearances but ultimately divorce—another bit of quasi-autobiography. It was in her poetry, meanwhile, that she probed the pained aftermath of her affair with MacArthur. Nevertheless, the number of her affairs only seemed to multiply, especially after Parker was adopted by the wealthy social set whose glittering parties on sumptuous Long Island estates kept Prohibition at bay. During these long, alcohol-soaked weekends, Parker consorted with fellow writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ring Lardner, and James Thurber, all adopted as amusing guests by hosts whose prosperity came and went as quickly as the canapés.
Among Parker's paramours during this period was playwright Elmer Rice, whose anti-machineage play The Adding Machine had taken Broadway by storm. The affair may have been short-lived, but it begat Dorothy's first effort for the stage. Rice agreed to help Parker adapt her story of a hen-pecked suburban husband who nearly runs off with a chorus girl, with Parker supplying the dialogue and Rice the dramatic framework. Close Harmony (originally called Soft Music) opened on Broadway early in 1924, receiving respectful reviews but failing to attract full houses and closing after three weeks. Parker had been expecting the worst, despite the good reviews. She later called the play "insipid and dull," and would not write for the stage again for many years.
As with her first short story, Parker had drawn the inspiration for her initial play from Benchley, who actually was having an affair with a former chorus girl. Benchley was by now spending most of his time in New York. He had become somewhat of a stage celebrity after delivering a comic monologue called "The Treasurer's Report" at a Round Table theatrical evening to such good effect that he was appearing nightly with it on Broadway in The Music Box Revue. Later, Benchley would travel to Hollywood to take small roles in comedy pictures and star in a series of short filmed lectures he had written with names like The Sex Life of the Polyp.
As their careers began to diverge, Parker took up residence in the Algonquin Hotel, which Mencken considered the most comfortable hotel in America. "The distance from the front door to the elevator is only forty feet," he wrote, "an important consideration to a man whose friends all drink too much, and sometimes press the stuff on him." With the Round Table just a short elevator ride away, Parker became even more entrenched there and often invited everyone back upstairs for another round of drinking. During one of these extended sessions, Harold Ross and his wife Jane Grant announced that they were raising money for a new humor magazine, a sophisticated weekly for the smart set and not, as Ross famously pointed out, "for the old lady in Dubuque." He solicited ideas from the Round Tablers for the first issue of The New Yorker, which was published in February 1925, Parker contributing a theater review and appearing on the masthead as an advisor. Six months later, circulation had dropped to less than 3,000 and the magazine's financial condition was so perilous that when Ross asked Parker why she was late turning in an article, she replied, "Somebody was using the pencil." No one expected the magazine to survive.
By 1926, after a lengthy affair with journalist-playwright Deems Taylor ended badly and another attempt to patch things up with Eddie failed, Parker tried to kill herself a second time by taking an overdose of Veronal, a barbiturate used as a sleeping medication. "Big Blonde"'s Hazel Morse tries the same method of self-annihilation. Through Hazel, Parker recounted buying the pills in New Jersey, where they were available without a prescription, and how the large white pills were difficult to swallow—so difficult that, like Hazel, she failed to take enough of them and woke up two days later in a hospital. Ironically, the attempt had come while Parker was undergoing treatment and psychological counseling to cut down on her drinking. She gave up both the treatment and the counseling, continued her drinking, and decided that travel might pull her out of her slump.
Benchley had recently returned from a trip to Europe and had told her about the lively expatriate colony of writers and artists living in Paris, including Ernest Hemingway, whose work Dorothy much admired. Parker, who sailed in February 1926, remained in Paris for nearly a year, although it was hardly the cure she had been expecting. She was lonely most of the time and found the close-knit circle of Americans there more inbred than the Round Table. Her efforts to begin a novel she had been contemplating were fruitless, although she began collecting her poetry into a volume she called Enough Rope, published on her return at the end of 1926. "The rope is caked with salty humor … and tarred with a bright black authenticity," The Nation said; while the New York Herald Tribune more succinctly and appropriately described her verse as "whiskey straight." Her fame had grown to such proportions that her outspoken involvement in the infamous Sacco-Vanzetti case of 1927 attracted nationwide attention.
Most of the politically cynical Round Tablers were caught off-guard by Parker's newfound social conscience and her attraction to socialist causes. She had traveled to Boston to join the protest against the guilty verdict and ensuing death penalty visited on two Italian immigrants whose murder trial had turned into a nationwide focus of ethnic bigotry. America's young Communist Party saw the court ruling as a reactionary attack on socialism and organized street protests and press campaigns in support of winning an appeal to prevent the executions. Parker marched down Beacon Street behind writer John Dos Passos, who was covering the event for the Communist Party's newspaper The Daily Worker, as both sang the Party's anthem "The Internationale." Parker told friends in New York that she expected to be arrested, and she was not disappointed, spending a few hours in a Boston jail before friends bailed her out. Her growing fame was evidenced by the gaggle of reporters waiting for her as she left the prison. The next day she paid a $5 fine for loitering and for a mysterious misdemeanor called "sauntering." Upon learning that an appeals court had refused to overturn the death penalty and that Sacco and Vanzetti would be electrocuted that night, she declared, "My heart and soul are with the cause of socialism." Parker offered no public explanation for her activism, but many years later she would remember visiting the sweatshops her father operated to produce his capes and gloves, full of immigrants working 12- and 14-hour days, six days a week, for absurdly low wages.
At The New Yorker, meanwhile, things were looking brighter. Ross had somehow managed to keep the magazine afloat and circulation was actually increasing. In October 1927, Parker took on a weekly book-review column for the magazine, for which she signed herself "Constant Reader." Like her earlier theater reviews, these new efforts were unusual. An autobiography by British socialite Margot Asquith , Constant Reader thought, had "all the depth and glitter of a worn dime." But she saved her most potent venom for A.A. Milne's The House at Pooh Corner, and Milne's invention of the word "hummy." At her first experience of it, she wrote, "Tonstant Weader fwowed up." Milne was a favorite target and had the misfortune of opening his melodrama Give Me Yesterday on Broadway when Parker had temporarily taken over Benchley's play reviewing column in The New Yorker. "If Give Me Yesterday is a fine play," she groused, "I am Richard Brinsley Sheridan."
In 1928, with her divorce from Eddie finalized, Parker published her second poetry collection, Sunset Gun, to great acclaim. It was dedicated to John Garret, a wealthy banker with whom she had been carrying on a tempestuous affair, even though Garret had left her for a "show girl" by the time the book appeared on the shelves. "Big Blonde" appeared six months later in the literary magazine The Bookman, also to much praise, and was named the best short story of 1929 in the prestigious O. Henry Competition. But with her literary star rising, Parker perversely decamped for Hollywood.
It was the money that attracted her, a ludicrously high $300 a week for three months' work offered to her by MGM which, like all the big studios, was trying to polish up its image by hiring respected writers. Parker found the experience at first mystifying, later exasperating. MGM's head of production, Irving Thalberg, had never heard of her and at their first meeting did not seem sure why she had been hired; and she had difficulty on her first writing assignment because no one seemed to know what the film was about. When she finally produced a few pages of script for another film, Thalberg complained that her dialogue wasn't suitable for "the little totties." At the end of her three months, Parker had written only the lyrics for a song included in a Cecil B. De Mille film called Dynamite. At least she had spent time with Benchley, who was then shooting three films, and with her favorite wealthy couple, Gerald and Sara Murphy , who were in town while Gerald served as an advisor on a film featuring African-American spirituals, on which he was inexplicably an expert. Parker declined to renew her contract and fled back to New York. Perhaps to purge herself of the bad taste of the movie business, she rashly agreed to write a novel for the newly formed Viking Press and decided Europe would be the perfect place to write it.
She traveled to London, Paris, and to Antibes on France's Côte d'Azur, where she stayed with the Murphys at their fabled Villa America and hobnobbed with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald , who had taken a house nearby. None of it proved inspirational, and she wrote little of the promised novel which, she had decided, would be called "Sonnets in Suicide." When one of the Murphys' sons fell ill with tuberculosis, Parker tagged along with the family to Switzerland and to a sanitarium where the young Murphy began a slow, painful recovery. In telegrams to Benchley, she confessed she found the environment sterile and depressing, the sanitarium full of the air of death. She finally left for home early in 1930, but still her novel refused to take shape. While she could stand the autobiographical pain of a short story, the torments of a full-length work were too much. Profoundly depressed, Parker drank a bottle of shoe polish and ended up in a hospital while Viking hurriedly compiled a collection of her short stories, published as Laments for the Living and including "Big Blonde." Although it went through four editions in its first month, and received good reviews, Parker swore she'd never write again. After another stay with the Murphys in Switzerland in the spring and summer of 1931 which failed to relieve her low spirits, and another disastrous affair, this one with a handsome young newspaper reporter, Parker took another overdose of barbiturates—not enough to kill her, as she found when she came to in another hospital bed.
Slowly, she recovered. She also drew strength from her new friendship with Lillian Hellman , who in four years would take Broadway by storm with her play The Children's Hour, and who was in the midst of a long-running relationship with Dashiell Hammett, one of Parker's favorite writers. Parker was awed by Hellman's shrewd, eminently practical approach to the business of writing, while Hellman was equally impressed by, and a little afraid of, Parker's quick intelligence and verbal agility. The friendship would last the rest of Parker's life.
By 1933, Parker was in sufficiently good spirits to be attracted to a good-looking young actor named Alan Campbell. Besides his acting, Campbell had written a few short pieces for The New Yorker. Alan seemed to understand her moods, was a respectable, but not sloppy, drinker, and combined a mischievous sense of humor with a good deal of common sense. He was 29; Parker, 40. The two of them were soon sharing an apartment, Parker discovering that Campbell had the added advantage of being a good cook and housekeeper—two talents that had eluded her, as anyone who had visited Parker's several apartments could testify. When Campbell was offered a job in summer stock in Denver, Parker was so infatuated that she went with him. But Denver was less tolerant than New York, especially of sharp-tongued literary wits living in sin with handsome young actors. Campbell and Parker tried to concoct a story of a secret marriage, but failed to check with each other first and gave different versions of the supposed event, much to the merriment of the press. With Alan's job in danger and Parker's reputation as a loose woman about to become national news, the only solution was to actually get married. The ceremony before a justice of the peace took place just over the border in New Mexico on the night of June 18, 1933.
Parker now entered, much to her surprise, "a sort of coma of happiness," she enthused to Woollcott, in which she found that being Alan's wife was "lovelier than anything I ever knew could be." Back in New York, the new marrieds were approached by a theatrical producer with Hollywood connections, who suggested they could make a comfortable living as a screenwriting team. It was another testament to her attachment to Campbell, who was eager to travel west, that she signed a contract with Paramount for the impressive salary of $1,000 a week. Campbell, for his part, would be paid $250. The Hollywood press adopted them as the town's favorite new creative team while they settled down to write their first script together, One Hour Late, for Sylvia Sidney , although a later version finally ended up on screen. Within a few months, their combined salaries allowed them to rent a house in Beverly Hills. Parker's euphoria continued while her drinking abated considerably. "Aside from the work, which I hate like holy water," she wrote to Woollcott, "I love it here. I love having a house. I love its being pretty wherever you look."
While she and Campbell turned out the screenplay for David Selznick's A Star Is Born (starring Janet Gaynor , for which Parker and Campbell were nominated for an Academy Award) and contributed dialogue to such films as Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur (in which Parker appears briefly riding in a car with Hitchcock), Parker's leftist politics again came to the fore. While she had often expressed support for both Stalin's Russia and for the Communist Party, later scrutiny during the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s failed to prove that Parker had done anything more than lend her name to a variety of charitable causes that turned out to be Party fronts. Conservative suspicion about her deepened, however, when she began actively recruiting new members for the recently formed Screen Writers' Guild at a time when many unions had been infiltrated by the American Communist Party. The studios had countered the Guild by forming The Screen Playwrights which, they claimed, was adequate protection for film writers. It was, Parker later scoffed, "like trying to get laid in your mother's house. Somebody was always in the parlor, watching." When Parker and Campbell traveled to Spain during that country's civil war in 1937, Dorothy became a passionate supporter of the doomed Loyalist cause. The suffering and devastation she saw affected her deeply, especially in the Loyalist stronghold of Valencia, which was bombed four times during her visit. "These people who pulled themselves up from centuries of oppression and exploitation cannot go on to a decent living, to peace and progress and civilization without the murder of their children," she wrote, "because [Hitler and Franco] want more power. It is incredible, it is fantastic, it is absolutely beyond belief … except that it is true." She warned that the Loyalist defeat in Spain would be the spark for something worse, and was proved right two years later when Hitler invaded Poland.
While the world rushed to war, Parker's domestic situation, despite her activist pronouncements, was decidedly bourgeois. With the proceeds from their work in Hollywood, Parker and Campbell purchased a farm house in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where their deep-rooted urban sensibility provoked much discussion among the locals, who failed to see the charm in Alan's choice of ten shades of red to decorate the living room. But two pregnancies which ended in miscarriages, social ostracism in Hollywood by many of their friends over Parker's politics, and disputes with studios over pictures which never got made began to have their effect on what had seemed to be an ideal marriage. Friends noticed that Parker, always petite and slight of build, had now ballooned to 150 pounds. Her spirits soured to such a degree that she even accused Campbell, whose bisexuality had been widely rumored, of cheating on her with other men—almost certainly untrue. Her mood was not improved when the studio kept Campbell on a writing project and replaced her with another female writing partner; while Harold Ross, for the first time in their relationship, rejected one of her short stories for publication in The New Yorker. By 1942, her excessive drinking returned to such a degree that a stay in a sanitarium was called for while Campbell announced that he was enlisting and went off to basic training in Florida. Things only seemed to grow worse after Campbell's departure. Woollcott died in 1943, collapsing of a heart attack during a radio broadcast. Even worse, Robert Benchley died in New York of a cerebral hemorrhage just two years after the death of Woollcott. He was 56. Parker was in California when she heard the news, and exclaimed bitterly "That's dandy!," a remark Gertrude Benchley misinterpreted as a cruel joke.
Campbell had already left for Europe when Benchley died, leaving Parker to find what comfort she could in alcohol, cigarettes and sympathetic friends. After these wartime shocks, she received almost calmly Campbell's news that he had fallen in love with an English woman. Although the affair had cooled by the time of his return in 1946, the farm in Pennsylvania was sold and Parker traveled to Las Vegas for a divorce on grounds of mental cruelty, ignoring the fact that she herself had often disparaged Campbell. He was more charitable. "I'm sorry it's over," he said. "We had a wonderful time."
Parker wasted no time in finding another writing partner, lover and drinking companion. He was Ross Evans, whom Campbell had met in the Army and introduced to her. Evans was working in New York at the time as a radio announcer but had literary pretensions. The pair's output paled beside what Parker had accomplished with Campbell, although Evans helped Parker complete her second play, The Coast of Illyria, based on the life of the tragic English writer Mary Lamb . It premiered in Dallas in April 1949 to mediocre reviews, ran for three weeks, and was never heard from again. Evans also traveled with her back to Hollywood, claiming co-author credit for an adaptation of Lady Windermere's Fan for Fox and a comedy, Come Back to the Stable, starring Loretta Young and Celeste Holm as nuns. But it was Parker's collaboration with another writer, Frank Cavett, that brought her her second Academy Award nomination, for Universal's Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, in which the main character (played by Susan Hayward ) was an alcoholic housewife. Her boozy affair with Evans ended in Mexico, where Parker objected to his attentions to another woman and Evans promptly dumped her.
Just as promptly, Parker returned to Los Angeles and remarried Alan Campbell, on August 17, 1950. "Who in life gets a second chance?," she rhetorically queried friends. Campbell seemed less confident, but admitted he had been the one to float the idea. Given this lack of enthusiasm from both partners, it was hardly surprising when the arguments resumed and, little more than a year later, Campbell walked out on her. Jilted twice in as many years, Parker retreated to the only safe haven she knew: New York.
"I get up every morning and want to kiss the pavement," she said after moving into the Volney, a residential hotel on East 74th. It was, and is, a genteel sort of place, occupied in Parker's time mainly by meticulously preserved widows who filled the halls with wafts of their perfume as they came and went in their rounds of teas, lunches, and evenings at the theater. No doubt these delicate gentlewoman observed Parker with as much interest as she watched them, for she was considerably younger than any of them and was from a world they only read about in newspapers and magazines. Inspired, Parker was soon at work on a new play, Ladies of the Corridor, again with a collaborator. He was Arnaud d'Usseau, whom she had met in California but whose main success had come with two Broadway hits written with another partner who had died. The relationship this time was strictly business, with d'Usseau's wife keeping a careful eye on Parker's alcohol consumption as work progressed. The play had its debut in October 1953, but as with her two previous works for the stage, reviews were only respectful and hardly enthusiastic. It closed in six weeks, but Parker to the end of her life maintained it was the best thing she had ever written. The subject matter of her second effort with d'Usseau, which detailed the seduction of a divorced man by a gay lover, failed to attract a producer willing to stage it. It was the last play Parker would write.
With the McCarthy hearings in full swing and a nervous Hollywood unwilling to hire anyone with a Communist taint, Parker returned to fiction for her living. (Although never formally accused of being a Communist, Parker's name temporarily appeared on the blacklist.) With Harold Ross' death in 1951, the magazine he had founded nearly 30 years before ceased to have a personal meaning for her, and it was to Esquire that she transferred her allegiance when that magazine offered her a regular book-review column—her first since "Constant Reader" days. She doggedly read her assignments for five years, producing 46 columns in that time and complaining loudly that the magazine's editor was a worse taskmaster than Ross ever was. By 1958, after having such difficulty meeting deadlines that Esquire's editorial staff began referring to the traumatic experience of getting an overdue piece from her as a "high forceps delivery," Parker found herself again out of a regular job. She was 65.
Friends attempted to help. One persuaded a publisher to offer Parker an advance to write her autobiography, but she eventually returned it. "Rather than write my life story, I would cut my throat with a dull knife," she said. Lillian Hell-man, working with Leonard Bernstein on a musical based on Voltaire's Candide, persuaded her to contribute lyrics to the show. Parker produced the lyrics for only one number, "Gavotte," although Bernstein later said she was a delight to work with, "very sweet, very drunk, very forthcoming." Everyone hoped that Parker's induction into the National Institute of Arts and Letters would bring her some work, even after Dorothy arrived at the awards ceremony decidedly tipsy, delivered an acceptance speech that consisted solely of "I never thought I'd make it!," and chose to stumble to her feet and deliver it again in the middle of another speaker's remarks. When her old friend Edmund Wilson later paid her a visit at the Volney, he reported that she "had somewhat deteriorated [and] had big pouches under her eyes." Entering the apartment, he said, was like stepping back in time to the '20s, when he had once thought of courting America's wittiest woman.
Her savior turned out to be none other than Alan Campbell, to whom she was still legally married despite their ten-year separation. Campbell was still in California and had been offered a job at Fox adapting a French play for the screen—but only if Parker would work with him. Dorothy soon boarded a plane for Los Angeles hoping for a comeback of both her marriage and her career. But the script they produced for Fox, an intended vehicle for Marilyn Monroe called The Good Soup, was never produced and further offers of work were not forthcoming. There were a few dollars to be had from the sale of television rights to some of her short stories, from speaking fees for lectures on various literary subjects, and from a disastrous decision to teach a writing course at California State, where she found her students ignorant of not only her own former status but of the major writers she presented to them, many of whom she had known personally.
Meanwhile, Alan Campbell failed to find any work at all and sunk deeper into idle drinking. Parker returned home one afternoon in 1963 expecting to find him, as usual, passed out in a small room he had built for himself off the main bedroom. Instead, she found his lifeless body. Campbell had apparently taken an overdose of Seconal and then placed a plastic bag over his head. He was 59. Just as it had when she learned of Benchley's death, Parker's shock spilled out in bitter remarks others interpreted as callous. One female friend, for example, ventured to ask if there was anything she could do. "Get me a new husband," Parker snapped. She refused to attend Campbell's funeral or to talk about their marriage, except to vapidly tell the Associated Press that she and Campbell had had "29 great years together."
But Campbell's death affected her more deeply than she would admit, and after her health began declining precipitously and a broken shoulder from a fall refused to heal properly, Parker finally turned her back on California once and for all and returned to New York in March 1963. Her new apartment at the Volney was smaller than her previous one and a bit cramped for both Dorothy and the live-in nurse her precarious health required. She wrote little, piled the review copies of current books sent to her by a hopeful Esquire in a corner, and lamented to the few visitors she received that hardly any of the friends from the old days remained to cheer her. She was especially distraught over the death of Gerald Murphy, sending Sara Murphy a mournful telegram that merely read: "Dearest Sara, Dearest Sara." In her last published work in a magazine, a brief accompanying text to a series of paintings of Manhattan life at the turn of the century for Esquire, she admitted to "nostalgia for those rooms of lovely lights and lovelier shadows and loveliest people…. It is the sort of nostalgia that is only a dreamy longing for some places where you never were."
Her health seemed to improve somewhat during 1964, and by 1965 there were plans for a stage play based on her writings, invitations to society dinners at which Parker imbibed with her old abandon and managed to shoot quips and barbs across the table with her former aplomb, as well as a series of taped radio interviews about her life. This last project survived through three sessions before Parker's leg-pulling and tale-spinning destroyed any credibility the series might have had. Lillian Hellman, one of the few survivors from old times, wrote in her diary that Parker had become "too strange for safety or comfort," a frail, 80-pound old woman who greeted her visitors in pastel house dresses and chain-smoked her Chester-fields while wheedling guests into pouring her the Scotch doctors had forbidden her.
On the afternoon of Wednesday, June 7, one of the Volney's maids came to Parker's apartment, as usual, with a fresh supply of towels and bed linens. She found Dorothy dead, apparently of a heart attack which had struck while Parker was sitting in bed, reading. Many Americans were surprised to read of her passing, for they had assumed she had died long ago. She had committed, wrote the late Brendan Gill, "an inexcusable social and aesthetic blunder: she was …G the guest who is aware that he has outstayed his welcome and who yet makes no attempt to pack his things and go."
In accordance with the will Parker had prepared two years earlier, her body was sent to the Long Island crematory, where her ashes would remain until arriving at Oscar Bernstien's office. She appointed Hellman as her executor, but even Hellman was surprised to find that Parker had left her entire estate, amounting to some $20,000, to Martin Luther King, Jr. "She must have been drunk when she did it," Hellman grumbled. With King's assassination the following year, the assets of the estate passed to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which, in 1988, finally laid Parker's ashes to rest in a specially constructed memorial garden at its headquarters in Baltimore. The NAACP continues to control the rights to Parker's work, all of which remains in print. The Viking Press' The Portable Dorothy Parker, in fact, remains among the top ten bestsellers in its "Portable" series, even though Parker once claimed she never much thought about her public. "There must be a magnificent disregard for your reader," she once said, "for if he cannot follow you, there is nothing you can do about it." Given that disregard, her literary immortality would have surprised her; but then Parker never expected things to happen the way she imagined. In her earlier days of death wishes and suicide attempts, Parker had dictated the conditions under which she wanted to meet her end:
Oh, let it be a night of lyric rain
And singing breezes, when my bell is tolled.
I have so loved the rain that I would hold
Last in my ears its friendly, dim refrain.
But she died during the afternoon of a pleasant, sunny day, with temperatures in the 80s. There was no rain in the forecast.
Kurth, Peter. "One Man's Love Affair With Two Dorothys," in Forbes. Vol. 156, no. 7. September 25, 1995.
Meade, Marion. Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? NY: Villard, 1988.
Parker, Dorothy. The Portable Dorothy Parker. 2nd ed. NY: Viking, 1976.
Rosmond, Babette. Robert Benchley: His Life And Good Times. NY: Doubleday, 1970.
Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (film), directed by Alan Rudolph, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dorothy Parker, 1994.
Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York