|August 22, 1893
Long Branch, New Jersey
|June 7, 1967
New York, New York
Dorothy Parker (August 22, 1893 – June 7, 1967) was an American writer, poet, critic, and influential feminist. Her reputation is legendary, and she is known today as one of the most brilliant writers in American history. Her thoughts and ideas, presented in her characteristic style of illustrating human nature with caustic wit, revolutionized the way many people thought, especially women. Her humor is sometimes cruel, sometimes truthful, but always sarcastic.
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.
Dorothy Parker, known to many as Dot or Dottie, had one of the most successful writing careers of any woman of her time. She served as a writer and editor for both Vanity Fair and Vogue magazines, along with writing many successful screenplays and television programs. She also published several articles in The New Yorker and had her own newspaper column called Constant Reader. Even with this success she suffered from severe depression and self criticism. Dorothy Parker is perhaps most recognized as one of the founders of the famous Algonquin Round Table group.
Dorothy Rothschild, (Dot or 'Dottie), was the fourth and final child born to Jacob Henry and Annie Eliza (Marston) Rothschild. The family had an apartment in Manhattan and a summer house in the West End district of Long Branch, New Jersey. Dorothy spent her first few weeks of life in the summer home, but claimed that her parents brought her back to the city right after Labor Day, so she could claim to be a true New Yorker.
The Rothchild family was not part of the famous Rothschilds' banking dynasty. Her father worked as a garment manufacturer and the small family was happy and content for the next four years, living on the Upper West Side. On July 20, 1898, Annie died suddenly, leaving behind the four children and a single father to care for them. Jacob was remarried two years later to Eleanor Francis Lewis. However, tragedy struck again when Eleanor died just three short years later from a heart-attack. Although Dorothy never particularly warmed to her stepmother in the short three years, it still caused a deep sense of sadness to be motherless once again. The children all suffered from these losses, as well as Jacob, himself.
Dorothy was sent to Roman Catholic elementary school at the Convent of the Blessed Sacrament. Many see this as an odd choice considering that her father was Jewish and her stepmother was Protestant. The school was harsh and she claims she never learned anything and felt guilt about everything. Dorothy went on to attend Miss Dana's School, a finishing school in Morristown, New Jersey. During these years, Dorothy was not encouraged to share her feelings, thus keeping them bottled up inside. This is thought to be one of the causes for her later episodes of depression. Her graduation from finishing school at 13 ended her formal education.
To add to this sad childhood, Dorothy's brother was a passenger on the RMS Titanic and was killed when the ship sank in 1912. The tragedies continued when her father died on December 28, 1913. Dorothy suffered from the effects of all of these deaths, often finding it hard to form solid bonds with people. These events also played a role in her battle with alcoholism.
Dorothy Parker felt ill prepared for the world of Manhattan that awaited her upon the completion of her limited schooling. Thus, she began earning money by playing piano at a local dancing school, along with other sporadic music jobs. In 1914 she sold her first poem to Vanity Fair, but her big break came in 1916, when Parker started submitting various poems to the editor of another Condé Nast magazine, Vogue. The editor was so impressed with young Dorothy's writings that a job was immediately offered to her. Dorothy worked as an editorial assistant at Vogue for the next year.
In 1917 Dorothy met and married Edwin Pond Parker II, a stockbroker. Dorothy was only too happy to marry and rid herself of the Rothchild name. She dealt with strong feelings about her Jewish heritage, most of them negative because of the raging anti-Semitism of the time. She said that she married to escape her name. However, the marriage did not last long. The couple was separated when Edwin Parker was sent to fight during World War I. Edwin was seriously injured after only a few months of service. This injury, along with the pains and memories of the war, led Edwin to a life long addiction to alcohol and morphine. The relationship was not a positive one, and it ended in divorce in 1919. But Dorothy would never revert back to her maiden name. She kept the last name of Parker for the rest of her life, even when she married again. When she was asked if there was a Mr. Parker, she casually responded: "There used to be."
Dorothy transfered over to Vanity Fair in 1917, where she served as a drama critic and staff writer until 1920. Her critiques made her a household name and she developed a large readership. She initially took the position as a stand-in for the author P.G. Woodhouse while he was on vacation. But the rise of her popularity convinced the magazine to retain her in her own right as a writer, once Woodhouse had returned.
The managing editor, Frank Crowinshield, stated in an interview that Dorothy Parker had "the quickest tongue imaginable, and I need not to say the keenest sense of mockery." And in the introduction to Parker's Collected Stories, Regina Barreca wrote that, "Parker's wit caricatures the self-deluded, the powerful, the autocratic, the vain, the silly, and the self important; it does not rely on men and small formulas, and it never ridicules the marginalized, the sidelined or the outcast. When Parker goes for the jugular, its usually a vein with blueblood in it."
In 1920, it would be this satirical wit and mocking caricatures that would lead to her termination from Vanity Fair. They claimed that she had offended too many people throughout her reviews.
While at Vanity Fair, Dorothy Parker made friends with other writers and these relationships would change her life. Among them was Robert Benchley, who can be said to be her best friend, as well as Robert E. Sherwood. The three writers began taking their daily lunch together at the Algonquin Hotel, located on Forty-Fourth street. These lunches were not merely for eating. They were for sharing ideas, giving critiques of writing, lavishing encouragement and praise upon one another, and sincerely sharing their deepest ideas mixed with their best jokes and a cocktail. They became the founding members of the famous intellectual group, the Algonquin Round Table. As tales of these lunches grew, so did the members. Soon Parker, Benchley and Sherwood were joined by Franklin Pierce Adams and Alexander Woollcott. These men were successful newspaper columnists. Once they became acquainted with the genius who was Dorothy Parker, they became adamant in publicizing her witticisms. Other members, like Harold Ross, would filter in and out of the group over the years. However, Dorothy Parker remained the only woman in the group. She could hold her own when defending her sex, sharing her ideas, and maintaining the respect of every man admitted into the Round Table's elite group.
It was during the Round Table years that Dorothy was fired from Vanity Fair. To show their support for her writing, and to validate the injustice that was done to Parker, both Benchley and Sherwood resigned in protest in 1920. During the next few years, Dorothy worked heavily on her poetry and also was hired on as a staff member of a new magazine, The New Yorker. The magazine, founded by fellow Round Table member Harold Ross, gave both Benchley and Parker freedom to write and cultivate their own projects and dictate their own hours. Parker did not write much for The New Yorker until after 1926, when her first collection of poems, Enough Rope was published. The poetry collection was full of rhymes and creative meter, along with lively words, but the topics were much more serious and often vicious. Among this group of poems is perhaps one of Parker's most famous, Résumé.
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Gas smell awful;
You might as well live.
Parker's poetry found instant success. Readers loved her perceptions of her romantic affairs, many of which were unsuccessful, and her honesty about her suicide thoughts and attempts. She became a part of pop-culture when she turned up in a famous Cole Porter song, Just One Of Those Things, ("As Dorothy Parker once said/ To her boyfriend: 'Fare thee well!.")
Parker continued to write over the next 15 years, doing little else with her time. She wrote everything from poetry to short stories, from screenplays to television scripts, and even co-authored a few plays. Her publications came in seven volumes: Enough Rope, Sunset Gun, Laments for the Living, Death and Taxes, After Such Pleasures, Not So Deep as a Well (collected poems), and Here Lies. The famous critic, Brendan Gill, noted that the titles of her collection "amounted to a capsule autobiography." Many highlights from this time period were originally published in The New Yorker, including her famous column "Constant Reader," which were very acerbic book reviews. Unlike Vanity Fair, The New Yorker loved her satire and witty cruelty. Her column became extremely popular and was later published in a collection under the same name.
With all of these amazing credits to her name, her best-known story remains, "A Big Blonde" published in Bookman Magazine and awarded the O. Henry Award as the most outstanding short story of 1929. Her short stories were sparse and incisive, relying heavily on dialog rather than description. She attributed this characteristic to her love of Ernest Hemingway. They were witty, but in a bittersweet, rather than comedic, sense.
Her life during the 1920s was full of extra-marital affairs, a heavy reliance on alcohol, and a desire for death (she attempted suicide three times during the decade). Her most noted affairs were with reporter-turned-playwright Charles MacArthur, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and with the publisher Seward Collins.
After the tumultuous 1920s in New York, Dorothy Parker desired a change of pace. In 1934, she married Alan Campbell, an actor with hopes of becoming a screenwriter. The couple moved to Hollywood to pursue careers in the movie business. Campbell had a great desire to act, but he also wanted to contribute to the screen through writing. However, it was Dorothy Parker who shined in this respect. She was the one in the relationship who made the living. She had a natural gift for the work and became quite wealthy (making a salary of $5200 a week) during the the Depression. Upon the move to Hollywood, Parker was contracted as a freelance writer for several Hollywood film studios. In all, the couple, who often worked together on projects, wrote for more than 15 films.
Parker and Campbell joined forces with Robert Carson in 1937 to write the script to the film A Star is Born. The film was directed by William Wellman and starred Janet Gaynor, Fredric March, and Adolphe Menjou. The film was a major success and nominated for several Academy Awards including Best Writing-Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Actor and others. It received an Oscar for Best Original Story. She followed up this success with her collaboration with Peter Vierter and Joan Harrison in Alfred Hitchcock's film Saboteur (1940). Many of Parker's fans could see clearly her quirky additions and contributions to the script. However, when the final project was finished, she claimed that her cameo with Hitchcock was the only interesting part and that the rest of the film was terribly boring.
In addition to her screenplay career, Parker also founded the Screen Writer's Guild with Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett. She never seemed to tire as she also reported on the Spanish Civil War and in her spare time worked on several plays, although none of them ever became popular. In spite of all of Parker's and Campbells's success, their marriage was a struggle. The couple would often fight and separate, only to reconcile a few weeks later. Eventually, they divorced in 1947, but even this did not last and society was a bit amused when they remarried in 1950. They stayed married until Campbell's death in 1963.
Dorothy Parker was an outspoken advocate of left-wing causes. Her passion for civil rights was received with harsh criticism and commentary from those who were in authority. As her time in Hollywood lengthened, she became more involved in politics. Parker supported the American Communist Party in 1934. She wrote for the Loyalist cause in Spain for the Communist paper New Masses in 1937, and was one of the founders of the Anti-Nazi League in Hollywood. Many friends thought her behavior too radical, and it caused rifts between Parker and those who used to be close to her. She rarely saw her former Round Table friends.
The growth of the American Communist Party led to investigations by the FBI and Dorothy Parker was on their list. The McCarthy era, as this period of time was known, resulted in Parker and others being placed on the Hollywood blacklist by movie studio bosses.
Her dependence on alcohol began to interfere with her work from 1957 to 1962. Although she wrote a few book reviews for Esquire, her position was not guaranteed, and her erratic behavior and lack of interest in deadlines, caused her popularity among editors to decline. In 1967, Dorothy Parker died of a heart attack at the age of 73 in Volney Apartments in New York City. Her ashes remained unclaimed in various places, including a file cabinet for 21 years. The NAACP eventually claimed them and built a memorial garden for them in their Baltimore headquarters. The plaque reads:
Here lie the ashes of Dorthy 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.
When Parker died, she did something completely unexpected, but not surprising; she bequeathed her entire estate to the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. foundation. Following King's death, her estate was passed on to the NAACP. Her executor, Lillian Hellman, bitterly but unsuccessfully contested this disposition. Even in death, Parker found a way to support a cause she deeply believed in.
George Oppenheimer wrote a play during the height of Dorothy Parker's popularity. In his play, Here Today (1932), Ruth Gordon played the character based on Parker
Parker's life was the subject of the 1987 video Dorothy And Alan At Norma Place, and the 1994 film Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle in which she was played by Jennifer Jason Leigh; others in the cast were Campbell Scott, Matthew Broderick, and Peter Gallagher.
On August 22, 1992 (Parker's 99th birthday), her image appeared on a 29¢ U.S. commemorative postage stamp in the Literary Arts series.
Dorothy Parker's small star tattoo on the inside of her arm was the inspiration for a compendium of literary extracts about tattoos, Dorothy Parker's Elbow - Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos by Kim Addonizio and Cheryl Dumesnil.
Dorothy Parker, along with other figures of the era such as Ira Gershwin and George Gershwin, is featured as a character in Act 1, Scene 12 of the stage musical version of Thoroughly Modern Millie.
All links retrieved March 25, 2015.
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