|Dorothy Parker, Volney Hotel years.|
Dorothy Parker is one of those writers now more famous for who she was than what she wrote. She will forever be etched in the public mind as the queen of the Algonquin Roundtable, that shifting group of Manhattan wits and sophisticates who daily gathered at an Algonquin Hotel table to exchange barbs and bon mots. Through the Roaring Twenties and into the early years of the Depression the pithy sayings of these gin fueled repasts were breathless repeated in gossip columns read as avidly in Peoria as on Park Avenue.
Despite her own very real accomplishments, Parker recognized this and even reveled in it. “Every day,” she said, “I get up, brush my teeth, and sharpen my tongue.”
But Parker was a widely respected magazine journalist, critic, and above all a poet. Her volumes of humorous verse were beloved best sellers.
Parker was born on August 22, 1893 on the Jersey Shore where her middle class Manhattan parents kept a summer cabin. Her birth name was Rothschild—her father was of German Jewish descent (not related to the banking family) and her mother was of Scottish ancestry. Her mother, Eliza died while staying at the same cabin just before her 5th birthday setting off a troubled and unhappy childhood.
Young Dot, as she was called, hated her father’s new wife and referred to her contemptuously as the “the housekeeper.” She claimed her father physically abused her. She was openly glad when her step mother died in 1903. Despite a Jewish father and a Protestant birth mother, she was sent to the Convent of the Blessed Sacrament School probably in hopes that the stern nuns would train her wild rebelliousness. It didn’t work. She was expelled when she was 14 for calling the Immaculate Conception “spontaneous combustion.”
After that she was shipped of for an indifferent education at a New Jersey finishing school mostly to keep her out of her father’s hair. She graduated at age 18 in 1911. Two years later her father died leaving most of his estate to a sister. Dorothy went to work playing piano at a dancing school to earn a living. In her spare time, she was writing verse.
She quickly established a career as a writer after selling her first poem to Vanity Fair in 1914. Soon after she was hired as a staff writer at a sister publication, Vogue then moved to a similar job at Vanity Fair two years later.
In 1917 she met and married stock broker Edwin Pond Parker II. They were soon separated by his service in World War I. Not that she minded much. Ambivalent about her Jewish identity, especially because she hated her father, she later joked that she got married to acquire a WASP name. After Parker’s return from the war, the marriage was stormy and eventually ended in diverse in 1926.
Parker’s career really took off when she took over theater reviews at Vanity Fair from the vacationing P.G. Woodhouse. Her criticism was arch, acerbic, witty, and penetrating. Readers loved it. Skewered playwrights, producers, directors, and actors felt differently.
Parker and fellow staff members Robert Benchley and Robert E. Sherwood began to take a daily largely liquid lunch at the Algonquin Hotel. They were soon joined by others and by 1919 folks were talking about the Roundtable. Other early participants included Alexander Wolcott, newspaperman/playwright Charles MacArthur, Harpo Marx, sportswriter Haywood Broun and playwrights George F. Kaufmann and Marc Connolly. Franklin Pierce Adams not only began posting quips from the table in his popular column The Conning Tower, but printed whole poems by Parker and other members helping to make their public reputations.
Sometimes all of the publicity the wits received backfired. Theater producers outraged over several quotes by Parker ridiculing their shows threatened to remove advertising from her employer. Vanity Fair fired her. Benchley and Sherwood walked out in solidarity. By then they were all hot commodities and could place poems, reviews and stories in all of the top magazines.
In 1925 Harold Ross founded the New Yorker and brought Parker and Benchley on board as part of his Editorial Board. Parker now really came into her own. Her poems became a favorite feature and she contributed sharp, well drawn short stories as well. Her caustic book reviews as the Constant Reader were very popular.
In 1926 her first volume of poems, drawn from her contributions to the New Yorker, other popular magazines and the Conning Tower sold an amazing 47,000 copies and had generally glowing reviews. She followed with two more collections, Sunset Gun in 1928 and Death and Taxes in 1931.
Despite her success, which included collaborating on plays with Kaufmann and Elmer Rice, Parker’s personal life was a shambles. Not only was she drinking heavily, but she was subject to bouts of black depression and suicidal thoughts, which she sometimes hinted at in her poems. Her marriage was on the rocks and she was engaged in a series of sad, sometimes disastrous love affairs. Affairs with MacArthur, who would go on to marry actress Helen Hayes, Benchley, and Wolcott resulted in pregnancies and abortions. After the first she made the first of several suicide attempts.
Her love life and disappointments became the fodder of her most famous short story, Big Blonde published in The Bookman magazine. It won the prestigious O. Henry Award for Best Short Story of 1929. She went on to publish several story collections over the next decade.
Parker’s life changed dramatically in 1927 as she became interested in the campaign to save anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti from execution on dubious murder/bank robbery charges in Massachusetts. Previously largely apolitical, she traveled to Boston to protest and was arrested and fined $5 for picketing. The experience set of a commitment to leftist causes, social justice, and civil rights that only grew and lasted the rest of her life.
By the early 1930’s the old gang at the Algonquin and newer members like Tallulah Bankhead and Edna Ferber were drifting apart. The group dynamics of members sleeping with each other or occasional other’s spouses must have contributed. But so did the increasing demands of successful careers and political tensions between the more conservative members and the increasingly radicalized Parker.
One day in 1932 Ferber showed up for lunch and found the regular table occupied by, “a party from Kansas.” It was all over.
About that time Parker began a relationship with a fellow New Yorker contributor and sometimes actor Allan Campbell. Like her, he was of Jewish and Scottish heritage. He was also ten years younger and an active bi-sexual. The two were married in 1934 in Taos, New Mexico on the way to Hollywood and the lure of lucrative new careers as screenwriters.
They first caught on at Paramount. He was put under a contract for $350 which included acting in bit parts, and she got $1000 a week. They soon, however, established themselves as a successful screen writing duo earning $2,000 to $5,000 a week free lancing a quality studios like MGM and Warner Bros. Most of the 15 films on which they collaborated were competent, journeyman efforts. But they earned an Academy Award nomination for the classic A Star is Born in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredrick March. When Parker’s friend and fellow left wing activist Lillian Hellman was called away from The Little Foxes to work on another project, they were called in two write additional dialogues for the Bette Davis.
The marriage broke up in divorce in 1938 but despite Parkers drinking and suicidal depressions, they continued to work together until Campbell entered the service as a military intelligence officer in World War II. As her contribution to the war effort she worked with Wolcott and Viking Press on a compact edition of her best stories and poems for soldiers serving overseas. After the War Viking released it for American readers as The Compact Dorothy Parker. It has never since gone out of print.
After the war in 1947 Parker won another Oscar nomination for her contributions the Susan Hayward tearjerker Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman. The tale of a woman whose life was disintegrating in alcoholism must have hit awfully close to the bone.
But Parker’s days in Hollywood were number as the Red Scare infected the industry. For years she had been a leader of local anti-Fascist crusades and organizations. She had even reported on the Spanish Civil War for The Masses and had helped re-locate defeated veterans of the war to safety in Mexico. She was active on or chaired several committees—most notably the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League which grew to 4,000 members and was accused funneling large sums of money to the Communist Party.
Parker’s last Hollywood job was The Fan, and adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan for Otto Preminger in 1949. After that she was hauled before a Congressional Committee, pled the Fifth Amendment, and blacklisted.
In the midst of all of that, Parker re-married Campbell in 1950. They separated, but did not divorce, in 1952 and Parker returned to New York to take up residency in the Volney Hotel. Advanced alcoholism prevented her from returning to regular magazine work, although she submitted occasional reviews. Mostly she made a small living as celebrity guest or panelist on such radio programs as Information Please and Author, Author. She wrote monologues for old friends Tallulah Bankhead and Ilka Chase.
Despite her drinking, she remained as active as possible politically. She was especially moved by the Civil Rights Movement as it unfolded on the streets of the South.
In 1960 she reconciled with Campbell and moved back to Los Angeles where the couple worked fitfully on un-realized projects. In 1962 Campbell committed suicide. In worse emotional shape than ever, Parker returned to the lonely life of a Volney Hotel drunk.
When she died of a heart attack on June 7, 1967 Parker left her estate, including valuable literary properties, to Martin Luther King, Jr. to support him in his work. When he was killed days later the estate ended up in the hands of the NAACP.
With no living relative or willing friend to claim them Parker’s ashes stayed in a file cabinet in her lawyer’s office for 17 years until the NAACP claimed them. They buried them under a marker on the grounds of their Baltimore headquarters. The plaque reads:
Here lie the ashes of Dorothy Parker (1893–1967) humorist, writer, critic. Defender of human and civil rights. For her epitaph she suggested, “Excuse my dust”. This memorial garden is dedicated to her noble spirit which celebrated the oneness of humankind and to the bonds of everlasting friendship between black and Jewish people. Dedicated by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. October 28, 1988.
A Well-Worn Story
In April, in April,
My one love came along,
And I ran the slope of my high hill
To follow a thread of song.
His eyes were hard as porphyry
With looking on cruel lands;
His voice went slipping over me
Like terrible silver hands.
Together we trod the secret lane
And walked the muttering town.
I wore my heart like a wet, red stain
On the breast of a velvet gown.
In April, in April,
My love went whistling by,
And I stumbled here to my high hill
Along the way of a lie.
Now what should I do in this place
But sit and count the chimes,
And splash cold water on my face
And spoil a page with rhymes?