Brilliant, Troubled Dorothy Parker

What are we to make today of this famous woman who, beginning almost a century ago, has fascinated generations with her wit, flair, talent, and near genius for self-destruction? For some, what registers most strongly is her central role in the legend of the Algonquin Round Table, with its campiness of wisecracks, quips, and put-downs—a part of her life she would come to repudiate. For others, it’s the descent into alcoholism, and the sad final years holed up in Manhattan’s Volney Hotel. Pick your myth.
As for her writing, it has evoked ridiculous exaggeration from her votaries, both her contemporaries and her biographers. Vincent Sheean: “Among contemporary artists, I would put her next to Hemingway and Bill Faulkner. She wasn’t Shakespeare, but what she was, was true.” John Keats in his biography of her, You Might as Well Live (1970): “She wrote poetry that was at least as good as the best of Millay and Housman. She wrote some stories that are easily as good as some of O’Hara and Hemingway.” This is praise that manages to be inflated and qualified at the same time.
And here is Regina Barreca, a professor of English literature and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut, in her introduction to the Penguin edition of the Complete Stories: “If Parker’s work can be dismissed as narrow and easy, then so can the work of Austen, Eliot, and Woolf.” Well, no. Exaggerated claims don’t strengthen the case for Parker’s literary accomplishments. As is inevitably the case with criticism grounded in agenda, they diminish it. But this doesn’t mean that her work is without value or interest.
Certainly she struck a chord with the public: from the start, her voice spoke to a wide range of readers. Her generally sardonic, often angry, occasionally brutal view of men and women—of love and marriage, of cauterized despair—triggered recognition and perhaps even strengthened resolve. She told the truth as she perceived it, while using her wit and humor to hold at arm’s length the feelings that her personal experiences had unleashed in her. An uncanny modern descendant is Nora Ephron in her novelHeartburn, which reimagines her ugly and painful breakup with Carl Bernstein as a barbed comedy.
In 1915, Parker, aged twenty-two, went to work at Vogue (for ten dollars a week), writing captions, proofreading, fact-checking, etc., and after a while moved over to the very young Vanity Fair; her first poem to be published had recently appeared there. She happily functioned as a kind of scribe-of-all-work until three years later she was chosen to replace the departing P.G. Wodehouse as the magazine’s drama critic. She was not only the youngest by far of New York’s theater critics, she was the only female one.
It was at the magazine that she met the lovable and sympathetic Robert Benchley, who would become the closest friend of her life, as well as Robert Sherwood, long before his four Pulitzer Prizes (three for drama, one for biography). They became a threesome, and started eating lunch together at the nearby Algonquin Hotel because it was affordable and the food was okay. At about the same time, another threesome drifted in, graduates of Stars and Stripes, the overseas army’s weekly newspaper. They were Alexander Woollcott, Harold Ross, and Franklin Pierce Adams, who as “F.P.A.” was the most influential newspaper columnist of the day. Soon Adams was quoting Parker’sVanity Fair verses and, even more effectively, her bon mots. Quickly “Dorothy Parker” was a celebrity.
It didn’t hurt that she was very pretty, very sexy, and had a somewhat checkered personal life. She had married a good-looking, not very interesting (to others) youngWASP businessman named Edwin Parker—she liked to say she did it in order to legitimately shed her maiden name of Rothschild (no, not the Rothschilds). He went into the army in 1917, and she followed him around army bases in the States, but when he came back from overseas, it was over; apart from anything else, he had become seriously addicted to morphine.
Many amours followed, all of them disastrous and all of them feeding her eternal presentation of herself in her prose and poetry as wounded, heartsick, embittered, soul-weary. Along the way, she had a legal but frightening abortion (she had put it off too long), the father being the charming, womanizing Charles MacArthur, who would go on to cowrite The Front Page and marry Helen Hayes. Parker was crazy about him; his interest waned. The gossip was that when he contributed thirty dollars toward the abortion, she remarked that it was like Judas making a refund.
In 1920 Vanity Fair fired her at the insistence of several important Broadway producers whom her caustic reviews had managed to offend. (Benchley immediately resigned in solidarity with her; Sherwood had already been fired.) Another literary magazine, Ainslee’s, with a far larger readership, took her up and gave her a free hand, and she went on laying waste to the tidal wave of meretricious plays and musicals and revues that opened every year, sometimes ten a week; one Christmas night there were eight premieres. Yet—always just, if not always kind—she recognized and saluted real achievement when she actually came upon it.
Meanwhile, her verses and stories were appearing profusely and everywhere: not only in upscale places like Vanity Fair (which was happier to publish her than employ her),The Smart Set, and The American Mercury, but also in the popular Ladies’ Home JournalSaturday Evening PostLife (when it was still a comic magazine), and—starting with its second issue early in February 1925—her old pal Harold Ross’s new venture, The New Yorker, with which she would have an extended on-again, off-again love affair.
At first, the stories were essentially sketches fed by her perfect ear for foolish, self-absorbed conversation and her scorn for middle-class hypocrisies. They appealed to the same cast of mind that was responding so clamorously to Sinclair Lewis’s puncturings, in Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922), of what H.L. Mencken called the “booboisie.” As time passed, though, her intentions grew more serious, culminating in her longest and best-known story, “Big Blonde,” which won the 1929 O. Henry Award (Faulkner, Cheever, Updike, Carver, Oates, and Munro were among later winners).
“Big Blonde” reveals the desperate life of a fading party girl who’s run out of steam and tries, and fails, to kill herself. It’s convincing in its verisimilitude and deployment of pathos, but finally it comes across as a masterly performance rather than a reverberant vision of life. (Compare it to Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.) It’s also Parker dealing with her own failed suicide attempts—slashed wrists, Veronal (Big Blonde’s drug of choice). Suicide was a constant reality for her. The novel she began was to be called Sonnets in Suicide. One of her most famous poems, “Résumé,” summed things up:
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
Death and suicide are never far from her thoughts—she titled her collections Enough RopeSunset GunDeath and Taxes, and Not So Deep as a Well, the first of them a major best seller in 1926, confirming her fame.
Was her poetry just rhyming badinage dressed up as trenchant, plaintive ruminations on love, loss, and death? Her subjects are serious, but her cleverness undercuts them: there’s almost always a last line, a sardonic zinger, to signal that even if she does care, the more fool she. Even her most famous couplet—“Men seldom make passes/At girls who wear glasses”—bandages a wound, although plenty of men made passes.
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