“A Lady Who Followed Ever Her Natural Bents”: Happy Birthday, Dorothy Parker
One of the first writers I discovered all on my own, as a teenager, was Dorothy Parker. I loved her from the very first lines of her biting, witty, and poignant poems about love and hate and life and death and men and women. To me, she reflected a type of writer I hadn’t yet encountered, and one I hoped to become: A woman who wrote with wryness and self-deprecation and honesty about what could be seen as universal life dilemmas, both small and large: One of my favorites of her stories involves a woman waiting for a man to call her, for her depiction of the ecosystem of familiar emotions in that experience.
Parker wasn’t afraid to talk about “lady stuff” (fast forward to 2013 and recent discussions of “mascara and eyeliner”). She wrote of girls wearing glasses and of hating her legs and of heartbreak (and suppressed heartbreak) with the same deft hand that she discussed abortion, suicide, social equality, and civil rights. I highly recommend The Portable Dorothy Parker for a wide-ranging look at her work. Her stories didn’t always have perfectly happy endings, and though she lived with apparent aplomb, all was not rosy in her personal life, because it never is. Parker herself attempted suicide more than once. She dated men who were bad for her, including a married man who got her pregnant. She had an abortion. She was not just the witty, ebullient woman who could hold her liquor and quip better than the men of the Round Table, the working woman who ran in literary circles and seemed to “have it all.” We are complicated. Dorothy Parker was complicated. And she wrote about it.
Today marks the 120th anniversary of her birth. (She was a Jersey girl, born on Aug. 22, 1893, in West End, a village in Long Branch.) I spoke to Kevin Fitzpatrick, president and founder of The Dorothy Parker Society, editor of The Lost Algonquin Round Table, and author of A Journey into Dorothy Parker’s New York and the upcoming Under the Table: A Dorothy Parker Cocktail Guide, to get a whiskey-sour refresher on the woman who left a legacy for many of us to live up to.
Jen: What do you get asked most about Dorothy Parker?
Kevin: People ask me a lot, “Why is Parker still popular?” I think it’s that she was writing about the human condition. Getting your heart broken back then is the same as it is in 2013. If you replace the old-time telephone with the hook with an iPhone, her writing still works; you don’t have to change a single word. Edna St. Vincent Millay is technically a better poet and was super-popular in her time, but she’s not read today. Parker, who is writing about bad bosses, bad relationships, subway rides, taxis, and so forth, is.
You mentioned that everyone gets compared to Dorothy Parker. Can you name one of those comparisons that has irked you?
You know, it’s funny: I started Dorothyparker.com in 1998, when Sex and the City was still on HBO, and there were a lot of people who compared Candace Bushnell, or Carrie Bradshaw, to Parker. I never got it. Dorothy Parker wrote “Men I’m not Married to“—trying on their names and being flip about it. Bradshaw was more like a general going into battle. Parker never pined over guys. She wrote about picking herself up and going on.
Let’s discuss her enviable career trajectory. Vanity Fair, Vogue, The New Yorker: How did she do what she did, particularly as a woman in the 1920s?
She joined Vogue when she was 21 and Vanity Fair when she was 24. Those are very early ages to be in very important roles for someone who never got past the 9th grade. She was really a self-made person—all she learned was from books, movies, and magazines. She was the youngest of four kids, and her mom died just before she was five. Her dad died in 1913 when she was 20, and that’s when she started sending out submissions. He never saw her success.
She never went to college, but she joined the staff of The New Yorker when it began in 1925, when she was in her early 30s. She was Broadway’s first female drama critic, but when she started working, women didn’t have the right to vote and couldn’t even take out a passport in a maiden name. I think she had a steely resolve, from her father, who worked in the garment business. She was a hard worker when she needed to be, but was also a procrastinator and easily distracted. She couldn’t sit and write a novel; she wrote short stories and plays and screenplays and collaborated. When she knew she had to write she’d have a friend come over and sit in a room so she wouldn’t just get up and leave.
Imagine if she’d had access to Twitter! Much of her poetry has an Internet-era bloggy style; short, witty bursts of writing.
Yes. She was a deadline writer, and she’s very accessible. You can hold her collected works in your hand.
Which of her works do you feel most says “This is Dorothy Parker”?
That’s a hard one. She wrote a lot about love and loss and loneliness but also about happy things. She wrote about her dogs and made fun of people like Calvin Coolidge. I’d say “Ballade at Thirty-Five,” which she wrote not when she was 35 but when she was 30. [Excerpted below.] She’s standing up and saying “I’m not an ingénue, I’m not going to take shit from anyone.” That’s who she is.
Can you talk a bit about her suicide attempts?
She tried to slit her wrists, and she tried sleeping powder. If you read Big Blonde, that’s how she did it. I’ve talked to a couple of friends and fans who are doctors, and what they say is that these attempts were a cry for help. She took all the powders and then ordered in food, for example. [In Big Blonde the character of Hazel Morse is discovered by the housekeeper.] These attempts were in the period from her late 20s to the early 30s, after her divorce had gone through. That was the low, low point. After that she met Alan Campbell, moved to Beverly Hills, and was nominated for two Oscars (for the original Star Is Born and Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman). She was living the good life.
She had a fairly dramatic relationship life, which of course played into what she writes. What sort of men did she date?
She was attracted to younger, good-looking men. Aside from her first husband, who was close in age to her, she primarily dated younger guys who were usually rascals, rakes. She was attracted more to looks than brains. She earned more than both of her husbands (and the second, Alan Campbell, was 11 years younger than she was, and probably bisexual). Her boyfriends were of a type and not necessarily good for her. The worst, Charles MacArthur, was married when she was dating him. He got her pregnant, and she had an abortion. [That is the pregnancy about which Parker is alleged to have said, “how like me, to put all my eggs into one bastard.”]
She was also married three times, twice to the same man…
Her first husband was Eddie Parker. I think she did love him. They were married two weeks in 1917 before he went off to the War. When he came back she was famous, and I think the bloom was off the rose. They divorced in the late ‘20s, and then she started with one bad boyfriend after another. She met Alan Campbell in 1932. He did everything for her, took care of her; she had no domestic skills. Campbell and she divorced in 1947, then remarried in 1950. On her second wedding she was under the sheets and said, “Don’t look at the bride, it’s not good luck.” He was very devoted; they were kooky. He’d sign their names as “alananddottie,” no space.
Her early working life sounds like a blast.
In 1923 she was going to Broadway shows five nights a week, writing for Vanity Fair. She’d go to the Algonquin for lunch, and with Robert Benchley she rented an office on 40th and Broadway, in the old New York Opera House, which was demolished in the ‘60s. It was two desks, that’s where they freelanced (they were both married at the time). They’d walk to the Algonquin to have lunch, go to the office, do more work, have a show. When the 11:30 theater let out, they’d hop to a speak—all the speakeasies were on 49th Street between 5th and 6th, and they’d stay all night, and then maybe go to an after-hours party.
When we scheduled this call you wrote, “You and I are not like Mrs. Parker to be working at 9 a.m.”
No early morning wake-ups with that schedule!
What are your favorites of her poems?
My favorites are “Inventory” and “Social Note.” They’re timeless.
What do people need to know about Dorothy Parker that often gets forgotten?
A lot of people think of her as martini-drinking dilettante, but she’s not just that. She was very political, that gets lost a lot. When I was working on my book I got her FBI file. It’s three inches thick. She’s been dead almost 50 years, and there’s a lot that’s redacted. She was with John Dos Passos and Hemingway, she was arrested in Boston protesting Vanzetti’s execution. When Hoover came in she ended up on a watch list. She was probably a little bit pink, and she helped found the screenwriters guild in L.A. She gave a lot of time and money to left-wing causes. There’s a reason she left her estate to Martin Luther King, Jr., a man she never met [and on his death, to the NAACP]. She really believed in civil rights. “Arrangement in Black and White,” from 1927, is about two women at a dinner party, but it’s really about racial intolerance.
How did the Dorothy Parker Society begin?
I was living on the Upper West Side, and a friend had given me the Parker biography, What Fresh Hell Is This?. It’s really good. Reading it, I figured out Parker and I both lived on West 72nd Street, and whenever I took that train, I’d see her old childhood home, at 214 West 72nd. This was in 1998, and I had this new thing called a digital camera. I thought I could take pictures of all the places Parker had lived on the Upper West Side and put them on the Internet. We were both writers, we were both unlucky in love, we were both Upper West Siders; I identify with what she has to say about life and drinking and friends and lovers. This, I thought, was a person who deserved to have her life told on the Internet. I started the site, and six months later it got really popular. People asked, “Will you do a walking tour and show us these places?”, and we walked from the Upper West Side to the Algonquin Hotel, and then went to a speakeasy. That was how it all started.
We can’t forget her birthday. What are you and the Society doing for Dorothy Parker’s 120th birthday?
Last year was the first year we went to the Shanty, the bar attached to the New York Distilling Company in Williamsburg. The owner is a big Dorothy Parker fan—he and his wife read “Here We Are” at their wedding—and they make Dorothy Parker Gin. This year, because it’s the 120th anniversary, he’s rolling the price for martinis back to $1.20 each, and we’ll have happy hour from 6 to 7 p.m.
Anyone can come to this?
It’s open to the public. It’s a little speakeasy in a part of Brooklyn that would have been a bohemian village in the ‘20s. We’ll read some poems—last year he rolled out wooden barrels of booze and people jumped on top and read their favorite Parker poems. Someone was standing up, reading a Parker poem off their iPhone, and I was like, This is so meta, so 2012.
Oh, and your latest book, The Dorothy Parker Cocktail Guide, is out in November. What was her favorite drink?
She was a highball fan. She loved scotch, whiskey sours. Once she was visiting a friend and he asked her what she’d like for breakfast, and she replied, “I’d like a dear little whiskey sour.”
BALLADE AT THIRTY-FIVE
This, no song of an ingénue,
This, no ballad of innocence;
This, the rhyme of a lady who
Followed ever her natural bents.
This, a solo of sapience,
This, a chantey of sophistry,
This, the sum of experiments, —
I loved them until they loved me.
Decked in garments of sable hue,
Daubed with ashes of myriad Lents,
Wearing shower bouquets of rue,
Walk I ever in penitence.
Oft I roam, as my heart repents,
Through God’s acre of memory,
Marking stones, in my reverence,
“I loved them until they loved me.”
Pictures pass me in long review,–
Marching columns of dead events.
I was tender, and, often, true;
Ever a prey to coincidence.
Always knew I the consequence;
Always saw what the end would be.
We’re as Nature has made us — hence
I loved them until they loved me.
Previously: The Books of Our Childhood Summers
Jen Doll is a regular contributor to The Hairpin.