August 22, 1893
Long Branch, New Jersey, U.S.
June 7, 1967 (aged 73)|
New York City, U.S.
|Occupation||Author, poet, critic, screenwriter|
|Genre||Poetry, satire, short stories|
|Literary movement||American modernism|
|Notable works||Enough Rope, Sunset Gun, Star Light, Star Bright--, A Star Is Born|
O. Henry Award |
Edwin Pond Parker II
(m. 1917; div. 1928)
(m. 1934; div. 1947)
(m. 1950; d. 1963)
Dorothy Parker (née Rothschild; August 22, 1893 - June 7, 1967) was an American poet, writer, critic, and satirist based in New York; she was best known for her wit, wisecracks, and eye for 20th-century urban foibles.
From a conflicted and unhappy childhood, Parker rose to acclaim, both for her literary works published in such magazines as The New Yorker and as a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table. Following the breakup of the circle, Parker traveled to Hollywood to pursue screenwriting. Her successes there, including two Academy Award nominations, were curtailed when her involvement in left-wing politics resulted in the being placed on the Hollywood blacklist.
Dismissive of her own talents, she deplored her reputation as a "wisecracker." Nevertheless, both her literary output and reputation for sharp wit have endured.
Also known as Dot or Dottie, Parker was born Dorothy Rothschild in 1893 to Jacob Henry and Eliza Annie Rothschild (née Marston) at 732 Ocean Avenue in Long Branch, New Jersey. Her parents had a summer beach cottage there. Dorothy's mother was of Scottish descent, and her father was of German Jewish descent. Parker wrote in her essay "My Hometown" that her parents returned to their Manhattan apartment shortly after Labor Day so that she could be called a true New Yorker. Her mother died in West End in July 1898, when Parker was a month shy of turning five.
Her father remarried in 1900 to Eleanor Frances Lewis (1851-1903). Parker hated her father, whom she accused of physical abuse; and despised her stepmother, whom she refused to call "mother", "stepmother", or "Eleanor", instead referring to her as "the housekeeper". She grew up on the Upper West Side and attended a Roman Catholic elementary school at the Convent of the Blessed Sacrament on West 79th Street with sister Helen, although their father was Jewish and her stepmother was Protestant. (Mercedes de Acosta was a classmate.) Parker once joked that she was asked to leave following her characterization of the Immaculate Conception as "spontaneous combustion". Her stepmother died in 1903, when Parker was nine. Parker later attended Miss Dana's School, a finishing school in Morristown, New Jersey. She graduated from Miss Dana's School in 1911, at the age of 18. Following her father's death in 1913, she played piano at a dancing school to earn a living while she worked on her poetry.
Dorothy Rothschild sold her first poem to Vanity Fair magazine in 1914 and some months later was hired as an editorial assistant for Vogue, another Condé Nast magazine. She moved to Vanity Fair as a staff writer after two years at Vogue.
In 1917, she met and married a Wall Street stockbroker, Edwin Pond Parker II (1893-1933), but they were soon separated by his army service in World War I. She had ambivalent feelings about her Jewish heritage and later joked that she married to escape her name.
Parker's career took off in 1918 while she was writing theatre criticism for Vanity Fair, filling in for the vacationing P. G. Wodehouse. At the magazine, she met Robert Benchley, who became a close friend, and Robert E. Sherwood. The trio began lunching at the Algonquin Hotel on a near-daily basis and became founding members of what became known as the Algonquin Round Table. The Round Table numbered among its members the newspaper columnists Franklin Pierce Adams and Alexander Woollcott. Through their publication of Parker's lunchtime remarks and short verses, particularly in Adams' column "The Conning Tower", Dorothy began developing a national reputation as a wit. When the group was informed that famously taciturn former president Calvin Coolidge had died, Parker remarked, "How could they tell?" This was one of her more famous comments.
Parker's caustic wit as a critic initially proved popular, but she was eventually terminated by Vanity Fair in 1920 after her criticisms too often offended powerful producers. In solidarity, both Benchley and Sherwood resigned in protest. She soon started working for Ainslee's Magazine, which had a higher circulation. She also published pieces in 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 Journal, Saturday Evening Post, and Life.
When Harold Ross founded The New Yorker in 1925, Parker and Benchley were part of a board of editors established by Ross to allay concerns of his investors. Parker's first piece for the magazine was published in its second issue. Parker became famous for her short, viciously humorous poems, many highlighting ludicrous aspects of her many (largely unsuccessful) romantic affairs and others wistfully considering the appeal of suicide.
The next 15 years were Parker's greatest period of productivity and success. In the 1920s alone she published some 300 poems and free verses in Vanity Fair, Vogue, "The Conning Tower" and The New Yorker as well as Life, McCall's and The New Republic.
Parker published her first volume of poetry, Enough Rope, in 1926. The collection sold 47,000 copies and garnered impressive reviews. The Nation described her verse as "caked with a salty humor, rough with splinters of disillusion, and tarred with a bright black authenticity". Although some critics, notably The New York Times reviewer, dismissed her work as "flapper verse", the volume helped affirm Parker's reputation for sparkling wit. Parker released two more volumes of verse, Sunset Gun (1928) and Death and Taxes (1931), along with the short story collections Laments for the Living (1930) and After Such Pleasures (1933). Not So Deep as a Well (1936) collected much of the material previously published in Rope, Gun, and Death and she re-released her fiction with a few new pieces in 1939 under the title Here Lies.
She collaborated with playwright Elmer Rice to create Close Harmony, which ran on Broadway in December 1924. The play was well received in out-of-town previews and was favorably reviewed in New York but it closed after a run of just 24 performances. It did become a successful touring production under the title The Lady Next Door.
Some of Parker's most popular work was published in The New Yorker in the form of acerbic book reviews under the byline "Constant Reader". Her response to the whimsy of A. A. Milne's The House at Pooh Corner was "Tonstant Weader fwowed up." Her reviews appeared semi-regularly from 1927 to 1933, were widely read, and were later published in a collection under the name Constant Reader in 1970.
Her best-known short story, "Big Blonde," published in The Bookman magazine, was awarded the O. Henry Award as the best short story of 1929. Her short stories, though often witty, were also spare and incisive, and more bittersweet than comic; her style is often described as sardonic.
Parker eventually separated from her husband, divorcing in 1928. She had a number of affairs, her lovers including reporter-turned-playwright Charles MacArthur and the publisher Seward Collins. Her relationship with MacArthur resulted in a pregnancy. Parker is alleged to have said, "how like me, to put all my eggs into one bastard." She had an abortion, and fell into a depression that culminated in her first attempt at suicide.
Toward the end of this period, Parker began to become more politically aware and active. What would become a lifelong commitment to activism began in 1927 when she became concerned about the pending executions of Sacco and Vanzetti. Parker travelled to Boston to protest the proceedings. She and fellow Round Tabler Ruth Hale were arrested, and Parker eventually pleaded guilty to a charge of "loitering and sauntering," paying a $5 fine.
In 1932 Parker met Alan Campbell, an actor with aspirations to become a screenwriter. They married two years later in Raton, New Mexico. Campbell's mixed parentage was the reverse of Parker's: he had a Jewish mother and a Scottish father. She learned that he was bisexual and later proclaimed in public that he was "queer as a billy goat". The pair moved to Hollywood and signed ten-week contracts with Paramount Pictures, with Campbell (who was also expected to act) earning $250 per week and Parker earning $1,000 per week. They would eventually earn $2,000 and in some instances upwards of $5,000 per week as freelancers for various studios. She and Campbell worked on more than 15 films.
With Campbell and Robert Carson, she wrote the script for the 1937 film A Star Is Born, for which they were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing--Screenplay. She wrote additional dialogue for The Little Foxes in 1941. Together with Frank Cavett, she received a nomination for an Oscar for the screenplay of Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman (1947), starring Susan Hayward.
After the United States entered the Second World War, Parker and Alexander Woollcott collaborated to produce an anthology of her work as part of a series published by Viking Press for servicemen stationed overseas. With an introduction by Somerset Maugham, the volume compiled over two dozen of Parker's short stories, along with selected poems from Enough Rope, Sunset Gun, and Death and Taxes. It was published in the United States in 1944 under the title The Portable Dorothy Parker. Hers is one of three Portable series, including volumes devoted to William Shakespeare and The Bible, that have remained in continuous print.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Parker became an increasingly vocal advocate of civil liberties and civil rights, and a frequent critic of authority figures. During the Great Depression, she was among numerous American intellectuals and artists who became involved in related social movements. She reported in 1937 on the Loyalist cause in Spain for the Communist magazine, The New Masses. At the behest of Otto Katz, a covert Soviet Comintern agent and operative of German Communist Party agent Willi Muenzenberg, Parker helped to found the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League in 1936, which the FBI suspected of being a Communist Party front. The Hollywood Anti-Nazi League's membership eventually grew to some 4,000 strong. According to David Caute, its often wealthy members were "able to contribute as much to [Communist] Party funds as the whole American working class", although they may not have been intending to support the Party cause.
Parker also served as chair of the Joint Anti-Fascist Rescue Committee. She organized Project Rescue Ship to transport Loyalist veterans to Mexico, headed Spanish Children's Relief, and lent her name to many other left-wing causes and organizations. Her former Round Table friends saw less and less of her, and her relationship with Robert Benchley became particularly strained (although they would reconcile). Parker met S. J. Perelman at a party in 1932 and, despite a rocky start (Perelman called it "a scarifying ordeal",) they remained friends for the next 35 years. They became neighbors when the Perelmans helped Parker and Campbell buy a run-down farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, near New Hope, a popular summer destination among many writers and artists from New York.
Parker was listed as a Communist by the publication Red Channels in 1950. The FBI compiled a 1,000-page dossier on her because of her suspected involvement in Communism during the era when Senator Joseph McCarthy was raising alarms about communists in government and Hollywood. As a result, movie studio bosses placed her on the Hollywood blacklist. Her final screenplay was The Fan, a 1949 adaptation of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, directed by Otto Preminger.
Her marriage to Campbell was tempestuous, with tensions exacerbated by Parker's increasing alcohol consumption and Campbell's long-term affair with a married woman in Europe during World War II. They divorced in 1947, remarried in 1950, then separated in 1952 when Parker moved back to New York. From 1957 to 1962, she lived at the Volney Residential Hotel on Manhattan's Upper East Side and wrote book reviews for Esquire magazine. Her writing became increasingly erratic due to her continued abuse of alcohol. She returned to Hollywood in 1961, reconciled with Campbell, and collaborated with him on a number of unproduced projects until Campbell died from a drug overdose in 1963.
Following Campbell's death, Parker returned to New York City and the Volney residential hotel. In her later years, she denigrated the Algonquin Round Table, although it had brought her such early notoriety:
These were no giants. Think who was writing in those days--Lardner, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway. Those were the real giants. The Round Table was just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were. Just a bunch of loudmouths showing off, saving their gags for days, waiting for a chance to spring them... There was no truth in anything they said. It was the terrible day of the wisecrack, so there didn't have to be any truth...
Parker occasionally participated in radio programs, including Information Please (as a guest) and Author, Author (as a regular panelist). She wrote for the Columbia Workshop, and both Ilka Chase and Tallulah Bankhead used her material for radio monologues.
Parker died on June 7, 1967, of a heart attack at the age of 73. In her will, she bequeathed her estate to Martin Luther King Jr. Following King's death, her estate was bequeathed by his family to the NAACP. Her executor, Lillian Hellman, bitterly but unsuccessfully contested this disposition. Her ashes remained unclaimed in various places, including her attorney Paul O'Dwyer's filing cabinet, for approximately 17 years.
In 1988, the NAACP claimed Parker's remains and designed a memorial garden for them outside its 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.
On August 22, 1992, the 99th anniversary of Parker's birth, the United States Postal Service issued a 29¢ U.S. commemorative postage stamp in the Literary Arts series. The Algonquin Round Table, as well as the number of other literary and theatrical greats who lodged at the hotel, contributed to the Algonquin Hotel being designated in 1987 as a New York City Historic Landmark. In 1996, the hotel was designated as a National Literary Landmark by the Friends of Libraries USA, based on the contributions of Parker and other members of the Round Table. The organization's bronze plaque is attached to the front of the hotel. Parker's birthplace at the Jersey Shore was also designated a National Literary Landmark by Friends of Libraries USA in 2005 and a bronze plaque marks the former site of her family house.
In 2014, Parker was elected to the New Jersey Hall of Fame.
Parker inspired a number of fictional characters in several plays of her day. These included "Lily Malone" in Philip Barry's Hotel Universe (1932), "Mary Hilliard" (played by Ruth Gordon) in George Oppenheimer's Here Today (1932), "Paula Wharton" in Gordon's 1944 play Over Twenty-one (directed by George S. Kaufman), and "Julia Glenn" in the Kaufman-Moss Hart collaboration Merrily We Roll Along (1934). Kaufman's representation of her in Merrily We Roll Along led Parker, once his Round Table compatriot, to despise him. She also was portrayed as "Daisy Lester" in Charles Brackett's 1934 novel Entirely Surrounded. She is mentioned in the original introductory lyrics in Cole Porter's song "Just One of Those Things" from the 1935 Broadway musical Jubilee, which have been retained in the standard interpretation of the song as part of the Great American Songbook.
Parker is featured as a character in the novel The Dorothy Parker Murder Case by George Baxt (1984), in a series of Algonquin Round Table Mysteries by J.J. Murphy (2011- ), and in Ellen Meister's novel Farewell, Dorothy Parker (2013). She is the main character in "Love For Miss Dottie," a short story by Larry N Mayer, which was selected by writer Mary Gaitskill for the collection Best New American Voices 2009 (Harcourt).
She has been portrayed on film and television by Dolores Sutton in F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood (1976), Rosemary Murphy in Julia (1977),Bebe Neuwirth in Dash and Lilly (1999), and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994). Neuwirth was nominated for an Emmy Award for her performance, and Leigh received a number of awards and nominations, including a Golden Globe nomination.
Tucson actress Lesley Abrams wrote and performed the one-woman show Dorothy Parker's Last Call in 2009 in Tucson, Arizona at the Winding Road Theater Ensemble. She reprised the role at the Live Theatre Workshop in Tucson in 2014. The play was selected to be part of the Capital Fringe Festival in DC in 2010.
In 2014, lyrics taken from her book of poetry Not So Deep as a Well were, with the authorization of the NAACP, used by Canadian singer Myriam Gendron to create a folk album of the same name. Also in 2014, Chicago jazz bassist/singer/composer Katie Ernst issued her album Little Words, consisting of her authorized settings of seven of Parker's poems.
1970 Constant Reader
1930 Laments for the Living
1933 After Such Pleasures
1939 Here Lies
1942 Collected Stories
1926 Enough Rope
1928 Sunset Guns
1931 Death and Taxes
1936 Collected Poems: Not So Deep as a Well
1944 Collected Poetry
1996 The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker
1929 Close Harmony
1953 Ladies of the Corridor
1949 The Fan
1937 A Star is Born
1938 Trade Winds
1941 Week-End for Three