How Poet, Writer & Critic Dorothy Parker Forever Enriched Our Cultural Repertoire with Her Wit
“Excuse my dust.”
These may seem like cruel words to inscribe on the box of a woman’s cremated ashes, especially one that had sat for 15 years unclaimed, in a lawyer’s filing cabinet. Yet, therein lay the “dust” of Dorothy Parker (1893 - 1967) — poet, critic and writer, and renowned wit of the 20th century — whose famous lines, such as “What fresh hell is this?” and “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses” are still mainstays in the cultural repertoire. Celebrated for her sardonic, self-deprecating, and dark sense of humor, she would most likely find the whole affair funny, or at least fitting. And besides, it was one of several epitaphs Parker had considered for herself while she was still alive, along with “Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgement,” and “If you can read this, you’re standing too close.”
On August 20th, 2020, Parker’s ashes were brought home to New York, the city she loved and the one to which her identity remains inextricably linked. She was buried next to her parents in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, the final resting place of many other prominent New York figures of her time, like Duke Ellington (1899 - 1974), Cole Porter (1891 - 1964), and Irving Berlin (1888 - 1989). Her remains had been buried in Baltimore since 1988, in a memorial garden designed for her by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
In her will, Parker bequeathed her entire estate to Martin Luther King Jr (1929 - 1968), who, upon receiving it, admitted that he didn’t know who she was but nonetheless accepted her largesse saying: “The Lord provide(s).” Upon King’s death ten months later, the NAACP became the beneficiary. Parker’s connection to King and his fellows in the Civil Rights movement may seem tenuous at a glance, but much of her later life was dedicated to Civil Rights causes, and she abhorred injustice above all else.
She certainly had her own experiences with inequality, as she was often, quite literally, one of the only women at the table. She was a founding member of a group of writers known as the Algonquin Roundtable, a nearly all-male group of writers who worked in the nearby Conde Nast offices, and included her friends, humorist Robert Benchley (1889 - 1945) and playwright Robert Sherwood (1896-1955). The group met nearly every day at lunchtime at the Algonquin Hotel to trade barbs and quips, and from one of their many wordplay exercises Parker produced one of her most famous lines. When asked to use the word “horticulture” in a sentence, she wrote, borrowing from the proverb about leading a horse to water: “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.” Jokes like this, and, “What’s the difference between a hormone and an enzyme? You can’t hear an enzyme,” led some to accuse Parker of catering to a male audience at the expense of other women. Her career itself was a testament to progress, however. When Vanity Fair hired her in 1918 to replace P.G. Wodehouse, making her the country’s first female theater critic, the right for women to vote wouldn’t be granted for another two years.
Her time at Vanity Fair was cut short by what was to be a lifelong habit of taking aim at the elite, their sensibilities, and their institutions. She mocked the performance of actress Billie Burke (1884 - 1970) in Somerset Maugham’s play “Cesar’s Wife,” comparing her unflatteringly to a vaudeville star. This incurred the wrath of Florenz Ziegfield (1867 - 1932), the show’s producer, Burke’s husband, and one of the magazine’s most generous advertisers. Ziegfield put pressure on Vanity Fair to fire Parker. When Vanity Fair acquiesced, Sherwood and Benchley quit in protest and in solidarity. Benchley would later join Parker to become two of the first contributors to write for The New Yorker when it was founded in 1925. There, under the nom de plume “Constant Reader,” she fired off book reviews like: “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” Her honest and biting criticism helped to shape the magazine’s signature style as we know it today.
In 1920, along with a handful of New York illustrators and writers, she published “High Society,” a satirical guide to life within the beau monde, one that subtly mocked its wealthy inhabitants as vain, lazy idiots with more dollars than sense. “If you want to know what God thinks of money,” she once wrote, “look at the people He gives it to.”
Parker herself grew up in relative privilege on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where she attended some of the city’s finest schools. There was no insulation from heartbreak, however. Born Dorothy Rothschild, (though not to those Rothschilds, as she was always quick to assure anyone who may have confused her for a member of the wealthy banking family), her mother died two weeks before her fifth birthday, and soon after her father married a woman whom Parker could only bring herself to refer to as “the housekeeper.” Later, in 1912, her beloved uncle perished aboard the RMS Titanic when it sank into the sea, and her father, perhaps in part due to the devastation, died in December of the same year. Such events contributed to the sharp undercurrent of melancholy that runs underneath Parker’s verse, both humorous, and more sober, such as her poem “Interior” (1926) where she writes, “Her mind lives tidily apart/from cold and noise and pain/And bolts the door against her heart/ out wailing in the rain.”
More broadly, Parker was a member of what has been dubbed The Lost Generation, those who came of age during or just after the first World War. Having witnessed such devastation, the young men and women of the era were aimless if not reckless, rejected established notions of gender roles and proper behavior, and instead were interested in hedonism and acquiring as much money as possible. They also pitched between romanticism and cynicism, watching their lofty expectations get leveled by reality. The humor in Parker’s poems is often a result of a similar sense of misdirection, lulling the reader with imagery and idealism, then abruptly pulling the rug out from under the whole thing. In one of her most famous poems “Observation” (1925) she writes: “If I refrain from drink and such/I’ll probably amount to much/but I shall stay the way I am/because I do not give a damn.”
This initial lulling of the reader is a result of Parker’s selection of taut rhythms and precise rhymes that ensure when revealing a bitter truth, the punchline packs extra punch. Even her most lighthearted epigrams were finely honed and sophisticated, influenced by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) whom Parker greatly admired. Form and function were nothing without the other, she realized, saying: “There is a hell of a difference between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words.”
The primary target of Parker’s merciless satire was Parker herself, so often teetering on the edge of game self-deprecation and often toppling over into plain self-loathing. She was able to joke about her love of drink, as was commensurate with the flapper lifestyle, “A hangover is the wrath of grapes”, and “I like to have a martini/ two at the very most/After three I’m under the table/after four I’m under my host). As time went on, however, she suffered from an increasingly debilitating case of alcoholism, though she was still able to keep a sense of humor about it, admitting,“I’m not a writer with a drinking problem, I’m a drinker with a writing problem.”
Perhaps her greatest source of raw material was her love life. Her first marriage to Edwin Pond Parker II (1893 - 1933) was fraught with infidelity and physical abuse. She’d later marry actor (then divorce and marry again) screenwriter Alan Campbell (1904 - 1963) before finally losing him to a suicidal overdose. For a time, the couple were a highly sought after screenwriting duo, their most famous co-writing credit being A Star is Born, a movie that, a century and four incarnations later, continues to resonate with audiences for its stark portrayal of romantic dysfunction. She writes in her poem “Comment” (1925): “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.”
Parker’s body of work remains popular, and in turn the NAACP continues to benefit from the sales of her published works. On August 23rd 2021, as a band played Ella Fitzgerald’s hit song “Back in Your Own Backyard,” the remaining members of Parker’s family revealed her headstone, which is inscribed with the last four lines of her poem “Epitaph for a Darling Lady (1925),” as even in death, there is room for humor: Leave for her a young red rose/Go your way, and save your pity/She is happy, for she knows/That her dust is very pretty.
Note * All of the images are in the public domain.