August 22, 1893– Dorothy Parker:
“Three highballs and I am St. Francis of Assisi.”
51 years after her passing, her wisecracks are still quoted. I can hardly pick a favorite; to a friend who needed to euthanize an old cat: “Try curiosity” Or, about a lover: “His voice was as intimate as the rustle of sheets”. When she learned that President Calvin Coolidge had died, she quipped: “How can you tell?”
Parker did more than crack wise. The American Academy Of Arts And Letters admitted her for her poetry and short stories. She is in the New York Writers Hall Of Fame alongside Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and Toni Morrison. Her name pops up on that Internet thing in cultural references from the day’s news cycle.
She wrote a lot about booze. Along with her dogs and expensive clothes, Parker enjoyed her cocktails. She imbibed at speakeasies in New York City, at movie star’s mansions in Beverly Hills, and villas on the French Riviera.
“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 a screenwriter in Hollywood in the 1930s, Parker irritated studio head Samuel Goldwyn with her stream of caustic remarks. Goldwyn complained:
“Wisecracks! I told you there’s no money in wisecracks. People want a happy ending.”
“I know this will come as a shock to you, Mr. Goldwyn, but in all of history, which has held billions and billions of human beings, not a single one ever had a happy ending.”
Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I played a wonderful character named Banjo, inspired by Harpo Marx, in the terrific play The Man Who Came To Dinner based on a real life incident in the life of Algonquin Round Table Group regular Alexander Woollcott. The group took its name from its hangout, the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan’s theatre district, and they were also known as “The Vicious Circle” because of the number of cutting remarks made by its members with their sharp-tongued banter.
When I was an actor, I would over-research my character work and I was sent on an Algonquin Round Table reading rabbit hole that lasted for decades. I read everything I could about and by these interesting, talented, witty friends during one of NYC’s richest periods. I have books about or by Woollcott, Edna Ferber, Robert Benchley, Ira Gershwin, George S. Kauffman, Herbert Ross and S.J. Perelman, but Parker is the personality that engaged me the most. She was the sharpest of the sharp.
In an Algonquin Round Table game, when asked to use the word “horticulture” in a sentence, Parker famously quipped:
“You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”
Parker worked as a pianist at a dance studio until she sold her first poem to Vanity Fair in 1914; four years later, at just 24-years-old, she took over from P.G. Wodehouse as Vanity Fair’s theatre critic.
“I don’t want to be classed as a humorist. It makes me feel guilty.”
In the 1920s, Parker’s fame came from writing a weekly column titled The Constant Reader which contained observations, book reviews, poetry, and short fiction for a fledgling little magazine called The New Yorker. Her review of A. A. Milne’s The House At Pooh Corner read:
‘Tonstant Weader fwowed up.’
I had read everything by Parker by the time I was 30-years-old. A selection of her reviews was published in 1970 as The Constant Reader, the title of her column. My copy traveled with me from Spokane to Boston to Los Angles to Seattle to Portland. It is dog-eared and stained, but sitting smartly in the Algonquin Round Table section of my bookcases.
“If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”
She married Alan Campbell in 1934. Campbell was a failed actor who hoped to become a screenwriter. Just like Parker, he was half-Jewish, half-Scottish. Campbell was Parker’s second gay husband and she married him twice! Parker claimed in public that he was “queer as a billy goat”. The couple was under contract at Paramount Pictures, with Campbell making $250 per week and Parker earning $1,000 per week. So much for pay equity. They eventually both made more than $20,000 a month as freelancers when they got out of their contract.
“I require three things in a man: He must be handsome, ruthless, and stupid.”
Parker and Campbell were good as a screenwriting team and they worked together on more than 15 films including the first A Star Is Born (1937), the one with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, not the one with Barbra Streisand in an Afro. They wrote Alfred Hitchcock’s terrific Saboteur (1942). Her success during this period brought her two Academy Award nominations, but her career as a screenwriter was thwarted by the Hollywood Blacklist after an investigation by The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) because of her involvement in left-wing politics. Parker was staunchly Anti-Fascist in the 1930s and was a strong advocate for liberal causes all of her life.
“You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks.”
When I lived in NYC in the 1970s, my handsome, sexy, neurotic, NYC-born boyfriend treated me to a “Dorothy Parker’s Manhattan Tour” one autumn day, with stops at her girlhood home on the Upper West Side, the Algonquin Hotel, Alexander Woollcott’s home Wits End, the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the old offices of The New Yorker, and the restaurant 21.
Parker led an interesting, but difficult life, with a troubled childhood, three failed marriages, several suicide attempts, and lots and lots of booze. Her caustic wit, talent, wisecracks and sharp eye for urban sophisticates and their foibles endures to this day. She seems of her era and totally modern at the same time.
“Heterosexuality is not normal, it’s just common.”
Harpo Marx noted: “You’ve got to expect public recognition like that. After all, you’re an international celebrity”. Parker replied:
“Yeah, that’s me, the toast of two continents… Greenland and Australia.”
Parker has been portrayed on film and on stage many times. including Dolores Sutto in Hollywood (1976), Rosemary Murphy in Julia (1977), Bebe Neuwirth in Dash And Lilly (1999) and most interestingly, by Jennifer Jason Leigh in Alan Rudolph’s terrific 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 for her take on Parker.
“Tell him I was too fucking busy… or vice versa.”
Parker loved animals, especially canines and she had at least one dog all of her adult life, and she was noted for finding homes for strays. She was an early defender of International Human Rights and Civil Rights. Her 1927 story Arrangement In Black And White deftly mocks people who claim not to be racist but act with incredible condescension and prejudice.
When Parker checked out for good in 1967, taken by a heart attack at 73-years-old, she left her entire estate to Martin Luther King, Jr. After King’s murder, the estate was passed to the NAACP. Her estate executor, playwright Lillian Hellman, bitterly, yet unsuccessfully, contested Parker’s wishes. Parker’s ashes remained unclaimed and knocked around various locations, including her lawyer’s filing cabinet, for two decades. She was finally placed beneath a brick circle at NAACP’s headquarters in Baltimore. Her epitaph reads:
“Excuse My Dust”