David Nightingale: Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)

Mar 15, 2015

         

          Men seldom make passes
          At girls who wear glasses ...  [ref.1 p.79]

...wrote Dorothy Parker, and...

          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.     [(ref.1 p.62]

Dorothy Rothschild was born in 1893. She disliked her father, a prosperous man with a doctorate in Talmudic studies, who had 200 employees in his Manhattan garment factory. Her Scottish mother, not Jewish, had died when Dorothy was 6. Her early schooling was at a convent, but at the age of 12, when asked to explain to the class what was meant by the Immaculate Conception, had apparently replied "I'd say it was Spontaneous Combustion." [ibid, p.9]

Thus she was sent away to a boarding school -- Miss Dana's School for Young Ladies, in NJ. She was relatively happy there, away from her family, and graduated at the age of 17. After a scene at home with her father and new stepmother she left for good, with a small allowance, and moved into a boarding house at 103rd and Broadway. She never saw her father again, and didn't attend his funeral.

Her first poem -- too long to quote here --  was published in Vanity Fair, whose editor summoned the young lady for an interview. He paid her for the poem, and secured her a low level job as a caption writer at Vogue, in the Conde Nast building. At 22 she met a tall handsome Gentile, Edwin Parker II, an investment broker from Connecticut, and fell in love with him. When they married, in 1917, she took his name with pleasure, for she had never liked 'Rothschild'. However, while she was a young teetotaler, he was a heavy drinker. He was sent to fight in WW1 and was severely wounded [ref.1 p.28] . Meanwhile, at Vogue and Vanity Fair she was making lifelong friends with writers there, most of whom were from Harvard and Yale. One was the humorist Robert Sherwood, who had been dismissed from Harvard twice. This talented group of witty young writers and actors often enjoyed lunches at the Algonquin Hotel, forming what came to be known as the Algonquin Round Table.

She left Parker and slowly fell in love with one of the Round Table gang, a tall minister's son and writer, Charles MacArthur. Prophetically, she wrote

          And he vows his passion is
          Infinite, undying --
          Lady, make a note of this:
          One of you is lying.

MacArthur turned out to be a womanizer, and left her pregnant. She began to drink -- today there is a 'Dorothy Parker gin' -- and after an abortion, she slashed her wrists, the first of three suicide attempts [ref.1, p.148] . She wrote

        Healed  [Ref.3, p.231]

          Oh, when I flung my heart away,
          The year was at its fall.
          I saw my dear, the other day,
          Beside a flowering wall;
          And this was all I had to say:
          "I thought that he was tall!"

As well as her verses she was a drama critic, short-story writer and later script writer in Hollywood. Her acerbic tongue made enemies as well as lifelong friends.

        Superfluous advice  [ref.3, p.235]

          Should they whisper false of you,
          Never trouble to deny;
          Should the words they say be true,
          Weep and storm and swear they lie.

Her short poem On Being a Woman  [ref.3, p.227]     runs:

          Why is it, when I am in Rome,
          I'd give an eye to be at home,
          But when on native earth I be,
          My soul is sick for Italy?

          And why with you, my love, my lord,
          Am I spectacularly bored,
          Yet, do you up and leave me -- then
          I scream to have you back again?     

Later in life, in the 50s and 60s, her popularity gave her enough earnings to support causes such as the NAACP. She married again, but drinking and death were always with her. According to biographer Lesley Frewin she said:

          "I like to think of my shining tombstone ... It gives me something to live for."  [Ref.1, p.319]

She died of a heart attack in 1967 at the age of 73.

References:

1.  "The Late Mrs Dorothy Parker", by Lesley Frewin, 1986; Macmillan, 866 3rd Ave, New York, NY 10022.

2.  "Death and Taxes",  by Dorothy Parker; Sundial Press, Garden City, NY; 1931, 1939.

3.  "The Portable Dorothy Parker", edited by Marion Meade; Penguin books, 375 Hudson ?St., New York, NY 10014.

4.  "Dorothy Parker, Revised", Arthur F.Kinney, 1998; Twayne Publishers, 1633, Broadway, New York, NY, 10019.

Correction: This essay originally contained an error that misidentified Robert Sherwood as Robert Benchley.