When Dorothy Parker died in 1967, she was living alone in New York. Her husband and creative partner, Alan Campbell, had already passed, and she had no children or other family still living. She left everything she had to a hard-working and compassionate civil-rights activist she had never even met: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Parker’s story is full of incredible intersections like this one. Reading her columns, reviews and letters in The Portable Dorothy Parker is an unexpected glimpse into the top-tier literati of the ’20s and ’30s. She panned plays by A. A. Milne and Theodore Dreiser (both of whom she hated), reviewed books by Ernest Hemingway and John Updike, wrote introductions for works by James Thurber, scolded Jack Kerouac, sent telegrams to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and trashed one of Florenz Ziegfeld’s infamous “Follies,” for which she promptly lost her job. She worked in Hollywood, writing movie scripts during the Golden Age, but her heart belonged to New York (even though, she writes, “I was cheated out of the distinction of being a native New Yorker, because I had to go and get born while the family was spending the summer in New Jersey, but, honestly, we came back into town right after Labor Day, so I nearly made the grade.”) She new everyone, and everyone seemed to know her.
Parker was a prominent member of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of New York’s elite writers, actors and editors, that met for lunch each day at the Algonquin Hotel. They were known for their clever and often poisonous wit, with Parker’s astute ear for language, and her ability to turn almost anything into a pun, leading the charge. (Challenged one day to use the word horticulture in a sentence, she supplied, without hesitation: “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”) They were the Bright Young Things of the Lost Generation, and they took New York by storm. Later in life, Parker downplayed the group’s importance:
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 was, most of all, a prolific writer, penning dozens of short stories and three complete volumes of poetry. She also wrote regular columns for Vanity Fair, until she was fired, and then jumped ship to the newly-founded New Yorker in 1925, where she reviewed books in a regular feature called Constant Reader. (I have a feeling she would have been a fantastic book blogger, given the opportunity). She is remembered today for her one-of-a-kind humor and scathing wit, with many of her one-liners passing into notoriety. (“Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses” is one of hers, as is: “Tell him I was too fucking busy – or vise versa.”)
When Martin Luther King died in 1968, Parker’s estate passed onto the NAACP, per her wishes. Her executor contested the move for years, and Parker’s ashes languished in the filing cabinet of her attorney for 17 years. Finally, in 1988, her ashes were buried in a memorial garden, outside the NAACP headquarters in Baltimore. Her 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.
And strangely, it is that moniker, “humorist,” that would have bothered Parker, and the fact that it precedes the word “writer” in her epitaph. While known for her wit and charm, Parker took little stock in her own reputation as a humorist. Her stories and poetry are, overwhelmingly, serious in nature, often focusing on love, death and suicide (she attempted three times to take her own life). She struggled mightily to produce a novel, something that would prove her mettle as a serious writer, and lamented when she failed. Here’s Parker reading one of her more famous poems, “Resume.” (Note: Almost entirely sure that’s not her picture, unless she was born fifty years before the record states).
Having spent the last week happily wrapped inside the extended Portable Dorothy Parker, I can vouch for her abilities as a writer. My copy has been (neatly) underlined, asterisked, and covered in loving notes. Next to one of my favorite reviews, a scathing indictment of A. A. Milne’s newest play (which she ended with the words “and so I shot myself,”), I scribbled: “OMG. I love this woman.” And those are basically my sentiments about the collection as a whole.
The Portable was originally compiled in 1944, and Parker selected and arranged the stories and poems herself. It was part of a series of small, lightweight books intended for use by soldiers overseas, and Parker’s is the only one of that series, aside from the Bible and Shakespeare’s collected works, that has never gone out of print. In 2006, Penguin repackaged and expanded the original Portable with dozens more stories, and also included samples of her reviews, columns, and letters. That, for me, is what makes this edition worthwhile. Parker can write, but so can a thousand other people – it’s her humor that can’t be reproduced. Many of her “serious” stories fell flat for me, and I can admit to skipping a few of them in order to get to the good stuff. It’s unfortunate that she undervalued her wit – I think it’s what has kept her in print all these years.
Here’s a passage from one of my favorite stories in this collection, The Waltz. In it, you have the inner monologue of a woman dancing politely with a man she’s just met. On the inside, though, she’s reeling. Here is how she reacts after the man inadvertently kicks her shin while dancing:
Oh, no, no. no. Goodness, no. It’s didn’t hurt the least little bit. And anyway it was all my fault. Really it was. Truly. Well, you’re just being sweet, to say that. It really was all my fault.
I wonder what I’d better do – kill him his instant, with my naked hands, or wait and let him drop in his traces. Maybe it’s best not to make a scene. I guess I’ll just lie low, and watch the pace get him. He can’t keep this up indefinitely – he’s only flesh and blood. Die he must, and die he shall, for what he did to me. I don’t want to be of the over-sensitive type, but you can’t tell me that kick was unpremeditated. Freud says there are no accidents. I’ve led no cloistered life, I’ve known dancing partners who have spoiled my slippers and torn my dress; but when it comes to kicking, I am Outraged Womanhood. When you kick me in the shin, smile.
This, I would argue, is Parker’s greatest strength: the ability to capture the most fleeting and often cynical thoughts and create an entire story out of them. She is the funniest writer I’ve ever read, and that is a considerable talent, whether or not she’d agree. And she did agree to some extent, at least once. In one of her columns for the New Yorker – one in which she reduced Theodore Dreiser to a sopping puddle – she wrote:
I am unable to feel that a writer can be complete without humor. And I don’t mean by that, and you know it perfectly well, the creation of the appreciation of things comic. I mean that the possession of a sense of humor entails the sense of selection, the civilized fear of going too far. A little humor leavens the lump, surely, but it does more than that. It keeps you, from your respect for the humor of others, from making a dull jackass of yourself.
Well, if that’s all I can get, I’ll take it.