In celebration of the birthday of Dorothy Parker (1893 – 1967) today, here’s a review from the archives of her biography The Late Dorothy Parker by Leslie Frewin.
Where be your gibes now?, Victoria Glendinning, 12 Sep 1987
Dorothy Parker was ‘America’s wittiest woman’. Here is an example of her wit. Rising from her chair at the Algonquin, she said: ‘Excuse me, I have to go to the bathroom . . . I really have to telephone but I’m too embarrassed to say so.’ I think that’s funny. Do you think it’s funny? Generally, she was funny at other people’s expense, and it hurt.
Born in 1893, she was a Rothschild not the banking family, but clothiers in New York’s garment district. She loathed both her father (for his Jewishness) and her stepmother (for her punitive Protestantism) and left home as soon as she could to live alone in a boarding-house, have the odd lover, and write poems in the style of Edna St Vincent Millay. Her first brief marriage was to an alcoholic investment broker, Eddie Parker. Her friends called her Dottie, but her biographer refers to her throughout as ‘Mrs Parker’, which suggests he can’t or won’t get too close to her. ‘Mrs Parker was not a lady who was universally liked.’ That’s something in her favour, anyway.
Her fun began when she was taken on by the Conde Nast organisation. She, Robert Benchley and Robert Sherwood — all on Vanity Fair — were ‘three amazing whelps’, as their employer said. A bright, tight trio, they made the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street their base, and the legend of the Round Table, the ‘Vicious Circle’, was born. The Algonquin was already the haunt of actors, playwrights and novelists, ‘a publicist’s dream’. This kind of bohemian circle was familiar enough in Vienna, Paris and Berlin; but it was new to America, a ‘culturally insecure’ nation. The Algonquin, which attracted Hemingway and Fitzgerald as well as second-rate hangers-on, proved that one could be ‘talented, sophisticated, intellectual even — and still be an American. It was, in its way, a major revelation.’ Mrs Parker herself, thinks Leslie Frewin, proved that American females too could he right up there with the boys, calling the shots.
But this was New York, not Europe. Everything had to be played for laughs, and for public consumption. ‘It was the terrible day of the wisecracks,’ said Mrs Parker in her gloomy old age. Not only wisecracks but ‘quips’, ripostes, puns, one- liners, lethal put-downs: verbal wit as a fast, competitive blood-sport, with the women, according to Mrs Parker, as ‘the ladies’ auxiliary of the leaders of the damned’.
It did not seem so hollow at the time, when Mrs Parker was ‘the wondergirl of sophisticated literary journalism’. Tiny, large-eyed, apparently helpless and inno- cent, she quipped, in print and in person, with the best. Frewin quotes her quips very extensively. Some are still extremely funny in their stainless-steel way, others have the baffling pointlessness of artefacts from a lost civilisation.
Frewin admires her ‘trim, well-honed syntax and frequently amusing word constructions’, as well he might, being no stylist himself. The use of words such as `apotelesm’ cannot disguise the fact that the sum and meaning of much literary and social history is beyond his ken. He makes bizarre mistakes. He is naive. He writes in clichés and guest-lists. His book is compiled largely from interviews, gossip and other books. Either Mrs Parker’s own papers and letters were not accessible to him, or they no longer exist.
There was ‘a vulnerable woman’, wouldn’t you just know it, ‘beneath her disdainful exterior’. In 1920 Mrs Parker was sacked by Conde Nast for her excesses; Benchley and Sherwood left with her. Professionally, she recovered. She wrote stories, plays and reviews; her bittersweet satirical verses were a sell-out in volume form; she wrote for Life and, famously, for the New Yorker, the house-magazine of the Algonquin wits. But there were disastrous love affairs, an abortion, three suicide attempts. She was, Frewin says, a manic-depressive. She drowned her griefs in alcohol, and comforted herself with adored and grossly neglected dogs and a canary she called Onan ‘because it spilled its seed on the ground’.
At the end of the 1920s, rising 40, she and her cronies moved to Hollywood as scriptwriters. She married Alan Campbell, 12 years younger, a star-struck, bitchy bisexual with whom she lived off and on until he died in 1963. Apart from Benchley, who loved and liked her unconditionally, Campbell seems to have been the only person who could ever make her happy for more than a few minutes.
`There’s nothing funny in the world any more,’ said Mrs Parker in the 1930s. She was one of the ‘Hollywood radicals’, campaigning against segregation, reporting the Spanish Civil War, fronting the Anti-Nazi League and, when the bad times came in the 1950s, getting into trouble with the House Sub-Committee on Un-American Activities. Her socialist sympathies and activism were her saving grace but they could not altogether save her soul. Alcohol and disappointment had too strong a hold.
The black humour of her old age seems not so much a cover-up as a stripping- down. The day Campbell died, a concerned neighbour asked what she could do to help. ‘Get me a new husband,’ growled Mrs Parker. The neighbour was shocked, and said so. ‘So sorry,’ said Mrs Parker. `Then run down to the corner and get me a ham and cheese on rye and tell them to hold the mayo.’ She died in 1967, alone in a shabby hotel room. Poor Dottie.
The Late Dorothy Parker by Leslie Frewin (Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd, 1987).