Today is the birthday of the woman who said, “People are more fun than anybody” and “I don’t care what is written about me so long as it isn’t true”: Dorothy Parker, born Dorothy Rothschild in West End, New Jersey (1893). She most famously wrote this:
Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses.
Yes, that was her.
SPA’s Helpful Hint #5467: Weight Management.
If you slip off your flip flops and drop your towel before stepping on the gym scale, let’s be real, you already know you didn’t lose any weight. We all know it and now you’re naked on the gym scale. Look at you, look at your life!
What else do I have for you today? This weekend is Hempfest in Seattle. I’m guessing the Great Dorito Drought of 2010 is soon to follow. I was behind a guy at the ATM who had clearly been at Hempfest. He kept pressing ‘no’ instead of ‘yes’. I finally just walked him through it. He tried to convince me he needed stamps. Funny. I told him I was going to tell his mom. All of Belltown is full of Hempfest zombies, but instead of brains, they crave pizza rolls.
Coffee at Bauhaus and now watching R get his hair cut.
I have this strong desire to incorrectly use Facebook places. Like I will always be at a nearby church or something. I just figure if I am rarely interested in where anyone is, they are probably not interested in where I am.
Here is the rest about Dorothy Parker:
DOROTHY PARKER 1893-1993
[Commissioned by “Vanity Fair” for the DP centenary — not published when Alan Rudolph’s “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle” bombed that year. Later adapted (1995) for “Forbes FYI” under the title THE TWO DOROTHYS]
Everyone’s wondering what Dorothy Parker would say if she knew that her face was on a postage stamp — something about being “licked,” probably, or “sold in sheets,” or “swapped by collectors. “ In her heyday, it was said of Mrs. Parker that “the men were in and out of her apartment like the mail” — she would not have wanted for jokes about the United States Postal Service’s Philatelic Fulfillment Center in Kansas City, Missouri, which handles national distribution of special stamps and where hers is moving briskly. Mrs. Parker actually went to Missouri once (or was it Colorado?) and found it “delightful — fifty-five dollars a month for a furnished house, and five cents for a watermelon.” In 1936 she wired a friend that the next time she crossed the country it would be “in a coffin covered with the American flag,” but this didn’t mean she wasn’t a patriot. She just wasn’t “a personal friend of the multitudes.”
“I’m a feminist,” said Mrs. Parker, “and God knows I’m loyal to my sex, and you must remember that from my very early days, when New York was scarcely safe from buffaloes, I was in the struggle for equal rights for women.” She’s the only woman in America to whom a whole volume of the Viking Portable Library is devoted, and she sells like hotcakes (8th in line by official count) next to Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Jung, Thoreau, Emerson, Poe and Joyce. It’s not bad for a woman who liked to describe herself as “just a little Jewish girl trying to be cute.”
The Post Office gets 30,000 letters a year asking that one or another celebrated American be honored with a stamp, but it chooses, on average, only 25 or 30 subjects. Special issues don’t circulate long, so, by the time you read this, the Dorothy Parker 29-center, 10th in a series of “Literary Arts” commemoratives, will be off the shelves and back in the warehouse, available only by special order. That would not surprise her. One of her uncles went down with the Titanic, and her view of the world, even in her rosy moments, was frankly suicidal:
I never see that prettiest thing —
A cherry bough gone white with Spring —
But what I think, “How gay `twould be
To hang me from a flowering tree.”
“I’m always this way in the Spring,” Mrs. Parker confessed. “Sunk in Springtime: or Take Away Those Violets.” Not that any other season was easier to bear. “YOU COME RIGHT OVER HERE AND EXPLAIN WHY THEY ARE HAVING ANOTHER YEAR,” she cabled Robert Benchley one December 31st.
On August 20, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of her birth, a weekend celebration of Dorothy Parker’s life and career is scheduled to kick off at the Algonquin Hotel in New York, where the Round Table was born in 1919 and where Mrs. Parker is still remembered as the cleverest (and most lethal) of its writers and wits. Four of her short stories have been dramatized to music for a cabaret performance, and while the staff at the Algonquin seemed uncertain at press time just how far the festivities might go, there are sure to be readings, and tributes, and plenty of booze.
“Wisecracks,” Goldwyn complained. “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,” said Mrs. Parker, “but in all history, which has held billions and billions of human beings, not a single one ever had a happy ending.” And with that she left the room, leaving Goldwyn, for a moment, to ponder her words.
“Does anybody in here know what the hell that woman was talking about?” he said.
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.
Mrs. Parker would be a century old on August 22, a hundred years and legends away from her birthplace at West End, New Jersey. Her father, J. Henry Rothschild, was a prosperous, Jewish, “dearly loathed” captain of the garment industry in Manhattan; her mother was “English-American” — what they used to call WASP — a former schoolteacher who died when Dorothy was seven and left her confused, to say the least, about religion and race. If she ever wrote her autobiography, she said, she’d call it Mongrel. No matter: rather than tell her life story she’d cut her throat with a dull knife.
“All those writers who write about their childhood!” Mrs. Parker exclaimed. “Gentle God, if I wrote about mine you wouldn’t sit in the same room with me.”
“What, then, would you say is the source of most of your work?” an interviewer asked.
“Need of money, dear.” She sprang fully armed from the Upper West Side to the pages of Vogue, where, starting in 1916, she wrote ad copy, captions and whimsical verse (“When she was good she was very very good, and when she was bad she wore this divine nightdress of rose-colored mousseline de soie, trimmed with frothy Valenciennes lace”), and from Vogue to Vanity Fair, where she succeeded P. G. Wodehouse as drama critic and first made her mark as the wittiest woman in New York. It was at Condé Nast that Mrs. Parker developed her matchless philosophy of life (“I hate men. They irritate me”), and here, too, reflecting on bitter experience, that she dreamed up what is arguably the most famous couplet of the 20th century (she called it “News Item”):
Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses.
Frank Crowninshield, editor of Vanity Fair, had understood “the need for more cheerfulness” in American life after World War I, “for hiding a solemn face, for a fair measure of pluck, and for great good humor.” But he didn’t count on Dorothy Parker, who brought a new standard of impiety to magazine writing and whose literary style — personal, prejudiced, plaintive and quick — came to epitomize the irreverent decade of the 1920s. Mrs. Parker was something new in the history of criticism: a lady with a loaded gun. She was the enfant terrible of the lost generation, the “What-the-Hell Girl” of Madison Avenue and a few blocks west.
“Sometimes I think it can’t be true,” she protested one day in her theatre column. “There can’t be plays as bad as these. In the first place, no one would write them, and in the second place, no one would produce them.” She swore up and down that she loved a success — “You don’t know what it means to me to be able to say a few kind words about something” — but she was lying, and was grateful for the epidemic of Spanish `flu in 1918, which periodically closed the theatres and “gave the managers something to blame things on.” Mrs. Parker was always better at knocking down than building up:
And though to good I never come —
Inseparable my nose and thumb!
She was a tiny, dainty figure, with enormous green eyes and an odd passion for dirndls, ribbons, and bows on her shoes. “She wore a feather boa that was always getting into other people’s plates or was being set afire by other people’s cigarettes,” says John Keats in You Might As Well Live (1974), the first full biography of Mrs. Parker — it was thought to be “the only boa that ever molted.” Under Prohibition, with many other writers, Mrs. Parker could be found at the fashionable speakeasies — Tony Soma’s, Texas Guinan’s, or Jack and Charlie’s (“21”) — where she drank in the day as well as at night and delivered the ne plus ultra of lame excuses when an editor challenged her over a missed deadline.
“Someone else was using the pencil,” she said. Editors were “idiots,” and the staff at Vanity Fair, in Mrs. Parker’s view, were “four young men who go to pieces easily. Even when they’re in the best of health, you have to stand on their insteps to keep them from flying away.” When she left the magazine in 1920, after “a long succession of thin evenings” at the theatre, it was reputedly under pressure from Florenz Ziegfeld and Billie Burke, the reigning king and queen of Broadway, who were miffed at her blasphemous tone. Mrs. Parker was already becoming famous around the country as one of the charter members of the Algonquin Round Table, where, with Robert Benchley, Robert Sherwood, George S. Kaufman, Heywood Broun, Alexander Woollcott, Franklin P. Adams and a number of other lunchtime regulars, she sat day after day, year after year till the `20s waned, drinking like a trooper and honing her reputation for homicidal repartee.
“She would simply sit,” said Frank Case, the owner of the Algonquin on West 44th Street, “now and then saying something at which the others would laugh, and that was the end of it.” Not for Mrs. Parker. “Why, it got so bad,” she said, “that they began to laugh before I opened my mouth.” She was married at the time to the socially prominent but perennially absent Edwin Pond Parker II, a Hartford dandy and Wall Street broker whom she was rumored to keep in a closet (in more ways than one) and who became, in her hands, one of the funniest characters ever to sit in the literary wings. Her “little husband” was accident-prone, Mrs. Parker explained — forever falling down manholes, sliding under a bus, or breaking his arm while sharpening pencils.
“I married him to change my name,” she insisted, but there were those who said that she loved Parker and regretted their eventual divorce (“in Connecticut, where you can get it for roller-skating”). Between marriages, she revealed a penchant for pretty-boy models and angry young men — “I require three things of a man,” said Mrs. Parker. “He must be handsome, ruthless, and stupid” — and no comprehension whatever of a later age’s “correctness.”
“We were gallant, hardriding and careless of life,” she recollected. “We were little black ewes that had gone astray.” Once in Hollywood, while dating a playwright with a perfect tan, she remarked behind his back, “He has the hue of availability.” It might have been this same boyfriend, grouchy with drink, who rose from the table at a party one night and mumbled, “I gotta piss.”
“He’s shy,” Mrs. Parker explained. “He really has to use the telephone, but he’s too embarrassed to say so.” At parties, for years, “fresh young gents” followed her around to demand that she say something funny. Frequently she complied, as when, one night, a drunk kept pawing at her to tell her how talented he was.
“Look at him,” she agreed, “a rhinestone in the rough.” She was “`the verray parfit, gentil knight’ of the squelch,” said the New York Times. Her mastery of the put-down has never been equaled:
You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.
That woman speaks eighteen languages and can’t say No in any of them.
I should have stayed home for dinner. I could have had something on a tray. The head of John the Baptist or something.
[On a book she was reviewing]: It was written without fear and without research.
[On her second husband, Alan Campbell]: Don’t worry about Alan. Alan will always land on somebody’s feet.
[The same]: I don’t know where Alan is; he just pulled two boards up out of the floor and went to the post office.
[On meeting the daughters of Jimmy and Dinah Sheean, aged 3 and 6, shy and dressed for company]: A pity they never married.
[On pundit Dorothy Thompson, with whom she was frequently confused]: Well, of course, she realizes that she doesn’t know as much as God; but I suppose she does feel that she knows as much as God knew when He was her age.
[Staring intently at a gentleman’s fly]: Which side does it open on?
[On Elmer Rice]: Without question the worst fuck I ever had.
Her speech was awash with four-letter words, which she pronounced in a sweet, sugary, breathless voice, her eyes as round as tea-time saucers, her air of innocence undisturbed by a string of profanity. “She talked like a woman who as a little girl had attended a very good singing school,” said one of her friends. “That was what made her use of the words `fuck ‘and `shit’ so amusing, because you simply did not expect it.” Many of Mrs. Parker’s sharpest lines have been lost forever in the general modesty, but, among those that survive, an awful lot are about sex.
“One more drink and I’d have been under the host,” she quipped, remarking further about a hunky paramour who had dumped her, “His body went to his head.” (Another died of tuberculosis: “I don’t see what else he could have done.”) She kept a parrot called Onan (“because he spilled his seed upon the ground”) and once returned from a transatlantic crossing to say that the seas had been so rough the only thing she could keep on her stomach was the first mate. Not just people, but dogs were the object of her libidinous humor. She worshipped dogs, and when one of hers — it might have been “Amy,” or “Woodrow Wilson,” or “Poupée Parker” — came down with mange, she whispered to her friends, “He said he got it from a lamppost.” All dogs were “he” in Mrs. Parker’s eyes: “It don’t do to notice everything.” There was a Hollywood producer of her acquaintance who didn’t have “sense enough to bore assholes in wooden hobbyhorses;” a drunken maid whom she called “a tower of Jell-O;” a group of wealthy friends on Long Island whose “pooled emotions wouldn’t fill a teaspoon;” and, of course, Clare Boothe Luce, whose triple-decker name sounded to Mrs. Parker “like the motto of a girls’ school.” She had heard that Mrs. Luce was “an outspoken hostess.”
“Outspoken by whom?” she wondered. The famous story of their encounter in a doorway at the Algonquin (although Mrs. Luce denied it to the grave) has won a permanent place in American legend.
“Age before beauty,” Mrs. Luce proposed.
“Pearls before swine,” Mrs. Parker replied. So many lines attached to her in passing that she had a hard time herself remembering which were hers and which were not.
“She never in her life repeated her own witticisms,” said Lillian Hellman, her best friend and literary executor, “perhaps sure that other people would do it for her.” Late in her life, tired and embittered, Mrs. Parker denied “almost everything” attributed to her, but it’s certain that she said of Calvin Coolidge, when she heard he had died, “How can they tell?” and that Uta Hagen received a telegram before a New York premiere: “A HAND ON YOUR OPENING AND MAY YOUR PARTS GET BIGGER.” Mrs. Parker was especially clever when pulverizing divas of the stage and screen. Fanny Brice, a well-known convert to plastic surgery, had “cut off her nose to spite her race.” Marion Davies, the under-talented mistress of William Randolph Hearst, had only “two expressions, joy and indigestion.” Katharine Hepburn, appearing in The Lake, “ran the whole gamut” of emotions, “from A to B.” (“I’m happy to be the cause of laughter,” Miss Hepburn replied when I asked her how it felt to be the butt of such a famous joke, “even at my expense. Just laugh. That’s important.”)
In 1934, Mrs. Parker went to Hollywood with her second husband, the writer Alan Campbell — they were working on a new “screen epic,” she said, Lassie Get Down — and discovered how difficult it was to keep a sense of humor in a town where the flowers smelled like “old dollar bills” and she felt “like the Little Colonel, only crosser.”
“I can’t talk about Hollywood,” she later declared. “It was a horror to me when I was there and it’s a horror to look back on. I can’t imagine how I did it. When I got away from it I couldn’t even refer to the place by name. `Out there,’ I called it.” In 1937, she and Alan Campbell were nominated for an Academy Award for the screenplay of A Star Is Born, and altogether they worked on more than twenty scripts in Hollywood (including Hitchcock’s Saboteur, in which Mrs. Parker made a cameo appearance). But her heart was never in Los Angeles, “this lotus-laden shore,/ This Isle of Do-What’s-Done-Before.” She was dumb with admiration in 1941, when Budd Schulberg published his satire on the studio system, What Makes Sammy Run? and “hit the hammer with the nail,” as Goldwyn might have said.
“I never thought anyone could put Hollywood — the true shittiness of it — between covers,” Mrs. Parker explained. The story is told of her leaning out a window at M-G-M — “Metro-Goldwyn-Merde” — and shouting at the passersby, “I’m as sane as you are!” She was desperate, in the end, to be remembered for something substantial. In 1937 she went to Spain to report for The New Masses on the fight against Franco. She was a committed if vaguely defined Socialist, and for most of her life, despite her reputation as an “Algonquin wit,” she identified with leftist causes. Mrs. Parker was a founder, in Hollywood, of the Screen Writers Guild and the Anti-Nazi League, and when she was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, she commented, “Well, well, well, that’s the way it is…. I haven’t the faintest idea about the politics of Hollywood, and you make me laugh when you speak of them.”
“I’m not being a smart-cracker,” she told the Paris Review in 1957, a little the worse for drink. “You know I’m not when you meet me — don’t you, honey?” Her political activism, while undoubtedly naive, was sincere, and she had suffered enough in her private life to speak with authority on the sand-traps of the heart. Alan Campbell was homosexual (“queer as a goat,” Mrs. Parker said cruelly, “Betty Boop going down for the last time”), and though this in itself can’t account for the breadth of her eventual complete frustration, it can’t have helped her any, either:
By the time you swear you’re his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying —
Lady make a note of this:
One of you is lying.
But even here she felt slighted, and wondered if history would judge her as a serious poet. At a reading in New York, Dame Edith Sitwell recognized her in the audience one night and took the opportunity to salute “your grett Ameddican pwettess, Miss Doddothy Wadden.”
“`Wadden’! for Christ’s sake!” Mrs. Parker complained. “Why, that goddam limey — !” She wrote her verses in classical mode — ballads, sonnets, Horatian odes — but with a sharp and rueful edge, a twist of cynicism and a pound of disappointment that distinguished her for all time from her contemporaries. When she turned her hand to fiction, as she did more and more in the post-Algonquin years, she devised two or three masterful short stories — little miracles of paranoia — that will live forever in American literature: “Big Blonde” (which won the O. Henry Prize in 1929), “A Telephone Call,” and “Glory in the Daytime,” the account of a star-struck clubwoman who affects to be intimate with a faded, alcoholic actress. Mrs. Parker was compared many times to Ernest Hemingway, her all-time idol — in her ear for dialogue, in the terseness and precision of her prose, but also, significantly, in her sentimentality. Like Hemingway, she never got over a certain romantic discontentment, a longing for the Beautiful, the True and the Real, which she nevertheless attempted to undercut at every turn with open contempt for her emotions. Her weepy women, her lying men, her smart and sour view of a useless jockeying for position — these are the things, apart from wit, that Dorothy Parker is remembered for.
“In her stories,” says John Updike, “she captures the voice, above all, of neediness.” In her later years, divorced, remarried, then separated from Alan Campbell, she wrote beautiful, lyrical, un-producible plays — The Coast of Illyria and Ladies of the Corridor — taught literature (after a fashion) at California State College, reviewed books for Esquire, and collaborated with Leonard Bernstein, Hugh Wheeler, Richard Wilbur and Lillian Hellman on the original script of Candide. Asked what she did “for fun,” she replied, “Everything that isn’t writing is fun.” She had “enough problems,” she once said, “without getting my forehead all over lines with dithering over the English language.” In the late 1960s Gloria Vanderbilt’s husband, Wyatt Cooper, tried to get her to work on her memoirs, but Mrs. Parker wasn’t up to it.
“Through long, difficult and often dreadful years,” said one of her friends, “in case anyone in or out of the charmed circle does not know, the events leading up to the end were swamped in drinking, liquor, alcohol and booze.” She died in New York in 1967, and, in a final stab at militancy, left her entire estate to Martin Luther King, from where it passed, on Dr. King’s death, to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Today, Mrs. Parker’s ashes lie in the Dorothy Parker Memorial Garden at NAACP headquarters in Baltimore, beneath a plaque she could scarcely have envisioned:
TO HER NOBLE SPIRIT WHICH CELEBRATED THE ONENESS OF HUMANKIND, AND TO THE BONDS OF EVERLASTING FRIENDSHIP BETWEEN BLACK AND JEWISH PEOPLE
“You can’t take it with you,” Mrs. Parker remarked, “and if you did it would probably melt.”
I asked a number of women writers, all of them currently in media flower, what the name of Dorothy Parker means to them now, on the eve of her centenary. Gloria Steinem, who interviewed Mrs. Parker for The Ladies’ Home Journal in 1965, remembers her as “a great truth-teller,” and adds that she was “generous to an unknown writer” — Steinem — at a time when neither of them wanted to be associated with women’s magazines. Helen Gurley Brown, on the other hand, who met Mrs. Parker in 1962 after the phenomenally successful publication of Sex and the Single Girl, thinks she was “an early Cosmo Girl, in her way, because she took everything she had and made the most of it.” (“She also had affairs,” says Mrs. Brown, who is known to recommend them.) And Anna Quindlen of The New York Times — who has stated more than once in her prize-winning column that her heroines, growing up, were “the two Dorothys, Parker and Thompson” — says she finds it “hard to believe there was ever a smart, ambitious girl” of her generation in America “who couldn’t recite some of Dorothy Parker’s most wonderful lines.” For Quindlen, “she epitomized that sophistication I wanted so desperately.”
So why have all her biographers concluded that her life was a disaster, a waste, and a tragedy pure and simple? Quindlen talks about an awful “sadness at the center of it,” while Nora Ephron, echoing the judgment of our know-it-all age, writes in Crazy Salad that Dorothy Parker “misspent her life and her talent.” Ephron had “nothing to add” to this, either, when I called — it’s a terrible time to be a literary legend in America. The most recent and best biography, Marion Meade’s Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? (1988), takes its hilarious title from Mrs. Parker’s habitual response when the telephone rang (“It wasn’t funny,” said Jimmy Sheean; “she meant it”), but Meade is squarely in the line of the psychic deconstructionists, portraying Mrs. Parker as a weepy, raunchy, “in-denial” pain in the ass, her humor born of shame and self-loathing, her internalized anti-Semitism – oh, never mind: It’s not the first thing her friends remember, and it’s not the message of her life.
“There must be courage,” Mrs. Parker observed when she talked about writing humor; “there must be no awe. There must be criticism, for humor, to my mind, is encapsulated in criticism. There must be a disciplined eye and a wild mind. There must be a magnificent disregard for your reader, for if he cannot follow you, there is nothing you can do about it.” Alcoholism? Lousy love affairs? Suicide attempts? There were four in all, and after one of them, in 1925, Mrs. Parker tied huge black ribbons to her bandaged wrists and asked if she could have a flag for her oxygen tent. The various epitaphs she composed for her gravestone — “Excuse My Dust,” “This Is On Me,” and “If You Can Read This, You’ve Come Too Close” — are as famous now as her sex-talk was, but how many people know that she also wanted to be buried “in a shroud made of unpaid bills from Valentina?” And why is humor regarded as a minor achievement in the arts?
“The only funny person Americans agree to take seriously is Mark Twain,” says Fran Lebowitz, the author of Metropolitan Life and other tales of comic distress that make her comparison with Mrs. Parker inevitable. Lebowitz grew up in Morristown, New Jersey, where Dorothy Parker went to finishing school (if you can believe it); she had read the entire Portable Parker by the time she was eleven, and “couldn’t believe how good it was.”
“That’s never changed for me,” says Lebowitz. “It wasn’t like my discovery of MAD magazine, which was really my introduction to satire. Eventually I got beyond MAD. But I never got beyond Dorothy Parker, because — because you can’t. Does anyone know how hard it is to be that funny? It’s the easiest thing in the world to get people crying. All you have you do is say `Boo!’ and there are floods of tears.” Recently Lebowitz wrote the introduction to a short biography of Mrs. Parker in Italy, Gaia de Beaumont’s Scusate le ceneri, which translates literally as “Forgive My Ashes” but means “Excuse My Dust.” Italians quote Dorothy Parker all the time, as do Frenchmen, and hairdressers, and taxi-drivers, and sales clerks. Hers was no small existence. This is no minor legacy.
“Read her book reviews,” Lebowitz says. “Read them now and see how good they are. What could be more insubstantial than a popular novel of fifty years ago? And yet you can read one of Dorothy Parker’s reviews in Esquire or The New Yorker or Vanity Fair and they’re just so funny. They are so smart! It is so hard to do that!”
In Fredericksburg, Virginia, Florence King, whose fortnightly column in The National Review, “The Misanthrope’s Corner,” carries on bravely in the Parker tradition, adds for the record that “you can pretend to be serious, but you can’t pretend to be witty, and if you need that explained to you you’ve missed the point.” King is the author of Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye, Lump It or Leave It and the marvelous Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady. She’s a ferocious conservative, too, the only hope, I’d say, for the Republican right wing, and she excluded Dorothy Parker from her recent history of misanthropy, With Charity Toward None, on the grounds that Mrs. Parker was “a romantic masquerading as a cynic” and that she even, for a time, contemplated having a baby. A classical humorist, King insists, never mind a misanthrope, “doesn’t like children” and isn’t “silly about men.” Plainly, King has evolved very far from that point, but she wouldn’t mind being on a postage stamp herself, and when she dies, she says, she’s going to leave her money “to David Duke.”
So there you are — wisecracks. Happy birthday, Mrs. Parker, and don’t let them get you down. It’s the laughter we live for.