Brilliant, Troubled Dorothy Parker

Books drawn on for this article

Complete Stories

by Dorothy Parker, edited by Colleen Breese, with an introduction by Regina Barreca
Penguin, 447 pp., $18.00 (paper)

Complete Poems

by Dorothy Parker, edited by Marion Meade
Penguin, 390 pp., $18.00 (paper)
Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell at their farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, 1937
Jacob Lofman/Condé Nast Archive/Corbis
Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell at their farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, 1937

What are we to make today of this famous woman who, beginning almost a century ago, has fascinated generations with her wit, flair, talent, and near genius for self-destruction? For some, what registers most strongly is her central role in the legend of the Algonquin Round Table, with its campiness of wisecracks, quips, and put-downs—a part of her life she would come to repudiate. For others, it’s the descent into alcoholism, and the sad final years holed up in Manhattan’s Volney Hotel. Pick your myth.

As for her writing, it has evoked ridiculous exaggeration from her votaries, both her contemporaries and her biographers. Vincent Sheean: “Among contemporary artists, I would put her next to Hemingway and Bill Faulkner. She wasn’t Shakespeare, but what she was, was true.” John Keats in his biography of her, You Might as Well Live (1970): “She wrote poetry that was at least as good as the best of Millay and Housman. She wrote some stories that are easily as good as some of O’Hara and Hemingway.” This is praise that manages to be inflated and qualified at the same time.

And here is Regina Barreca, a professor of English literature and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut, in her introduction to the Penguin edition of the Complete Stories: “If Parker’s work can be dismissed as narrow and easy, then so can the work of Austen, Eliot, and Woolf.” Well, no. Exaggerated claims don’t strengthen the case for Parker’s literary accomplishments. As is inevitably the case with criticism grounded in agenda, they diminish it. But this doesn’t mean that her work is without value or interest.

Certainly she struck a chord with the public: from the start, her voice spoke to a wide range of readers. Her generally sardonic, often angry, occasionally brutal view of men and women—of love and marriage, of cauterized despair—triggered recognition and perhaps even strengthened resolve. She told the truth as she perceived it, while using her wit and humor to hold at arm’s length the feelings that her personal experiences had unleashed in her. An uncanny modern descendant is Nora Ephron in her novel Heartburn, which reimagines her ugly and painful breakup with Carl Bernstein as a barbed comedy.

In 1915, Parker, aged twenty-two, went to work at Vogue (for ten dollars a week), writing captions, proofreading, fact-checking, etc., and after a while moved over to the very young Vanity Fair; her first poem to be published had recently appeared there. She happily functioned as a kind of scribe-of-all-work until three years later she was chosen to replace the departing P.G. Wodehouse as the magazine’s drama critic. She was not only the youngest by far of New York’s theater critics, she was the only female one.

It was at the magazine that she met the lovable and sympathetic Robert Benchley, who would become the closest friend of her life, as well as Robert Sherwood, long before his four Pulitzer Prizes (three for drama, one for biography). They became a threesome, and started eating lunch together at the nearby Algonquin Hotel because it was affordable and the food was okay. At about the same time, another threesome drifted in, graduates of Stars and Stripes, the overseas army’s weekly newspaper. They were Alexander Woollcott, Harold Ross, and Franklin Pierce Adams, who as “F.P.A.” was the most influential newspaper columnist of the day. Soon Adams was quoting Parker’s Vanity Fair verses and, even more effectively, her bon mots. Quickly “Dorothy Parker” was a celebrity.

It didn’t hurt that she was very pretty, very sexy, and had a somewhat checkered personal life. She had married a good-looking, not very interesting (to others) young WASP businessman named Edwin Parker—she liked to say she did it in order to legitimately shed her maiden name of Rothschild (no, not the Rothschilds). He went into the army in 1917, and she followed him around army bases in the States, but when he came back from overseas, it was over; apart from anything else, he had become seriously addicted to morphine.

Many amours followed, all of them disastrous and all of them feeding her eternal presentation of herself in her prose and poetry as wounded, heartsick, embittered, soul-weary. Along the way, she had a legal but frightening abortion (she had put it off too long), the father being the charming, womanizing Charles MacArthur, who would go on to cowrite The Front Page and marry Helen Hayes. Parker was crazy about him; his interest waned. The gossip was that when he contributed thirty dollars toward the abortion, she remarked that it was like Judas making a refund.

In 1920 Vanity Fair fired her at the insistence of several important Broadway producers whom her caustic reviews had managed to offend. (Benchley immediately resigned in solidarity with her; Sherwood had already been fired.) Another literary magazine, Ainslee’s, with a far larger readership, took her up and gave her a free hand, and she went on laying waste to the tidal wave of meretricious plays and musicals and revues that opened every year, sometimes ten a week; one Christmas night there were eight premieres. Yet—always just, if not always kind—she recognized and saluted real achievement when she actually came upon it.

Meanwhile, her verses and stories were appearing profusely and everywhere: not only in upscale places like Vanity Fair (which was happier to publish her than employ her), The Smart Set, and The American Mercury, but also in the popular Ladies’ Home Journal, Saturday Evening Post, Life (when it was still a comic magazine), and—starting with its second issue early in February 1925—her old pal Harold Ross’s new venture, The New Yorker, with which she would have an extended on-again, off-again love affair.

At first, the stories were essentially sketches fed by her perfect ear for foolish, self-absorbed conversation and her scorn for middle-class hypocrisies. They appealed to the same cast of mind that was responding so clamorously to Sinclair Lewis’s puncturings, in Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922), of what H.L. Mencken called the “booboisie.” As time passed, though, her intentions grew more serious, culminating in her longest and best-known story, “Big Blonde,” which won the 1929 O. Henry Award (Faulkner, Cheever, Updike, Carver, Oates, and Munro were among later winners).

“Big Blonde” reveals the desperate life of a fading party girl who’s run out of steam and tries, and fails, to kill herself. It’s convincing in its verisimilitude and deployment of pathos, but finally it comes across as a masterly performance rather than a reverberant vision of life. (Compare it to Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.) It’s also Parker dealing with her own failed suicide attempts—slashed wrists, Veronal (Big Blonde’s drug of choice). Suicide was a constant reality for her. The novel she began was to be called Sonnets in Suicide. One of her most famous poems, “Résumé,” summed things up:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

Death and suicide are never far from her thoughts—she titled her collections Enough Rope, Sunset Gun, Death and Taxes, and Not So Deep as a Well, the first of them a major best seller in 1926, confirming her fame.

Was her poetry just rhyming badinage dressed up as trenchant, plaintive ruminations on love, loss, and death? Her subjects are serious, but her cleverness undercuts them: there’s almost always a last line, a sardonic zinger, to signal that even if she does care, the more fool she. Even her most famous couplet—“Men seldom make passes/At girls who wear glasses”—bandages a wound, although plenty of men made passes.

She was clear about her versifying. “There is poetry and there is not,” she once wrote in The New Yorker, and she knew hers was not. She thought her stories were superior to her poems (she was right), but that wasn’t good enough for her. She never managed to write The Novel (as at that time every writer dreamed of doing). Did Hemingway like her work? Did he like her? (He didn’t, but she didn’t know it. As she was dying, Lillian Hellman had to assure her that he did.) Nor did she have much respect for what she and her second husband, the handsome, possibly gay actor and writer Alan Campbell, whom she married twice, did in Hollywood. (She liked referring to him publicly as “the wickedest woman in Paris.”) They worked hard at their assignments and raked in the chips, and she was twice nominated for an Oscar (A Star Is Born, 1937; Smash-Up: The Story of A Woman, 1947), but her view of film writing never changed from her verdict about it when she was first venturing out to California: “Why, I could do that with one hand tied behind me and the other on Irving Thalberg’s pulse.”

A turning point in Parker’s life came in 1927 when she went to Boston to protest the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti. It was her first political action, but it came from deep inside her, and she persisted—infiltrating the prison, getting arrested, marching with other writers like John Dos Passos, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Katherine Anne Porter. They didn’t prevail at this low point in the history of justice in America, but she hadn’t backed down. And as time would show, her actions were not just some outburst of what, decades later, would come to be labeled radical chic.

From then on she was committed to liberal or radical causes. She vigorously supported the Loyalists in Spain, even spending ten days with Alan under the bombs in Madrid and Valencia. She helped found the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. Whether she actually joined the Communist Party for a short time remains an unanswered question. Although Hellman claimed she was subpoenaed by HUAC and appeared before the committee, this (like so much else in Hellman’s memoirs) is simply untrue. She was, though, visited by two FBI agents in 1951. When they asked her whether she had ever conspired to overthrow the government, she answered, “Listen, I can’t even get my dog to stay down. Do I look to you like someone who could overthrow the government?” The FBI gave her a pass.

In the 1930s she had raised money for the defense of the Scottsboro boys, and she never relaxed her efforts in the field of civil rights: when she died, in 1967, her literary estate was left to Martin Luther King, and then to the NAACP, and her ashes are buried in a memorial garden at the organization’s headquarters in Baltimore.

Her emotional life was less consistent. Men had always been in and out of her life, and she inevitably ended up feeling rejected, betrayed, unwanted. She and Campbell loved each other in their way, but their way seems to have been that of a convenient partnership—he could construct stories, she could come up with convincing dialogue; he flattered and cajoled her out of her anxieties and despairs, she legitimized him in the big world. It might have been different if they had had the child she desperately wanted, but in her forties she miscarried more than once, had a hysterectomy, and that was that.

The Campbells tried the rustic life, acquiring an ambitious property near Sid and Laura Perelman in Pennsylvania, but, predictably, that didn’t last. In the early 1940s she went back to Hollywood with modest success—some minor work on Pride of the Yankees, dialogue for Hitchcock’s Saboteur—but it was a far cry from the high-flying (and high-paying) days of the previous decade. Her stories now appeared only sporadically, and no longer were automatically accepted by The New Yorker—some were simply too stridently political. One magazine editor, she wrote in 1939 in the far-left magazine New Masses, tactfully not naming him, “told me that if I changed my piece to make it in favor of Franco, he would publish it. ’God damn it,’ he said, why can’t you be funny again?’” That editor was Harold Ross.

Worst of all, as time went by everybody was dying, and far too young, from her idol Ring Lardner at forty-eight and Benchley at fifty-six to Scott Fitzgerald at forty-four. (“The poor son-of-a-bitch,” she murmured over his coffin at his sparsely attended Hollywood funeral.) Helen, her sister, was gone. Who was left? Edmund Wilson was still around—they had almost had a fling way back in 1919; now he paid occasional painful visits to her at the Volney. (“She lives with a small and nervous bad-smelling poodle bitch, drinks a lot, and does not care to go out.”)

She was still devoted to the Golden Couple, Gerald and Sara Murphy. (“There aren’t any people, Mr. Benchley, except you and the Murphys. I know that now,” she had written to him in 1929.) She had lived with the Murphys in their famous spread on the Riviera, and had spent a good part of a year with them in the Swiss sanitarium to which they moved when their son Patrick contracted tuberculosis. Their lives, however, rarely converged now. Difficult friends like Hellman and recent ones like Gloria Vanderbilt and her husband, Wyatt Cooper, couldn’t take up the slack.

She was still revered, a legend, but she had also become a pathetic relic. Yes, “you might as well live,” but for what? And on what? Not only was she running out of old friends, she was running out of money, though uncashed checks, some quite large, were strewn around her apartment (along with the empty bottles), not helping with unpaid bills.

By the mid-1950s she was finished with fiction and verse and screenplays, but now she returned to the field in which she had first made a splash and which she had never entirely abandoned: criticism. We mostly don’t think about this work because it hasn’t been available—until very recently, only her New Yorker book reviews, written between 1927 and 1933, had been collected, and that was in 1970. Her column was called “Constant Reader,” a name immortalized in her review of A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner. Pooh, she tells us, is reciting a song to Piglet which begins “The more it snows, tiddely-pom—”

“’Tiddely what?’ said Piglet.” (He took, as you might say, the very words out of your correspondent’s mouth.)

“’Pom,’ said Pooh. ’I put that in to make it more hummy.’”

And it is that word “hummy,” my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader Fwowed up.

The thirty-one reprinted reviews range in subject from the ludicrous to the sublime. Predictably, Parker is deadly when dealing with nonsense or pretension. Her targets include Nan Britton, who wrote a tell-all book about her love affair (and illegitimate baby) with President Warren Harding, the notorious evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, and Emily Post and her Etiquette. (She did not react positively to Mrs. Post’s suggestion that to get a conversation going with a stranger, you might try, “I’m thinking of buying a radio. Which make do you think is best?”)

So she’s funny. More impressive is her uncannily astute judgment. She admires Katherine Mansfield, Dashiell Hammett (she loved thrillers almost as much as she loved dogs), Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, Hemingway’s short stories (more than his novels), of course Ring Lardner, Gide’s The Counterfeiters—“too tremendous a thing for praises. To say of it ’Here is a magnificent novel’ is rather like gazing into the Grand Canyon and remarking, ’Well, well, well; quite a slice.’”

Her most impassioned praise is reserved for Isadora Duncan. Despite calling it “abominably written,” she characterized Duncan’s posthumous autobiography, My Life, as

an enormously interesting and a profoundly moving book. Here was a great woman; a magnificent, generous, gallant, reckless, fated fool of a woman. There was never a place for her in the ranks of the terrible, slow army of the cautious. She ran ahead, where there were no paths.

Parker would always rise to the challenges of greatness and of garbage; it was what fell in between that drove her crazy.

Last year there appeared a five-hundred-page collection of Parker’s early drama criticism, edited by Kevin Fitzpatrick and titled Complete Broadway, 1918–1923. Except for half a dozen of these pieces that appear in an updated edition of the essential Portable Dorothy Parker, none to my knowledge has ever been reprinted, and yet not only are they wickedly funny and to the point, they unearth for us what Broadway was actually up to in that hyperactive period in the history of the American theater.

Her first piece, from April 1918, sets the tone. It covers the latest musicals and it begins in raptures about the new Wodehouse-Bolton-Kern show, Oh, Lady! Lady!! “Not even the presence in the first-night audience of Mr. William Randolph Hearst, wearing an American flag on his conventional black lapel, could spoil my evening.”

Then things go downhill. Girl O’ Mine was “one of those shows at which you can get a lot of knitting done.” And on to The Love Mill and its “two hundred and fifty pounds of comedienne throwing herself into a man’s arms, felling him to the earth.” And finally there’s Sinbad, the latest Al Jolson extravaganza:

Of course, I take a certain civic pride in the fact that there is probably more nudity in our own Winter Garden than there is in any other place in the world, nevertheless, there are times during an evening’s entertainment when I pine for 11:15, so that I can go out in the street and see a lot of women with clothes on.

Yet even when she yields to her funny bone at the expense of some monstrosity, she finds time to praise. She may poke fun at a vast and gorgeous spectacle called Mecca

It is comfortable to reflect that it gives congenial and remunerative employment to hundreds, including two exceedingly shabby camels, who, I am willing to wager, although my memory for faces is not infallible, made their debut in the world premiere of Ben Hur

—but she goes on to say “the most important announcement is that Michel Fokine directed the dances, for they are startlingly beautiful.” Who knew that the renowned choreographer of The Firebird, Scheherazade, Petrushka, and Les Sylphides had once worked side by side with camels?

It’s all here right at the start of her career—the wit, the fun, the creation of “Dorothy Parker” as a character: she was determined to make a name for herself, and she did. But not at the expense of the worthy. She might deride the endless longueurs of Shaw’s Back to Methuselah, but she’s enthusiastic about his Candida. She’s in awe at The Hairy Ape: “One is ashamed to place neat little bouquets of praise on this mighty conception of O’Neill’s.” About Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.: “Here is a play stamped all over with the poisonous marks of the lofty-browed…yet it will give you just the same sort of good, homemade thrills that The Bat did.”

After apologizing at length for her inability to enjoy Shakespeare on the stage,

I am willing to go down to my plot in Woodlawn secure in the conviction that never has there been so fine a Hamlet as John Barrymore’s. He makes the Prince of Elsinore a young and engaging man, gives him flashes of quiet, skillful humor, grips you suddenly with a glimpse of his desperate loneliness…. As to his sanity, you are never in a moment’s doubt. You leave the theatre ready to take the thing to court, if necessary.

And in that same column of February 1923, she gives an equally ardent and convincing account of Jeanne Eagels’s famous performance in the dramatization of Somerset Maugham’s Rain: “Her voice, her intonations, her bursts of hard laughter and flaming fury—great is the least that you can call them.”

Parker loves Ethel Barrymore, she loves Laurette Taylor, she loves, sometimes, Sir J.M. (“Never-Grow-Up”) Barrie, she loves George M. Cohan, she’s nuts about scary melodramas. For theater-history buffs, all this is catnip. For Parker-lovers, it’s revelation. Yes, she gets repetitious, repeats some gags, stumbles, but in the face of Broadway 1918 to 1923, wouldn’t you?

Theater critics are trapped by opening-night schedules. Book critics can be more elastic—if they’re lucky, they can pick and choose. In December 1957 Parker began writing a monthly book column for Esquire—monthly in name only, since getting copy out of her was anguish for the editors. (According to her biographer Marion Meade, the magazine’s formidable publisher, Arnold Gingrich, viewed his job with her as “obstetrics, and often referred to the monthly operation as a ‘high-forceps delivery.’”)

For almost five years her column was an ornament to Esquire. She announced her standards in her first article, a round-up of the year’s best fiction: William Faulkner is “the greatest writer we have,” and she characterizes 1957 as “the year in which The Town appeared.” She then obliterates James Gould Cozzens’s By Love Possessed—“cold, distant, and exasperatingly patronizing”—anticipating by several weeks Dwight Macdonald’s famously savage assault in Commentary. She highly recommends Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle, Sybille Bedford’s “almost terrifyingly brilliant” A Legacy, Nabokov’s Pnin, and Brian Moore’s The Feast of Lupercal. (Among the books she nixes is Waugh’s The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, which “must have been written while he was waiting for the lift to reach his floor.”) And she doles out Yeses and Nos and Maybes to a host of others. She had done her work, and then some.

Some of the columns are workaday, but many are stellar—not only for the acuity of her judgments (“Lolita is a fine book, a distinguished book—all right, then—a great book”) but for the pleasure of her writing. Because these Esquire pieces have never been reprinted, I will indulge myself with some extensive quotation.

About Sheilah Graham’s tell-all Beloved Infidel: Graham lets it be known

that of course she felt something awful after [her lover Scott Fitzgerald] died, but of course she had to go on living, and so she married and had two children—quite big children it seems, for they were old enough to hear about Scott Fitzgerald, and they asked Mommie if they weren’t related to Mr. Fitzgerald, and Mommie said yes, darlings, in a way you are.

I present this as the possible all-time low in American letters.

About the divine Zsa Zsa:

It will be a black day in these grubby diggings when some stony-eyed precisionist shall enter, uninvited, and explain to me that there really is a Zsa Zsa Gabor. To me, the lady is a figment of mythology. In my mind, she is one with the unicorn, all shining white and gold, forever swift and lovely, immortal because fabulous. It is a simple belief, and harms no one.

So it is a pleasure to me to set down here that even after a careful reading of Zsa Zsa Gabor: My Story Written for Me by Gerold Frank my faith is still unshattered, and Miss Gabor keeps her place in the land of faerie.

And in a review of James Thurber’s The Years with Ross, she draws a heartfelt portrait of her old colleague and friend, their political differences long behind her:

His improbabilities started with his looks. His long body seemed to be only basted together, his hair was quills upon the fretful porcupine, his teeth were Stonehenge, his clothes looked as if they had been brought up by somebody else. Poker-faced he was not. Expressions, sometimes several at a time, would race across his countenance, and always, especially when he thought no one was looking, not the brow alone but the whole expanse would be corrugated by his worries over his bitch-mistress, his magazine.

This is Parker prose at its absolute finest—and another example of how her take on things is almost inevitably personal rather than analytical.

The saddest and most telling moment in her five-year run at Esquire comes at the very end of a discussion of a book about James McNeill Whistler and his circle. She is writing this in 1960, and she is sixty-six. She talks of Whistler, Rossetti, Swinburne, Wilde. “There were giants in those days,” she remarks. “And fools talk about the round table at the Algonquin!”

Dorothy Parker was too smart to buy the legend and too clearheaded to slide into nostalgia. That left her having to acknowledge some bitter realities. If only she hadn’t won celebrity so early and so easily. If only she had been blessed with Hemingway’s talent, had written her novel (and it had been any good), hadn’t succumbed to the easy life and money of Hollywood. If only she had married Mr. Right instead of lumbering herself with all those Mr. Wrongs. If she had had that baby…

She was too sensible to live in regret, but she certainly understood how much of her life she had spent carousing and just fooling around. The tragedy of Dorothy Parker, it seems to me, isn’t that she succumbed to alcoholism or died essentially alone. It was that she was too intelligent to believe that she had made the most of herself.