August 22, 1893, was the birthdate of Dorothy Parker, the writer and wit who achieved legendary status not only for her clever, sharp-edged and concise quips, rhymes and comebacks, but also for her political outspokenness on behalf of human rights, and a desperately unhappy personal life.
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It was Parker who, when she and her companions at the Algonquin Hotel Round Table were informed in 1933 that the notoriously bland and laconic former president Calvin Coolidge had died, wondered aloud, “How could they tell?” It was she who, as drama critic of Vanity Fair, warned theater-goers who might be considering attending one less-than scintillating production, “If you don’t knit, bring a book.” But it was also
Parker who wrote the poem “Resume” (1926), in which she explained why one carries on with it all:
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
Dorothy Rothschild was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, where her parents, Jacob Henry Rothschild and the former Eliza Annie Marston, had a vacation home. Jacob, who was Jewish, was a prosperous clothing manufacturer. Eliza was of Scottish, Protestant descent.
Eliza Rothschild died shortly before her daughter turned 5, and two years later, Jacob remarried. Dorothy said later that she hated both her father, whom she called physically abusive, and her stepmother, whom she referred to as “the housekeeper,” and who died in 1903. She attended Roman Catholic school, on New York’s Upper West Side, where she grew up, and later the private Miss Dana’s School, although she stopped attending school at age 14.
Her father’s investments having soured after his death in 1913, Dorothy began to support herself by playing piano in a dance studio. At the same time, she wrote verse, and after having a poem accepted by Vanity Fair in 1914, she soon was offered a job as an editorial assistant at Vogue, another Conde Nast magazine. It was at Vogue that she wrote the photo caption “Brevity is the soul of lingerie.”
The name “Parker” came from her first husband, Edward Pond Parker III, a stockbroker, to whom Dorothy was married between 1917 and 1928. She joked that she had married him in order to lose her Jewish patronymic and replace it with a “nice, clean name.” Her second and third marriages were to the same man, Alan Campbell, a writer with whom she moved to Hollywood to write screenplays together. They divorced once and separated again after remarrying, but were back together when Campbell killed himself in 1963.
After a year at Vogue, Parker was hired as the drama critic at Vanity Fair. It was during this period that she became friends – and a daily companion at the restaurant of the Algonguin – with such writers as Robert Benchley, Alexander Woolcott and Franklin Pierce Adams. Later in life, she repudiated her time with her friends around the Algonquin “Round Table,” saying that they were “just a bunch of loudmouths showing off, saving their gags for days, waiting for a chance to spring them…. It was the terrible day of the wisecrack, so there didn't have to be any truth.”
At the time, however, the reprinting of many of her spontaneous lunchtime remarks in the newspaper columns of Woolcott and Adams gained Parker a national reputation. Her caustic wit also led to her being laid off by Vanity Fair after two years, apparently in response to the complaints of Broadway producers. Out of solidarity, both Benchley and Robert E. Sherwood quit their positions at Vanity Fair when she was terminated.
Parker was very productive in the years that followed, especially after she joined The New Yorker, beginning with its second issue, in early 1925. There, under its founding editor, Harold Ross, Parker wrote verse, stories and also a regular book-review column under the byline “Constant Reader.” It was in that guise that she offered her misanthropic response to reading “The House at Pooh Corner,” A.A. Milne’s second volume of Winnie the Pooh stories: “Tonstant Weader fwowed up.”
The 1920s and ‘30s were Parker’s most successful and fertile years professionally, but her personal life was pained. Her affair with the writer Charles MacArthur led to a pregnancy and an abortion, and to Parker’s commenting, “How like me, to put all my eggs into one bastard.” Her first of four attempted suicides followed soon after.
She married Alan Campbell in 1934 – like her, a writer of both Jewish and Scottish background – and the couple moved to California. Campbell was bisexual, and their relationship was punctuated by his affairs and her alcoholism. As a screenwriting pair, the two were quite successful: In 1937, for example, they, together with Robert Carson, were nominated for an Academy Award for the script of the film “A Star Is Born.”
This was also a period when Parker became increasingly aware of and vocal about politics and civil rights. She protested (and was arrested for it) in Boston in 1927 against the trial of the accused murderers Sacco and Vanzetti, who were convicted on flimsy evidence and executed, largely because they were immigrants and anarchists. She wrote about the Spanish Civil War in the Communist magazine New Masses. And in 1936, she was a founding member of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. The League was linked with the American Communist Party, although much of its support came from non-Communists, and it ceased operation immediately upon the signing of the non-aggression pact between the USSR and Nazi Germany in 1939. For her suspected political sympathies, Parker became a target of FBI surveillance, and in the 1950s, found herself blacklisted in Hollywood.
Dorothy Parker died on June 7, 1967, of a heart attack, at age 73. Her body was cremated, but her ashes went unclaimed for 17 years, with one portion of them relegated to a filing cabinet in the office of her lawyer. Finally, her remains were taken by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which in 1988 created a memorial garden in Parker’s memory outside its Baltimore headquarters.
Parker, it turns out, had left her entire estate to the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Foundation. After his murder, a year after her death, the estate was passed on to the NAACP. The executor of Parker’s estate, her friend, playwright Lillian Hellman, who apparently expected to be recognized for her friendship in Parker’s will, challenged that outcome, but a judge denied her appeal.
The NAACP memorial bears the following epitaph for Dorothy Parker:
"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.”