Writing about Zelda Fitzgerald was heaven. Writing about Dorothy Parker is Hell. With Zelda, I felt like I could hopefully expose people to her, and how she was not Daisy Buchanan insofar as Daisy Buchanan did not have a ton of electroshock therapy treatments. Dottie is different. With Dottie, you probably already know a bit about her. Accordingly, you have some familiarity with the fact that she was basically the funniest woman ever. Accordingly, you are going to read this realizing that none of my jokes will compare, because she was the was the wittiest woman of the 20th century.
At least, I think so. Dorothy is kind of a personal obsession of mine. It’s impossible for me to write anything without thinking, “well, damn, Dottie would have done this section much funnier”.
Especially impossible now! If Dorothy Parker was writing this there would be 7 years worth of great bon mots in the piece, already. And not even the ones you know off the top of your head! Not even “horticulture used in a sentence – you can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think.” I mean, bon mots like this:
“All [male] writers are either 29 or Thomas Hardy.”
“Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald are fine people – even if they are extremely rich.”
[Upon being asked to be a drama critic] “I asked myself ‘what would Lincoln have done?'”
Fuck that clever bitch for being so clever. So, fine, we can take as a given that anything I ever write will be vastly inferior to anything Parker scrawled drunkenly on a cocktail napkin.
So, my afternoon has been terrible.
You know what else is terrible? The fact that, while it’s immediately obvious to everyone that she was just damn brilliant, Dottie never realized how brilliant she was. Neither did Hemingway, but he just kind of reveals himself to be a dick in the process.
Dorothy was born Dorothy Rothschild in 1893. Her first memory was watching then rain “when, without warning, my heart beat wild in my breast with pain.”
My first memory is David, The Gnome, probably.
Then, in 1915, Dorothy went to work at Vogue. This was a time when a maid was still situated in the Vogue offices to arrange flowers. Dorothy worked for Edna Chase, who once expressed shock when one of the Vogue editors tried to kill herself by jumping in front of a subway train. Edna claimed said that was vulgar, and that if Vogue editors had to kill themselves, they should take sleeping pills.
She was not joking.
Dorothy began making fun of the magazine almost immediately. Her job consisted of fact checking, copy editing, and writing photo captions.
Dorothy soon shocked the magazine by captioning photos with quips like “There once was a little girl who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. 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.”
Oh, Dorothy! The subversive captions often made it past the copy desk and it was only later that someone noticed that Dorothy was alluding to the fact that the Vogue reader might be having sex.
Fortunately, the Vogue offices were located on the same floor as Vanity Fair. Dorothy began writing free verse, which she dropped off on editor Frank Crowninshield’s desk (Crowninshield was referred to as “the most cultivated, elegant, and endearing man in publishing, if not Manhattan” – so kind of like a much hotter Graydon Carter).
She finally managed to impress him with an effort called “Women: A Hate Song” which begins:
I hate Women;
They get on my nerves.
There are the Domestic ones.
They are the worst.
Every moment is packed with Happiness.
They breathe deeply
And walk with large strides, eternally hurrying home
To see about dinner.
They are the kind
Who say, with a tender smile, “Money’s not everything.”
They are always confronting me with dresses,
Saying, “I made this myself.”
They read Woman’s pages and try out the recipes.
Oh, how I hate that kind of woman.
Crowninshield loved her. Her first article for Vanity Fair was in 1916, and it was entitled “Why I Haven’t Married” (she was 23 at the time – it was an era where you’d have to be good at everything so early). In it, she explained that it was mostly because men were idiots. She further claimed that she was looking for “an English tailored Greek God, just masterful enough to be entertaining, just wicked enough to be exciting, just clever enough to be a good audience.”
And then she met Edwin (Eddie) Parker II. He was a stockbroker, and a descendant of William Parker, who had settled in America in 1636. Though he came from a family of clergymen, Eddie was an atheist, and when Dorothy revealed that her family was Jewish he said that he “could not imagine why that concerned her.”
He was also an alcoholic, though at that time Dorothy never drank herself. She recalled in Big Blonde, one of her more autobiographical works (and one that ends with an attempted suicide) that “she liked him immediately… she was enormously impressed with his fast, slurred sentences.”
This doesn’t end well.
They married in a non-religious ceremony in 1917. Almost immediately after war broke out, and Eddie joined the corps. Dorothy continued writing for Vogue – she’d been promoted to a features writer! – but ran into trouble when she wrote a piece about interior decorators around town which she entitled “Interior Desecration.” Edna Chase, who had ot seen the piece before it was published was horrified, and said that “more than one decorator swallowed hard and counted to ten before expressing his feelings about it,” but she had a grudging respect for Dorothy saying that she was “a small, dark haired pixie, treacle sweet of tongue, but vinegar witted.”
Things were better at Vanity Fair, where Dorothy Parker had more freedom to write whatever she liked, in spite of Crowninshield’s constant reminder that “There’s an old lady sitting in Dubuque and she has to be able to understand everything we print.” Crowninshield soon hired Dorothy to replace P. G. Wodehouse as Vanity Fair’s drama critic, and, oh, her drama reviews. OH.
Oh, God, you must read her theater reviews. If she was reviewing the theater right now, you’d go, just so you could compare the experience to the reviews. Consider this one for A.A. Milne’s (of Winnie the Pooh fame) Give Me Yesterday.
The cabinet minister is, like Melisande, not happy. His wife is proud, cold, and ambitious; his daughter is a Bright Young Thing, his son has gone Socialist; and, to crown it all, it is rumored that Mowbrey is to be appointed to the coveted position of Chancellor of the Exchequer. “Ah,” I said to myself, for I love a responsive audience, “so, it’s one of those plays. All right, it’s one of those plays. At least we shall have no Christopher Robins cocking their heads on the lawn.” For a moment, you see, I had forgotten the title, and hope tormented me…It appeared his boyhood sweetheart, Sally – called by Mr. Louis Calhern, who has gone British or something “Selly” just as he says, and as yearningly, “heppy” – had used to occupy the adjoining room, and he had a nasty habit of tapping o the wall between, to communicate with her. The code was not essentially difficult. There was one tap for “a”, two for “b” and so on. I ask you, kind reader, but to bear this in mind for rougher times… the cabinet minister goes into a dream – I do not pretend to follow this argument – and meets with his boyhood sweetheart, who wears, and becomingly, the dress of her day. And then, believe it or not, things get worse. The cabinet minister talks softly and embarrassingly to Sally – “Ah, Selly, Selly, Selly” – but that is not enough. He must tap out to her, on the garden wall, his message, though she is right there beside him. First he taps, and at the length it would take, the letter “I.” Then he goes on to “L” and, though she surely everyone in the audience has caught the idea, he carries through to “O”. “Oh, he’s not going to “V”” I told myself, “Even Milne wouldn’t do that to you.” But he did. He tapped on through “V” and then he did an “E.”
There is, unfortunately, as far as I can tell, no complete set of Dorothy Parker’s theater reviews, but you can read a lot of them in The Portable Dorothy Parker.
One day, Dorothy arrived at Vanity Fair to find that her office was now being shared by the new managing editor. His name was Robert Benchely. He was 29, a former Boy Scout who went to bed at 10, and spent his weekend clipping hedges and playing the mandolin for his wife and children. He wore long underwear year round and immediately warned Dorothy against drinking saying “alcohol will coarsen you.”
God, he sounds awful. Dorothy disliked him immediately.
That man was the famous humorist Robert Benchley. He was soon to become Dorothy’s best friend for life.
They worked rather coldly in one another’s presence for a while, until Crowninshield announced that Robert Sherwood would also be sharing their office. No one knew what Robert Sherwood was supposed to do at Vanity Fair, but apparently he’d showed up to the interview in a kilt, and Crowninshield thought that was funny. He was supposed to be a picture editor, or possibly a drama editor, or something (Sherwood later appointed himself the “maid of all work” at Vanity Fair, and just did pieces for every section.)
This addition made Dorothy and Benchley so uncomfortable that they began having lunch together to discuss how to get him out of their office. Sherwood was 6 ft 7′, and Dorothy was apparently won over by Benchley when he quipped ruefully, “with so much to shoot at, how could the Germans have missed him?”
However, they didn’t all really become friends until Sherwood came to them with a curious request. One day at lunch time he was wanted to know if Dorothy and Benchley could walk protectively on either side of him when he went down 44th street. The Hippodrome, which was located on that same street, had engaged a group of midgets for one of their acts. Every day when he went to lunch they ran after Sherwood taunting him. Dorothy recalled that day they chased him screaming “‘hey Legs!’, warning him to duck under the 6th Avenue El train, and demanding to know what the weather was like up there, until he managed to outrun them.”
Robert Sherwood: Author, playwright, four time Pulitzer Prize winner – a man bullied by midgets.
Dorothy and Benchley felt so badly for him that they all began having lunch together.
That was the beginning of the Algonquin Round Table.
Shortly after, Crowninshield went on vacation and left Vanity Fair to be run by Benchley, Sherwood and Parker. Keep in mind that the trio had begun covering the walls of their office with pictures of dead bodies from funeral trade magazines and captioning them, claiming they were going to start a magazine called From Grave to Gay! so I do not know why Crowninshield thought this would be a good idea.
Suffice to say, they started publishing pieces that were not suitable for the little old lady in Dubuque, and Crowninshield returned with the sense that the inmates were running the asylum.
Dorothy’s theater reviews had also become problematic – she’s begun taking swipes at friends of the publisher Conde Nast, including Billie Burke, who Dorothy had claimed “coyly threw herself around the stage as if giving an impersonation of exotic dancer Eva Tanguay.”
She was not long for Vanity Fair after that.
When Crowninshield fired her he took her out to the Plaza and told her she could work on “little pieces at home.” Dorothy refused and ordered the most expensive dessert on the menu.
Robert Sherwood was also fired, and his replacement was the woman who gave music lessons to Conde Nast’s daughter. Seriously.
Robert Benchley promptly resigned as well.
In his resignation he claimed that his reason for leaving was that the decision to fire Dorothy Parker was “incredibly stupid” and that his job was “not attractive enough to remain without Mr. Sherwood and Mrs. Parker.” Alexander Woollcott – who shared their lunches at the Algonquin round table – wrote sympathetically of the event in The New York Times, and in the Conning Tower, Frank Adams reported that “R. Benchley tells me he hath resigned his position with Vanity Fair because they discharged Dorothy Parker; which I am sorry for.”
The next day, in the lobby of Conde Nast, the trio hung a poster that read “Contribution for Miss Billie Burke.”
At the end of her life, Dorothy remembered Benchley’s resignation as the greatest act of loyalty she had ever known.
The round table grew considerably after that, Wollcott and Frank Adams became members, in part because of their sympathetic attitudes during the firing, as well as other wits like Heywood Broun and Douglas Stewart (more about him to come).
Dorothy kept herself busy writing short stories for Life, but they wanted the kind of snappy light prose about beautiful flappers (the kind her accquaintence F. Scott Fitzgerald was so good at) that never came quite naturally to Dorothy. To occupy themselves, everyone at the round table started drinking, even Robert Benchley.
One memorable night at a speakeasy, a customer bragged that his watch was unbreakable. Dorothy and Benchley offered to test it, and took turns slamming it against the tabletop. It finally broke and the customer retrieved it and exclaimed “it’s stopped!” Dorothy and Benchley turned to one another and replied in unison “maybe you wound it too tight!”
Professionally, around that time Benchley and Parker were both appointed editors of the new Harold Ros publication The New Yorker, a publication that was “not for the old lady in Dubuque.” (That was how it was initially pitched).
Things weren’t nearly so amusing with her husband Eddie, who’d returned home from the war with a morphine addiction. He began hitting Dorothy on a fairly regular basis, so that many days she’d arrive at the Algonquin Round table with a black eye. Eddie claimed it was New York that was making him behave that way, and that if he went to Hartford he’d be able to sober up.
Dorothy really, really did not want to move to Hartford. She did, however, promise to buy a cookbook.
It was not enough. Eddie departed. Dorothy did not.
Marc Connelly claimed that “when she and Eddie were together I don’t think she had any lovers. But after Eddie left, then the men were in and out of her house like mail.”
Dorothy fell in love with a newspaperman named Charles Gordon MacArthur. He was exactly the wrong sort of man for Dorothy to fall in love with – Neysa McMein, a painter and good friend of Dorothy’s – presented him with a rubber stamp which read “I love you” which she said would save him time writing letters to his conquests.
Dorothy became pregnant, but by that time Charles had lost interest in her, and she had an abortion.
MacArthur contributed $30 towards the operation. Dorothy said “it was like Judas making a refund.”
A little after Christmas, and shortly after her abortion, Dorothy was alone in her apartment. She was supposed to review a play. She did not review a play. She did, however, find one of Eddie’s discarded razors and slit both her wrists. She was saved because she’d ordered dinner from the Swiss Alps, who were very surprised to find her unconscious when they arrived.
When the members of the Algonquin Round Table came to visit her at the hospital they found that she’d covered her arms in multi-colored ribbons and claimed that it “served her right for putting all her eggs in one bastard.”
It was perhaps only her (rare) female friend Neysa McMein who Dorothy Parker confided her intense sorrow in – she was haunted by dreams where her aborted child came to her with its little hands intact – and Neysa painted this picture of Dorothy shortly after her suicide attempt. She is 29 here, and manages to look both childlike and very, very old.
The fact that Dorothy treated her suicide attempt as a laughing matter meant that very few people at the Round Table – Neysa aside – took it seriously. Or, that is, they didn’t take it seriously until Hemingway didn’t take it seriously, and then they realized the magnitude of the thing.
Apparently, once, Dorothy Parker had the misfortune of insulting Spain in Ernest Hemingway’s presence. It’s weird how powerful men often come off as being unmitigated bastards in these tales, but I mean, I don’t know. Hemingway, man. Hemingway was kind of a bastard and he probably wouldn’t mind being labeled as such.
He responded to the fact that Dorothy said she did not have a good time on her recent vacation to Spain by deciding that he disliked Dorothy Parker intensely. Aware of her recent suicide attempt, Hemingway wrote a poem entitled “To The Tragic Poetess – Nothing in her life became her like her almost leaving it.” He proceeded to read it aloud at a party hosted by Archibald MacLeish.
O thou who with a safety razor blade
a new one to avoid infection
Slit both thy wrists
the scars defy detection
Who over-veronaled to try and peek
into the shade
Of that undistant country from whose bourne
no traveller returns who hasn’t been there.
But always vomited in time
And bound your wrists up
To tell how you could see his little hands
You’d waited months too long
that was the trouble
But you loved dogs and other people’s children
and hated Spain where they are cruel to donkeys
Hoping the bulls would kill the matadors
the national tune of Spain was Tea for Two
you said and don’t let anyone say Spain to you –
You’d seen it with the Seldes
One Jew, his wife and a consumptive
you sneered your way around
Through Aragon, Castille and Andalucia
the Jewish cheeks of your plump ass
in Holy Week in Seville
forgetful of our Lord and of His passion
And returned, your ass intact, to Paris
To write more poems for the New Yorker.
People at the party understandably thought that a poem making fun of Dorothy Parker’s abortion and suicide attempts was kind of amazingly awful. Donald Stewart – the satirist who’d been the model for the very funny Bill Gorton in Hemigway’s The Sun Also Rises – told Hemingway that the poem was “viciously unfunny and unfair.” Hemingway proceeded to explain that Dorothy Parker had once borrowed a typewriter from him and had failed to return it. Donald Stewart told Hemingway that he no longer regarded Hemingway as a friend.
If this makes you want to read Donald Stewart, you can find his parody of history books, here. (Donald also acted in Holiday with Katharine Hepburn, wrote The Philadelphia Story screenplay, protested the Red Scare and Vietnam, and shortly before he died, assisted writing the Woody Allen film Love and Death. He was just an all around cool guy).
I mean, call me crazy, but I really prefer Dorothy’s own poem about suicide, which, if you aren’t already familiar with it (you probably are) runs:
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.
The most remarkable part of this whole episode is that Dorothy never knew about it. Everyone – this exceedingly articulate, gossipy group at the MacLeish party – agreed that they would never mention it to her. This seems like a tasteful move. Or was it? On one hand, you could say that running around telling Dorothy about this incident is the equivalent of a snarky schoolchildren running up to a peer and saying “I know someone who doesn’t like you!” but it did leave Dorothy with an impression of Hemingway very different from the one she might otherwise have had (had she known about this incident, I have full confidence she could have vivisected him in print).
As a result, until the end of her life, Dorothy continued to refer to Hemingway as an innovative writer and a person with many estimable qualities. 12 years after that unfortunate party at the MacLeish’s she was assigned to review Hemingway’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls” for PM and she wrote:
There are many authors who have written about love, all about the gamut from embarrassment to enchantment. There are many who have written about sex and have got rich and fat and pale at the job. But nobody can write as Ernest Hemingway can of a man and a woman together, their completion and their fulfillment. And nobody can make melodrama as Ernest Hemingway can, nobody else can get such excitement upon a printed page. I do not feel that the creation of excitement is a minor achievement. ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ is nothing to warrant a display of adjectives. Adjectives are dug from soil too long worked, and they make sickly praise and stumbled reading. I think that what you do about this book of Ernest Hemingway’s is to point to it and say, ‘Here is a book.’ As you would stand below Everest and say, ‘Here is a mountain.’
I mean, that’s a really nice review, considering Hemingway was a dickbag.
For what it’s worth, the rest of Dorothy’s life was… okay, sort of!
I mean, she was an alcoholic who was continually haunted by memories of her abortion, but other than that. She slept with a whole bunch of people, including, oddly, Scott Fitzgerald. They’d been friends for years, and the encounter seemingly happened after Dorothy bought one of Zelda’s paintings (Zelda was institutionalized at that point) and claimed that the piece was too painful for her to ever hang in her apartment. She also claimed that she hated the same qualities in F. Scott that she hated in herself.
I think this just means they were both alcoholics, because, while Dorothy was certainly popular, she wasn’t really the fountain jumping kind. However, I suppose this is something we could discuss. What did Dorothy mean by that, exactly?
She ultimately married Alan Campbell, who she was introduced to by Robert Benchley. Campbell was 11 years her junior and apparently – literally – had a habit of bursting into rooms holding a racquet and saying “tennis, anyone?” He was that kind of guy. They moved to Hollywood to see if they could make it as a screenwriting duo. During her time there Dorothy got into a memorable fight with Samuel Goldwyn, who was always trying to hire top writers for his studios. When they were disputing the plot of a film entitled You Can be Beautiful (Goldwyn wanted it to be about a beautiful, happy Elizabeth Arden type, Dorothy thought it should be about a plain, happy woman who becomes beautiful and is made unhappy in the process) Goldwyn said, according to Garson Kanin,
“People want a happy ending”
Dottie rose. “I know this will come as a shock to you, Mr. Goldwyn,” she said, “but in all of history, which has held billions and billions of beings, not a single one has ever had a happy ending.”
She left the room.
Goldwyn surveyed those of us who remained. “Does anybody in here know what the hell that woman was talking about?”
Then, in 1945 Robert Benchley died. By that time he was an alcoholic, too, though unlike the rest of the Algonquin Round table, who drank martinis and scotch, Benchley preferred to add vodka to milkshakes. People who knew him said that it marked the end of the Round Table, especially as Alexand Wollcott died around the same time.
Upon hearing of his death Dorothy Parker exclaimed “well, that’s just dandy!” Benchley’s wife never forgave her for the comment. Still, at the end of her life she claimed tht her prized posession was his cocktail shaker which was engraved “To Mr. Benchley – From His Sunday School Class.”
Alan later was thought to commit suicide by a drug overdose, and, following his death in 1963 she moved back to New York and took up residence at the Volney hotel. ooking back on her early years, rather sadly, she said,
“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..
I hate to contradict Dorothy on this point, but, well, in this, at least, Dorothy seems wrong. Because, while Hemingway and Fitzgerald might have produced great works (though I think “Big Blonde” could go toe-to-toe with any of their short stories), it was Dorothy and her contemporaries that produced the notion of a writerly community. The Algonquin Round Table’s existence suggested that writers did not have to toil in solitude, pausing only to fight a bulls in Spain. It indicated that being a writer would mean being part of a community where people would quit their jobs on your behalf, or shout at Hemingway at a dinner party, or protect you from midgets.
The desire to be part of a world where people tell jokes and tell one another how good they are – that surely must have lead a great many people to become writers.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go tap “I Love You Dorothy” onto a garden wall someplace. It’s going to take the entire afternoon, so don’t expect too much about Tom and Katie Home’s divorce.
Dorothy Parker, What The Fresh Hell Is This?