Becca Anderson, author of The Book of Awesome Women Writers, has written a new blog post on the life and career of writer Dorothy Parker.
The very name of this writer rolls trippingly off the tongue, Dor-o-thy ending with two sonorous, sharp, deliberate syllables, Par-ker. Immediately, a picture forms of high style and hard drinks at the Algonquin Hotel. Deadly wit and comic timing aside, all was not glamour for this highly readable and addictively quotable character. Dorothy’s life was hard.
A West End, New Jersey, girl, Dorothy Rothschild’s mother was Scottish and her father was Jewish. After Dorothy’s birth in 1893, her mother passed away when Dorothy was quite young. She was raised by her father, a garment manufacturer, and her stepmother, who took up residence on New York’s Upper West Side and sent her to a convent school and later to Miss Dana’s School, an upper-crust girls’ school in Morristown, New Jersey. Dorothy regarded her parents as tyrants, alternately fearing and loathing them.
She escaped into writing and discovered she had a way with words. Her first job was writing photograph captions for Vogue, where she charmed readers and editors alike with her perfect bon mots: “Brevity is the soul of Lingerie” for undergarments was one such nugget. In 1917, Dorothy met and married Wall Street businessman Edwin Pond Parker II. The marriage was rocky, and the young Mrs. Parker despaired over an abortion in 1923 and made her first attempt at suicide. Things completely fell apart when Edwin Parker returned from his tour of duty in World War I, and the couple divorced in 1928.
During this time, Dorothy’s sense of drama gained her employment as a theater critic for the magazines Ainslee’s and Vanity Fair. Her first volume of poetry, Enough Rope, was published in 1926 and was a triumph. She was chummy with Harold Ross, Robert Sherwood, and Robert Benchley, and was soon ensconced at the Algonquin Hotel’s Round Table lunches. Ross and she were utterly simpatico, and he saw her potential to add punch to his new magazine, the New Yorker. Ross proved prescient; Dorothy Parker’s columns, reviews, and stories helped shape the landmark magazine. Parker quit Vanity Fair immediately and basked in the accolades for her intelligent humor and satiric edge.
While popular success was hers, some critics sharpened their pens to match wits with her and dismissed her writing as insubstantial. Parker was very unhappy personally and had a series of messy affairs, drank a lot, and sank into depression. She attempted suicide three times in the ’20s, but managed to keep writing even during the desolation. Three more books, Sunset Gun, Death and Taxes, and Not So Deep as a Well were greeted with plaudits.
Her next marriage, to fellow writer Alan Campbell, was even less stable than her first. Campbell was bisexual and eleven years younger than Dorothy Parker. The two worked on screenplays together and collaborated on the fantastic A Star Is Born. While marriage wasn’t the right fit, there was a strong connection, and they remarried, split up, and got back together several times.
Dorothy Parker’s political views were progressive. She was very vocal in her protest of the execution of accused anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, and she spoke out against fascism during the Spanish Civil War. Hollywood didn’t approve of this political activism, and both Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell were summarily blacklisted in the 1940s, costing them their livelihood of five thousand dollars a week.
Parker’s moods swung with the ups and downs of the marriage until Campbell died in 1963. A dispirited Dorothy Parker then spent her remaining years drowning her insecurities in drink. Not unlike the lonely women who inhabited her stories, Parker lived an unconventional life, taking risks and expressing her views even at great personal cost. More than fifty years after her passing, her sensibility still shapes our culture. A truly original mind, she never hesitated to speak it.
Guns aren’t lawful; Nooses give; Gas smells awful; you might as well live.
Dorothy Parker, from “Resume”
Medieval Mystics, Pioneering Poets, Fierce Feminists and First Ladies of Literature (Feminist Book, Gift for Women, Gift for Writers)
This one-of-a-kind tome takes a tour with Sylvia Beach and other booksellers as well as librarians, editors, writers, bibliophiles, and celebrated book clubs. Join women’s studies scholar Anders as she takes you on a ribald ride through the pages of history. Chapter titles include “Prolific Pens” (including Joyce Carol Oates, author of over 100 books), “Mystics, Memoirists and Madwomen”, “Salons and Neosalons”, “Ink in Their Veins” (literary dynasties), and the titillating “Banned, Blacklisted, and Arrested.”