The Jacana

 Great Lives Site

 

Back to Jacana

Great Lives index

 


Dorothy Rothschild Parker
1893 - 1967
 


Dorothy Rothschild Parker, American humourist, was known for her biting prose and verse satires. Numerous critics expressed admiration for her unique talent.
 

 


Born in New Jersey to Scottish-Jewish parents, Dorothy Parker attended Miss Dana's School there and finished her education at the Blessed Sacrament Convent in New York City. During 1916-1917 she was on the editorial staff at Vogue, and from 1917 to 1920 she was an editor and drama critic for Vanity Fair. Fired from the last position for her caustic, devastating reviews of several important plays, she began her popular column, "Constant Reader, " in the New Yorker, where she continued her witty attacks on the contemporary literary scene.

After collaborating with Elmer Rice on an unsuccessful play, Close Harmony (1924), Parker left the New Yorker as her first collection of verse, Enough Rope, became an instant best seller. She devoted herself to writing short fiction and verse, and her story "Big Blonde" won the O. Henry Prize in 1929. A second volume of poems, Sunset Gun (1928), was followed by her first collection of short stories, Lament for the Living (1930). Displaying a fine perception of human nature as well as a general cynicism regarding life, Parker had already become famous for her mordant quips, such as: "Guns aren't lawful;/ Nooses give;/ Gas smells awful;/ You might as well live."

In the early 1930s Dorothy Parker moved to Hollywood to write movies, meanwhile continuing her literary career. Her major output during this period included a collection of verse, Death and Taxes (1931); a volume of short stories, After Such Pleasures (1932); Collected Stories (1942); and Collected Poetry (1944). The last two surveys of Parker's literary talent are characterized by their sardonic, elegantly dry commentaries on the fickle quality of fortune. "She is not Emily Brontë or Jane Austen, " noted Edmund Wilson, "but she has been at some pains to write well and she has put into what she has written a state of mind, an era, and a few moments of human experience that nobody else has conveyed."

Parker's intense involvement with political and social issues, which brought her before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in 1951, limited her literary efforts in later life. However, she did find time to teach at the University of California. In a final gesture she bequeathed almost her entire estate to Martin Luther King, Jr., and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.
 


~~~<"((((((><~~~<"((((((><~~~<"((((((><~~~<"((((((><~~~<"((((((><~~~
 


Journalist, writer, and poet. Born Dorothy Rothschild on August 22, 1893, in West End, New Jersey. Dorothy Parker was a legendary literary figure, known for her biting wit. She worked on such magazines as Vogue and Vanity Fair during the late 1910s. Parker went on to work as a book reviewer for The New Yorker in the 1920s. A selection of her reviews for this magazine was published in 1970 as Constant Reader, the title of her column. She remained a contributor to The New Yorker for many years; the magazine also published a number of her short stories. One of her most popular stories, “Big Blonde,” won the O. Henry Award in 1929.

In addition to her writing, Dorothy Parker was a noted member of the New York literary scene in 1920s. She formed a group called the Algonquin Round Table with writer Robert Benchley and playwright Robert Sherwood. This artistic crowd also included such members as The New Yorker founder Harold Ross, comedian Harpo Marx, and playwright Edna Ferber among others. The group took its name from its hangout—the Algonquin Hotel, but also also known as the Vicious Circle for the number of cutting remarks made by its members and their habit of engaging in sharp-tongued banter.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Dorothy Parker spent much of her time in Hollywood, California. She wrote screenplays with her second husband Alan Campbell, including the 1937 adaptation of A Star Is Born and the 1942 Alfred Hitchcock film Saboteur. In her personal life, she had become politically active, supporting such causes as the fight for civil rights. She also was involved with the Communist Party in the 1930s. It was this association that led to her being blacklisted in Hollywood.

While her opportunities in Hollywood may have dried up, Dorothy Parker was still a well-regarded writer and poet. She even went on to write a play entitled Ladies of the Corridor in 1953. Parker returned to New York City in 1963, spending her last few years in fragile condition. She died on June 7, 1967.
 


~~~<"((((((><~~~<"((((((><~~~<"((((((><~~~<"((((((><~~~<"((((((><~~~
 


American short story writer, poet, and critic, a legendary figure in the New York literary scene. Dorothy Parker wrote sketches and short stories, many of them published in The New Yorker. Her column, 'Constant Reader', was highly popular. Parker was especially famous for her instant wit and cruel humour.

   COMMENT


   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.

Dorothy Parker was born in West End, New Jersey, as the fourth and last child of Jacob (Henry) Rothschild, a garment manufacturer, and Annie Eliza (Marston) Rothschild, the daughter of a machinist at Phoenix Armour. Her paternal grandparents came from Russia. Parker's mother died in 1898. Jacob married in 1900 Eleanor Frances Lewis, a Roman Catholic; Parker never liked her stepmother. Eleanor Frances died of a heart attack three years after the wedding. Parker's father died when she was twenty.

Parker was educated at a Catholic school. "But as for helping me in the outside world, the convent taught me only that if you spit on a pencil eraser it will erase in," Parker said later in an interview. She moved to New York City, whe she wrote during the day and earned money at night playing the piano in a dancing school.

In 1916 Parker sold some of her poetry to the editor of Vogue, and was given an editorial position on the magazine. In 1917 she married Edwin Pond Parker II, a stockbroker, whom she divorced in 1919. Edwin was wounded in World War I, he was an alcoholic, and during the war he became addicted to morphine.

From 1917 to 1920 Parker worked for Vanity Fair. Frank Crowinshield, the managing editor of the magazine, recalled that she had "the quickest tongue imaginable, and I need not to say the keenest sense of mockery." With two other writers Robert Benchley and Robert Sherwood, Parker formed the nucleus of the Algonquin Round Table, an informal luncheon club held at New York City's Algonquin Hotel on Forty-Fourth Street. Other members included Ring Lardner and James Thurber. Parker was usually the only woman in the group. Alan Rudolph's film Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994), starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Campbell Scott, Matthew Broderick, depicted the life of the author and her friends around the famous table.

Between the years 1927 and 1933 Parker wrote book reviews for The New Yorker. Her texts continued appear in the magazine at irregular intervals until 1955. Her first collection of poems, Enough Rope, was published in 1926. It contained the often-quoted 'Résumé' on suicide, and 'News Item'.

   Résumé

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

Enough Rope was a bestseller and was followed by Sunset Guns (1928) and Death and Taxes (1931), which were collected in Collected Poems: Not So Deep As a Well (1936). Parker's poems were sardonic, usually dry, elegant commentaries on love, or shallowness of modern life: "Why is it no one sent me yet / One perfect limousine, do you suppose? / Ah no, it's always just my luck to get / One perfect rose." (1926) Parker's short story collections, After Such Pleasures (1932) and Here Lies (1939), proved sharp understanding of human nature. Like Hemingway, whose work she admired, Parker relied rather on dialogue than on description. Among her best-known pieces are 'A Big Blonde', which won her O. Henry Memorial Award, and the soliloquies 'A Telephone Call' and 'The Waltz'.

During the 1920s Parker had extra-marital affairs, she drank heavily and attempted suicide three times, but maintained the high quality of her literary output. Her brief affair with F. Scott Fitzgerald while he was married to the unstable Zelda was motivated, according to the gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, by compassion on her part and despair on his. In Enough Rope Parker wrote: "Four be the things I am wiser to know: / Idleness, sorrow, a friend, and a foe."

In the 1930s, Parker moved with her second husband, Alan Campbell, who was twelve years her junior, to Hollywood. She worked there as a screenwriter, including on the film A Star Is Born (1937), directed by William Wellman and starring Janet Gaynor, Fredric March, and Adolphe Menjou. The film received an Oscar for Best Original Story. In Alfred Hitchcock's film Saboteur (1940) Parker collaborated with Peter Vierter and Joan Harrison. Her contribution is mainly visible in some of the bizarre details of the circus milieu where the hero (Robert Cummings) takes refuge in, with its squabbling Siamese twins, its bearded lady in curlers and a malevolent dwarf who acts and dresses a bit like Hitler. Parker and Hitchcock appeared in the film together in a cameo bit. Otherwise the film bored her.

With Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett, Parker helped found the Screen Writers' Guild. She also reported on the Spanish Civil War, and collaborated on several plays. Temptations of Hollywood did not make Parker any softer, which a number of film stars had to face. When Joan Crawford was married to Franchot Tone, she became obsessed with self-improvement. Parker said: "You can lead a whore to culture, but you can't make her think."

Parker had taken an early stand against Fascism and Nazism and she declared herself a Communist, for which she was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. However, she was never a member of the Communist Party. Her last major film project was The Fan (1949), directed by Otto Preminger. It was based on Oscar Wilde's play Lady Windermere's Fan, but Wilde's witty comments on society and Parker's updating did not amuse the audience. Later Preminger admitted that "it was one of the few pictures I disliked while I was working on it."
 


~~~<"((((((><~~~<"((((((><~~~<"((((((><~~~<"((((((><~~~<"((((((><~~~
 


Dorothy Parker's reputation as a writer has rested uneasily in the hands of literary critics and biographers. She was one of the few female members of the Algonquin Round Table, a daily gathering of New York writers and performers who exchanged barbs over lunch and bootleg cocktails in the 1920s. Her poetry, fiction, and play reviews graced the pages of Vogue, Vanity Fair, Life, The Smart Set, Ainslee's, and The New Yorker, as well as a number of women's magazines. This popular appeal separated Parker from the writers found in small, literary magazines who would later comprise the modernist canon. Combining accessible prose with more experimental techniques, Parker offers a witty and often acerbic assessment of human affairs -- whether they concern romantic love, the family, war, racism, self-deception, economic disparity, or the intersection of these issues. She has been called a period writer, a humorist, and a (pejoratively speaking) sentimentalist. Yet her work remains in print, a testament to the relevance of her vision.

Parker's childhood was a lonely period marked with loss. She was born two months prematurely on August 22, 1893, to Jacob Henry Rothschild and Annie Eliza (Maston) Rothschild during a New Jersey shore vacation. Her mother died in 1897, and two years after that her father married Eleanor Frances Lewis. Parker was much younger than her three siblings, and she was never close to her stepmother, who died in 1903. Details about Parker's education are sketchy. She attended Blessed Sacrament Academy, a finishing school known as Miss Dana's in Morristown, New Jersey, and the Art Student's League in Manhattan. But she never received a high school diploma; her knowledge was acquired through her voracious reading.

Henry Rothschild had been a successful garment manufacturer in New York, but as the years progressed, his fortunes declined. He was penniless by the time he died in 1913 and Parker, who had been taking care of him, was forced to support herself. She worked as a dance instructor until she broke into magazine publishing by selling a poem, "Any Porch," to Frank Crowninshield, the sophisticated editor of Vanity Fair. He later helped her get a job writing captions for Vogue in 1914. By 1916 she was a staff writer for Vanity Fair, eventually becoming their drama critic until 1920. These were crucial years in Parker's development. Her marriage to Edwin Pond Parker, interrupted by World War I, would fall apart. Her friendships with Robert Benchley, Robert Sherwood, Alexander Woollcott, Franklin Pierce Adams, and other members of the Algonquin Round Table would develop. She would also establish the rapier wit that brought her fame and cost her a job. In 1920, she was fired from Vanity Fair for lampooning actress Billie Burke, wife of one of the magazine's major advertisers.

Parker spent the next three years reviewing plays for Ainslee's, and submitting poetry and short stories to a variety of magazines. Throughout the 1920s, her life took on the surface glamour of the Jazz Age, with its parties, drinking, speakeasy bars, trips to Europe, and salon-like gatherings at the Algonquin Hotel and vacation homes of New York's millionaire families. Her poetry volumes were published (fiction volumes would follow in the early 1930s) and sold well, initially receiving largely positive reviews. She became one of the most quotable women in New York. But a dark side surged beneath the success and frivolity Parker experienced just as it did in the Jazz Age as a whole. She had a series of unsuccessful love affairs. The most intense of these, with writer Charles MacArthur, ended in pregnancy, abortion, and a suicide attempt. A second suicide attempt would follow in 1925. Her emotional dependence on men who didn't lover her, but were willing to use her for their own career advantage, stood in contrast to her self-assertion in other areas of her life. Always sympathetic for the underdog, she supported the Actor's Equity Strike in 1919, criticized pretentious and hypocritical men who hid behind leftist politics and art in several of her poems, and was arrested for protesting the Sacco and Vanzetti executions in 1927.

Not surprisingly, her work and life take a decidedly political turn in the 1930s. As the stock market crash of 1929 brought the Jazz Age to a close, two trends emerged: a number of writers left New York for screenwriting work in Hollywood; and writers, artists, and other intellectuals began to seek socialist solutions to the problems raised by capitalism, which had culminated in the Great Depression. Added to this mix was the increasing fascism in Europe and the Spanish Civil War. Parker participated in both trends. After marrying Alan Campbell, a writer and former actor who shared her Jewish-Gentile heritage, she moved to Hollywood and wrote or contributed to scripts for thirty-nine films, including A Star Is Born. While there, she served on the Motion Picture Artists Committee and the Screen Writers Guild, helped raise money for Loyalist Spain, China, and the Scottsboro defendants, and lent her name to more than thirty fund-raising activities. She traveled to Spain during its civil war and returned to write two of her war stories, "Soldier's of the Republic" and "Who Might Be Interested," as well as articles for New Masses. Later she helped Ernest Hemingway and Lillian Hellman finance the film The Spanish Earth, and served on the editorial board of Equality, a magazine in support of democratic rights and racial equality. Her pro-communist sympathies were noted by the F.B.I.; the agency kept a file on her. She wanted to be a World War II correspondent but was denied a passport. As a result, her two stories about the war years, "The Lovely Leave" and "Song of a Shirt, 1941," examine war from a domestic point of view.

After the war, Parker's life continued to be turbulent. She and Campbell divorced in 1947, and remarried in 1950, but they were separated from 1952 to 1961. They then lived together until Campbell's death by an overdose of sleeping pills in 1963. During this period she wrote book reviews for Esquire, and collaborated on three plays which never achieved commercial success: The Coast of Illyria (1949), The Ladies of the Corridor (1953), and The Ice Age (1955); earlier play collaborations include Close Harmony (1924) and The Happiest Man (1939). She had traveled back and forth between Hollywood and New York for many years, but in 1964 returned to New York for the last time. She received awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was interviewed by several journalists. But she had outlived many of her contemporaries and was presumed dead by others. She was found dead of a heart attack in 1967 in the Hotel Varney, where she had been living. Her remains were cremated two days later; the urn with her ashes sat in a file drawer at the law firm of Oscar Bernstein and Paul O'Dwyer until 1988. The woman who left her estate to Martin Luther King, Jr., and to the N.A.A.C.P. in the event of King's death, had no one to claim her for more than twenty years. At the suggestion of N.A.A.C.P. president Dr. Benjamin Hooks, her ashes were interred in a memorial garden named in her honor at the N.A.A.C.P. headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, on October 20, 1988.

Parker's work has remained in print and popular since its original publication but, until recently, has remained outside the canon of "serious" or "important" literature. The reception of her work during the twentieth century has been shaped by a variety of critical trends. Critics initially praised her wit and concision, but a recurring concern was her sentimentality. This recurring concern became an increasing target from the mid-thirties through the sixties when New Critical values were taking hold in the academy. Mark Van Doren's 1934 assessment of Parker's poetry and fiction in The English Journal demonstrates the limitations of this approach. As affectionate memoirs about the Algonquin Round Table were published in the fifties and sixties ( e.g., Margaret Chase Harriman's The Vicious Circle, 1951, and Corey Ford's The Time of Laughter, 1967, as well as a number of magazine articles), it became fashionable to debunk the group's talents. James R. Gaines emphasizes a lack of discipline, psychological darkness, and emotional dependency in Wit's End, his 1977 portrait of the group. Ross Labrie claims the group's talent was over-rated in an article for The Canadian Review of American Studies. Even Brendan Gill, who knew Parker and penned the introduction to her 1973 Portable Dorothy Parker, praises her prose at the expense of her poetry and calls her work a product of the twenties. The labels applied to Parker -- "humorist," light verse writer, and "period writer" -- have, with exception of "period writer," obvious technical merit, but nevertheless reflect the narrow context in which her work was read.

A reversal of sorts takes place in the mid- to late seventies. Arthur F. Kinney publishes the first book-length study of Parker's work in all genres in 1978 (Dorothy Parker, published by Twayne; revised in 1998). He links much of her work to events in her life, but he also reads Parker beyond the confines of the Algonquin Round Table, focusing for example on her ties to classical and renaissance traditions in poetry. At the same time, the second wave of feminism brought renewed interest in Parker's work, particularly with regard to her humor. Emily Toth, Suzanne Bunkers, Lynn Z. Bloom, and Nancy Walker interpret Parker's humor as a form of social protest against patriarchal and societal conventions. Parker becomes part of a tradition of women humorists defined by Nancy Walker and Zita Dresner. Biographies of Parker begin to appear -- by John Keats (1970), Leslie Frewin (1986), and Marion Meade (1988). There remained the sense, however, that we knew Parker's life, particularly her Algonquin years, in much more detail than we knew her work.

This has begun to change in the 1990s. In addition to the Kinney revision, we have the publication of Randall Calhoun's Dorothy Parker: A Bio-Bibliography (1993), containing a biographical sketch that respects Parker's political work, three articles about Parker ("The Legend of Dorothy Parker" by Richard E. Lauterbach; "Whatever You Think Dorothy Parker Was Like, She Wasn't" by Wyatt Cooper; and "Bittersweet" by Joseph Bryan, III), and detailed primary and secondary bibliographies. Parker also begins to appear as a factor in studies of Stevie Smith, women's war writing, women's love poetry, and the sentimental and modernist traditions (see bibliography below). New editions of her work, including previously unpublished prose and poetry, have been published by Penguin, including insightful introductions to her work, and by Scribner's. A volume of critical essays about Parker's work is being compiled. These developments should introduce new readers and old skeptics to the many dimensions of Parker's work, and generate more thoughtful criticism in the future.
 

 

JACANA HOME PAGE | CLASSIC VIDEO CLIPS | JACANA ASTRONOMY SITE

JACANA PHOTO LIBRARY | OLD MAUN PHOTO GALLERY | MAUN PHONE DIRECTORY

FREE FONTS | PIC OF THE DAY | GENERAL LIBRARY | MAP LIBRARY | TECHNICAL LIBRARY

HOUSE PLANS LIBRARY | MAUN E-MAIL, WEBSITE & SKYPE LIST | BOTSWANA GPS CO-ORDINATES 

MAUN SAFARI WEB LINKS | FREE SOFTWARE | JACANA WEATHER PAGE

  JACANA CROSSWORD LIBRARY | JACANA CARTOON PAGE | DEMOTIVATIONAL POSTERS

 

This web page was last updated on: 21 December, 2008