A Week to Remember: Dorothy Parker

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Photo of Dorothy Parker with husband Alan Campbell, actor James Cagney and Frances Cagney

Even if you're not familiar with the name Dorothy Parker, you've probably heard some of her most memorable quips. "Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses." "She [referring to Katharine Hepburn] runs the gamut of emotions from A to B." "Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone." From the 1920s through the 1940s, Parker was one of America's most celebrated writers and critics, noted for her biting opinions, witty verse, and droll short stories.

Parker was born on August 22, 1893, and did not have a happy childhood. Her mother died shortly before her fifth birthday, and Parker disliked her father intensely; she would later claim that he had been physically abusive. Parker liked her stepmother even less, and refused to call her "mother," referring to her only as "the housekeeper." After the death of her stepmother in 1903, Parker's father sent her to a New Jersey finishing school to complete her education.

In 1916, Parker was hired as a staff writer at Vanity Fair. She wrote a wide range of articles for the magazine; one of her assignments was theater criticism. Her reviews are gathered in Complete Broadway Reviews 1918-1923 (e-book).

During her years at Vanity Fair, she began having daily lunches at the Algonquin Hotel with a group of other writers, newspaper columnists, playwrights, and actors. They became known as the Algonquin Round Table, and their banter was legendary. They were among the liveliest and wittiest minds in New York. Robert D. Drennan collects the cleverest and funniest one-liners from the Round Table in Bon Mots, Wisecracks, and Gags (e-book).

The newspaper writer Franklin Pierce Adams was one of the group, and when he began quoting Parker's remarks in his daily column, her reputation spread nationwide. There were no dull minds at the Algonquin Round Table, but Parker had a particular reputation for quick thinking and snappy comebacks. On hearing of the death of President Calvin Coolidge, who was famous for saying as little as possible, Parker asked, "How do they know?" When challenged to use the word "horticulture" in a sentence, she quickly responded with, "You can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think."

Parker was a member of the original writing staff when The New Yorker was founded in 1925, and wrote book reviews for the magazine for about a decade under the byline "Constant Reader." Perhaps the most famous line from this part of her career is her reaction to A. A. Milne's The House at Pooh Corner: "Tonstant Weader fwowed up." Parker's book reviews are collected in Constant Reader (print).

In 1932, Parker moved to Hollywood with her husband, an aspiring actor, and went to work as a screenwriter. She was twice nominated for the Academy Award, for A Star Is Born (the original 1937 version) and Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Parker published collections of short stories and light verse. The poems came quickly, she said, but the stories were more difficult. Parker was a perfectionist, and each story had to be painstakingly edited before she felt it was ready. "I can't write five words," she said, "but that I change seven." Parker's stories are collected in Complete Stories (e-book | print).

Parker also became an outspoken activist for civil liberties and civil rights. By 1950, she had become a prominent enough left-wing activist that she was identified as a Communist in the conservative pamphlet Red Channels. The 150 people who were identified by Red Channels were instantly blacklisted in Hollywood, and Parker's screenwriting career came to an end. She moved back to New York in 1952.

Parker's writing was less frequent for the rest of her life, as her alcoholism became more of a problem. She died of a heart attack in 1967, and left her estate to Martin Luther King, Jr. After King was assassinated in April 1968, her estate was passed on to the NAACP. Her ashes were unclaimed until 1988, when the NAACP interred them in a newly created memorial garden outside their Baltimore headquarters.

Parker has served as an inspiration for several other writers and artists. George Baxt made her a detective in The Dorothy Parker Murder Case (print); a modern-day critic is helped through life by Parker's ghost in Ellen Meister's Farewell, Dorothy Parker (e-book | e-audio | print | audio). Parker's poetry has been set to music in a variety of styles, including art songs by Braxton Brake, cabaret miniatures by Margaret Mallory, and an entire album of Parker settings by pop/folk singer Myriam Gendron.

The Portable Dorothy Parker (print) offers a sampling of Parker's verse, stories, and criticism. Marion Meade's Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? (e-audio | print) is a comprehensive biography.

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