What Fresh Hell Is This?

Dorothy Parker (via Wikimedia Commons)



Not even five feet tall, Dorothy Parker had a whispery finishing-school voice, walked in a cloud of perfume, and said “fuck” a lot. Also other four-letter words, delivered deadpan. Her wit flashed you, left you stunned and tickled. But the humor came out of tragedy, insecurity, a sharp appraisal of human nature, and a brittle assessment of likely disappointment.

August 22 will mark the 120th anniversary of her birth—a good day, if you are a devotee, to mix a martini with Dorothy Parker American Gin (the owner of its New York Distillery exchanged Dorothy Parker vows with his bride at their wedding) or take a tour with Kevin Fitzpatrick, founder of the Dorothy Parker Society. He has met fans from around the world, admired their various Dorothy Parker tattoos, draped Parker’s mink around the ladies’ shoulders for selfies, and led tourists to the vape shop now occupying the first floor of the Rothschild brownstone (not those Rothschilds, but respectable) where she grew up.

As for Fitzpatrick, he grew up in Webster Groves, Missouri, but is now thoroughly a New Yorker, He has written several books about Parker—including Under the Table: A Dorothy Parker Cocktail Guide. The title memorializes her famous ditty about sticking with two martinis: “Three, I’m under the table;/ Four, I’m under the host.”

Parker’s wordplay, speared with a garnish, is intoxicating all by itself. Sometimes just clever—“Brevity is the soul of lingerie”—but more often irreverent. Her advice to someone who needed to euthanize a beloved old cat? “Try curiosity.” She lived for years at the Algonquin; hotel life suited her. She found the prospect of housework appalling and cooking unthinkable. All she needed, she said, was “room to lay a hat and a few friends.”

Her retort when the Algonquin’s manager, alerted to yet another house rule smashed by his no doubt favorite tenant, phoned her suite to ask if she had a gentleman in her room? “Just a minute. I’ll ask him.”

Most evenings, Parker gathered friends in her suite for drinks, among them Irving Berlin, Tallulah Bankhead, and Harpo Marx. She would zing anyone, including herself. After enthusing about adopting a stray dog, she said wryly, “Three highballs, and I think I’m St. Francis of Assisi.” And because she knew “Men seldom make passes/At girls who wear glasses,” she refused to wear hers in public, squinting at blurred menus instead.

After her death, Frank Sullivan remarked that “all the digs she took at people, friend and foe alike, were really digs at herself.”

How could someone whose company was sought by the stars of the literary and theater worlds—who slept with F. Scott Fitzgerald and had to be reminded by Ernest Hemingway that writing was hard work—be so insecure? Take away a child’s mother when the child is only four years old. Use a sudden and puzzling illness that will make the child think, in that confusion of causality and love that makes kids feel responsible for parental tragedies, that she caused her mother’s death. Swiftly replace the mother with a stepmother so unappealing, the child will refuse to call her anything but Mrs. Rothschild. Then, just as the child has gotten used to the stepmother, kill her, too. Now the child will think her own resentment caused a second death.

She will say little, do no grieving aloud. It came early, Parker’s brittle refusal to sentimentalize. Not one of the mothers in her short stories will be loving and steady. She will grow up not liking women much, seeking the company of men instead. They, too, will let her down. Her first love and husband will return from war changed, drink heavily, start her drinking, then divorce her. A succession of lovers will follow, none reliable. When the phone or doorbell rings, she will moan stagily, “What fresh hell is this?” In one of her verses, she will announce that “art is a form of catharsis,/And love is a permanent flop.”

When she becomes a Hollywood scriptwriter and Samuel Goldwyn tells her “There’s no money in wisecracks; people want a happy ending,” she will slam back, “I know this will come as a shock to you, Mr. Goldwyn, but in all history, which has held billions and billions of human beings, not a single one ever had a happy ending.”

Twice, Parker tried to hasten her own end. Then she fell in love with Alan Campbell, a golden boy eleven years her junior. They divorced, remarried, divorced again, lived together again. He was her most abiding love. When he died of an overdose, a plastic bag pulled over his face, she refused to agree with the suicide verdict, insisting his death was a mishap. Perhaps she could not bear to feel responsible again?

We shall do what she did with sadness: distract ourselves from it, numb ourselves with her cleverness, remember the fun instead. In 1919, she was one of the founding members (and the only woman) of the Algonquin Round Table. More accurately nicknamed The Vicious Circle because of the writers’ relentless one-upmanship, “the Round Table started at the perfect time,” Fitzpatrick remarks. “Post World War I, we are not fighting with anybody. Booze is legal, and the mass media are converging. The Round Table had their fingers on the pulse of all those things. And they cared about each other, or they wouldn’t have had lunch together six days a week!”

Parker was on the editorial board of The New Yorker when it debuted in 1925. The first female Broadway critic, she also wrote book reviews, short stories, screenplays that were nominated for Academy Awards, and poems that nearly always got published. Her most famous review, in her Constant Reader column for The New Yorker, is of House at Pooh Corner. Plowing through what struck her as saccharine whimsy, she braked at Milne’s description of a sunshiny, “hummy” sort of day: “And it is that word ‘hummy,’ my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader Fwowed up.”

In 1959, Parker was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters—not bad for somebody who never finished high school. The nuns had schooled her thoroughly, though she loathed those years at Blessed Sacrament Academy and referred to the Immaculate Conception as “spontaneous combustion.”

In later years, she sympathized with the Communists, trading her fashionable wardrobe for a peasant blouse and skirt, flats, and a babushka. Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s crusade for justice, she left him all her money. He was assassinated the following year, so her money went to the NAACP. As for her ashes, she had made Lillian Hellman her executor, and Hellman—perhaps defining her role only as literary executor, perhaps ticked at being left out of the will—never collected them.

Researching her tour de force biography of Parker, Marion Meade asked the lawyer where she was buried. “She’s right here,” he said, pulling open a deep drawer in his file cabinet. The ashes were buried in a memorial garden at NAACP headquarters. A few years ago, after meeting Parker’s relatives—who had always wanted her with the family at Woodlawn Cemetery—Kevin Fitzpatrick got involved. “I went down with a pickaxe and a crew and brought her here,” he tells me. He arranged for her cremains to be buried next to the mother she had lost so early. Last August, on Parker’s birthday, he sprinkled the last handful of dirt, laying to rest one of American literature’s originals.

But how could Hellman have been that callous? I am still stuck on that when I read a remark from one of Parker’s old friends, Ruth Goetz, about how Dottie admired Lillian’s politics and playwrighting success: “She was never jealous or mean spirited about somebody else’s good fortune or talent. But Lillian did not admire Dottie because she had no admiring mechanism, and she wasn’t generous about anything.”

By now, my heart is breaking for this woman who had no mother growing up; had few female friends; was cast aside by one she trusted; was terrified of being alone and melancholy; attempted suicide not once but twice; struggled with alcoholism; had an abortion and then, when she yearned for a baby, two miscarriages; lost the man she loved longest to suicide. But Fitzpatrick does not see her as a tragic figure. “She wrote about the human condition,” he says. “That’s why she’s in print today. Edna St. Vincent Millay was a better poet, but Parker was writing about heartbreak.”

Alas, heartbreak carries little weight with literary critics, and double-entendre often strikes them as frivolous. Serious writers have more gravitas, more stylistic elegance. And so, as she herself would have predicted, Dorothy Parker is not part of the canon. “You don’t learn her,” Fitzpatrick says, “you find her.” Once you do, her wit cracks you up and then crawls inside, making sure you will never forget her.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.