Dorothy Parker was an American poet, short story writer, critic and satirist, best known for her wit, wisecracks, and eye for 20th century urban foibles.
From a conflicted and unhappy childhood, Parker rose to acclaim, both for her literary output in such venues as The New Yorker and as a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table. Following the breakup of the circle, Parker traveled to Hollywood to pursue screenwriting. Her successes there, including two Academy Award nominations, were curtailed as her involvement in left-wing politics led to a place on the Hollywood blacklist.
Parker went through three marriages (two to the same man) and survived several suicide attempts. Dismissive of her own talents, she deplored her reputation as a "wisecracker." Nevertheless, her literary output and reputation for her sharp wit have endured
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. Parker's mother died in 1898. Jacob married in 1900 Eleanor Frances Lewis, a Roman Catholic; Parker never liked her stepmother. Eleanor Frances died 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 later divorced. 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, later 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 Algonquin Round 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. Parker's first collection of poems, Enough Rope, was published in 1926. It contained the often-quoted 'Résumé' on suicide, and 'News Item'.
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Gas smell awful;
You might as well live.
Enough Rope became 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). Her poems were sardonic, usually dry, elegant commentaries on departing or departed 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. Among her best-known pieces are 'A Big Blonde', which won her O. Henry Prize, 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 highs quality of her texts. In the 1930s Parker moved with her second husband, Alan Campbell, 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 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.
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 take 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. 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."
Parker died alone on June 7, 1967 in the New York hotel that had become her final home. She left her estate to civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 1988, the NAACP claimed Parker's remains and designed a memorial garden for them outside their Baltimore headquarters. The plaque reads,
Here lie the ashes of Dorothy Parker (1893–1967) humorist, writer, critic. Defender of human and civil rights. For her epitaph she suggested, 'Excuse my dust'. This memorial garden is dedicated to her noble spirit which celebrated the oneness of humankind and to the bonds of everlasting friendship between black and Jewish people. Dedicated by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. October 28, 1988.
On August 22, 1992, the 99th anniversary of Parker's birth, the United States Postal Service issued a 29¢ U.S. commemorative postage stamp in the Literary Arts series. The Algonquin Round Table, as well as the number of other literary and theatrical greats who lodged there, helped earn the Algonquin Hotel its status as a New York City Historic Landmark. The hotel was so designated in 1987. In 1996 the hotel was designated a National Literary Landmark by the Friends of Libraries USA based on the contributions of Parker and other members of the Round Table. The organization's bronze plaque is attached to the front of the hotel. Her birthplace was also designated a National Literary Landmark by Friends of Libraries USA in 2005 and a bronze plaque marks the spot where the home once stood.
Once, when I was young and true,
Someone left me sad-
Broke my brittle heart in two;
And that is very bad.
Star, that gives a gracious dole,
What am I to choose?
Oh, will it be a shriven soul,
Or little buckled shoes?
A dream lies dead here. May you softly go
Before this place, and turn away your eyes,
Nor seek to know the look of that which dies
Importuning Life for life. Walk not in woe,
I think that I shall never know
Why I am thus, and I am so.
Around me, other girls inspire
In men the rush and roar of fire,