“Excuse my dust” was Dorothy Parker’s self-chosen epitaph. “What fresh hell is this?” is how she is said to have answered the door/telephone. She had a way with words.
Dorothy Parker was born Dorothy Rothschild in 1893 but she was quick to point out it was not THOSE Rothschilds. Her mother died when she was five and she had a difficult relationship with her father before he also died, leaving her to fend for herself. One of her most famous quotes is “I’d like to have money. And I’d like to be a good writer. These two can come together, and I hope they will, but if that’s too adorable, I’d rather have money.” A lot of her writing can be read as fictionalized biography and you can hear the stress in her voice.
The majority of Parker’s writing, both poetry and short stories, is available in “The Portable Dorothy Parker” which turns 75 on May 15th. My personal copy is the Viking Portable Library edition printed in 1944 as part of a series of books written for WWII servicemen overseas. It includes an introduction by Somerset Maugham and is one of only three of the Viking series that has never been out of print. This is not the version available at the library but you can listen to the audio book with Hoopla, one of our digital downloading services. You can also read one of my favorite short stories, “The Waltz,” in “The 50 funniest American Writers.“
Parker sold her first poem to Vanity Fair in 1914 and then was hired as an editorial assistant for Vogue. Her writing career took off in 1918 when she filled in for P.G. Wodehouse writing reviews at Vanity Fair. She wrote a review originally published in the June 1919 issue of Vanity Fair of the Barrymore (John and Lionel) brothers’ play, “The Jest.” You can find it in “The American Stage.” You can also read one of my favorites of her poems, “Poem in the American Manner,” in the book “Indivisible.” Her writing was originally written off as “flapper verse” but she eventually gained credibility with her sharp wit. Reading her poems now, they can feel cliched or saccharine until you get to the barb at the end and realize that she was actually making a joke of the cliches.
Dorothy Parker was writing from a woman’s perspective and specifically for women at a time when few others were doing so, but she hated the thought of being a “women’s writer.” She was a founding member (and most prominent woman) of a group of other witty writers called “The Algonquin Round Table” who met at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan to drink and sharpen their tongues. Fellow Round Table member, Alexander Woolcroft, described her as “a combination of Little Nell and Lady Macbeth.” Woolcroft and Parker remained friends their entire lives. You can read a letter that she wrote to him in “Women’s Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present.”
There’s so much to learn and love about Dorothy Parker and you can do that in “Dorothy Parker in Her Own Words,” “Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties,” “Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers, and Swells” and “Sharp: The Women Who Made An Art of Having An Opinion.”
There’s little in taking or giving,
There’s little in water or wine;
This living, this living, this living
Was never a project of mine.
Oh, hard is the struggle, and sparse is
The gain of the one at the top,
For art is a form of catharsis,
And love is a permanent flop,
And work is the province of cattle,
And rest’s for a clam in a shell,
So I’m thinking of throwing the battle —
Would you kindly direct me to hell?