22 August 2010

Happy Birthday Mrs. Parker

Happy Birthday, Mrs. Parker. The original Mrs. Parker that is.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is said of Hermia that “though she be but little she is fierce.” Shakespeare could have been describing Dorothy Parker, one of America’s great wits and a New York City literary icon.

On 22 August 1893 Dorothy Rothschild was born in West End, New Jersey (she would always regret that her parents couldn’t make it back to New York in time for her birth). An unhappy childhood (she lost her mother at four and didn't get along with her stepmother) didn’t stop the precocious little girl from developing her unique take on language and the world. Expelled from Catholic school for describing the Immaculate Conception as “spontaneous combustion,” her formal education ended at 14. A voracious reader (her favourite character was Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair), she wanted to be a writer and worked on her verse, getting a poem “Any Porch” published in Vanity Fair the magazine in 1915. A job at Vogue soon followed.

A few years later she married the first of her two husbands. While the marriage didn’t work out, Edwin Pond Parker II gave Dorothy Rothschild one of the most important gifts she would ever receive, a new name, and for the rest of her life she would be known as Dorothy Parker.

She would go on to work for Vanity Fair, eventually becoming its theatre critic. (On Katherine Hepburn: “[she] delivered a striking performance that ran the gamut of emotions, from A to B.”) There she became colleagues and good friends with Robert Benchley and Robert E. Sherwood. When the magazine’s editor, Frank Crowninshield, famously invited her to brunch at the Plaza only to fire her (one of her reviews had angered Flo Ziegfeld), Benchley and Sherwood walked out in protest.

"A Vicious Circle" by Natalie Ascencios, a painting of the Algonquin Round Table members, hangs in the hotel today. Mrs. Parker and Mr. Benchley can be seen at the far left.

The three would lunch regularly at the Algonquin Hotel and as their group grew (members included Alexander Woollcott, Harold Ross, Edna Ferber, and George S. Kaufman) so did their fame, and they were soon dubbed the Algonquin Round Table. Mrs. Parker’s acerbic comments and witty bon mots (Asked to use the word horticulture in a sentence: “You can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think.”) made their way into fellow diner Franklin Pierce Adams’ popular newspaper column “The Coning Tower,” and Mrs. Parker became famous as the woman who said clever things.

This reputation would come to haunt Mrs. Parker who was no frivolous flapper but an intelligent woman who wanted to be a good writer. Writing did not come easy to her. "I can't write five words but that I change seven," she once said. Writer’s block would cripple her for months at a time and her own insecurity in her writing didn’t help either. “Dear God, please make me stop writing like a woman.”

But she could write and write well. I dare you to read one of her short stories like “Big Blonde” or "A Telephone Call" and not feel moved by the plight of the female characters or read one of her poems such as “Inventory” or “Symptom Recital” and not nod your head in agreement with the truth of her words.

And it must not be forgotten than when Harold Ross began a new magazine in 1925 called The New Yorker, Mrs. Parker was one of its first contributors (Responding to Harold Ross' question of why she wasn’t in the office: "Someone else was using the pencil."). The contributions Mrs. Parker made in those early days helped to shape what would become arguably the most important literary magazine in America.

In addition to writing poems, short stories, criticism, and plays, Mrs. Parker also wrote screenplays in Hollywood with husband number 2 and 3, Alan Campbell. Her screen credits include A Star is Born (1937) (for which she earned an Academy Award nomination) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942).

She was also a political activist. In 1927 she was arrested in Boston for protesting the scheduled execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. Her support of left-wing causes would eventually get her blacklisted in Hollywood in the 1950s. When she died on 7 June 1967, she left her estate to Martin Luther King. After his assassination, the money reverted to the NAACP. Today, her ashes are buried on the grounds of their Baltimore headquarters.

Yet with all her fame, Mrs. Parker never seemed to find true happiness. Her marriages were unsuccessful (she probably received more happiness from her beloved dogs than from any of the men in her life). She attempted suicide multiple times and had a drinking problem. And she always had doubts about her writing.

But for me, she is an inspiration. Her fierce determination to succeed as a writer, her fearlessness in telling the truth, the fact that she didn’t try and hide her intelligence, her sentimentality and love of dogs, all of these things, I believe, are qualities to be admired.

So happy birthday Mrs. Parker. I shall be toasting your memory today.

Want to read some of Mrs. Parker's writing? Get yourself a copy of The Portable Dorothy Parker. For more information on her life, check out Marian Meade's Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? or become a member of The Dorothy Parker Society.

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