In a period when having a career wasn't considered a paramount aspect of a woman's life, the American writer Dorothy Parker's story is one of extraordinary success. During her long career, her literary output was tremendous - book reviews, play reviews, social commentary, screenplays, poems - all remarkable for their high quality and devastating wit. Dorothy was no softie, and her writing makes you wince as much as laugh.
Dorothy Parker was born on 22 August 1893 in West End, New Jersey, USA.; her parents, Jacob and Annie Eliza Rothschild, happened to be holidaying there then. They were actually from Manhattan, New York. Dorothy was the youngest of four children. The family was rich, Jewish, and related to the Rothschild Banking Clan, although Dorothy's father himself was not in that business; he was a garment manufacturer.
On 20 July 1867, when Dorothy was four, her mother died and, two years later, her father remarried. Her stepmother Eleanor Frances Lewis, a Protestant, died only three years after the marriage. Her brief sojourn with her step-children had not been one of splendid domestic bliss. Dorothy, in particular, appears to have hated her.
Despite her Jewish background, Dorothy was educated first in an Upper West Side Roman Catholic Convent - the Blessed Sacrament Convent School - and later, at just 13, 'finished' at Miss Dana's School in Morristown, New Jersey. Her educational experience, it seems, didn't leave any deep impression of note. The only worthwhile thing she learned, she claimed later, was that 'if you spit on a pencil eraser it will erase in'.
Dorothy's father passed away on 28 December 1913. She was twenty and had aspirations as a writer. But now that earning money for living assumed primary importance, she found herself a job as a Dance Class Pianist. She worked evenings and in the day time polished her writing skills. All her early acquaintances remembered her for her sharp and acerbic wit.
In 1914, she sold a poem 'Any Porch' for $12 to Vanity Fair. But her writing career really took off in 1916 when she joined the staff of Vogue magazine as an Editorial Assistant. She met and married Edwin Pond Parker, a Wall Street Broker, in 1917. With the separation during World War I (he had joined the army), his later alcoholism and drug-addiction (both arising from his war-time experiences), and her own acerbic personality, the marriage didn't stand a chance. They divorced in 1920. Dorothy kept his name, if not exactly his memory. Oh, there used to be one, she replied flippantly, if anyone asked her about 'Mr. Parker'. She had already embarked on affairs with the glitterati from the writing world, notably writer Charles MacArthur and the publisher Seward Collins.
Around this time, she was asked to temporarily fill in for Vanity Fair's usual theater Critic, P. G. Wodehouse, who was off on a vacation. She proved so entertaining at it, scathing and mocking and sparing no one, that Vanity Fair kept her on for two years. The Editor, Frank Crowinshield, harking back on olden days, was to describe her as 'the quickest tongue imaginable'.
It was on this job that Dorothy met and became close friends with the writers Robert Benchley and Robert Sherwood. They formed the famous Algonquin Round Table, which consisted of literary luncheons at the Algonquin Hotel, Forty-Fourth Street, New York. Their intellectual set included brilliant writers and journalists like Franklin Pierce Adams, James Thurber, Alexander Woollcott, George S. Kaufman, Edna Ferber, Ring Lardner, and others well-known personalities. The conversation was always sparkling and seldom kind. Alan Rudolph's 1994 movie 'Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle' is a depiction of the life and times of this razor-brained gang. When in 1920, Dorothy was fired from Vanity Fair, her friends resigned in protest. She and Robert Benchley formed a freelance writing firm wittily titled 'Park-Bench'.
Later, in 1925, they joined their friend Harold Ross's new magazine 'The New Yorker'. Dorothy began writing book reviews under the column 'Constant Reader'. Her acid barbs - "This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force." and "Well, Aimee Semple McPherson has written a book. And were you to call it a little peach, you would not be so much as scratching its surface. It is the story of her life, and it is called 'In the Service of the King', which title is perhaps a bit dangerously suggestive of a romantic novel. It may be that this autobiography is set down in sincerity, frankness and simple effort. It may be, too, that the Statue of Liberty is situated in Lake Ontario." - made writers quake and non-writers chuckle. If it didn't make her universally popular - and which perhaps was never her intention - at least she got herself a huge fan following. She worked regularly for 'The New Yorker' until 1933, and sporadically until 1955. Her New Yorker writings were later published together in 1971 as 'A Month of Saturdays'.
During the twenties and thirties, Dorothy's work also appeared in Esquire, and collections of her witty short stories and equally cutting poems were published - 'Enough Rope' (1926), 'Sunset Guns' (1928), 'Death and Taxes' (1931), 'Not So Deep as a Well'(1936), 'After Such Pleasures' (1932), 'Here Lies'(1939), and others. Her short story 'The Big Blonde', which was published in Bookman Magazine, won the O. Henry Award in 1929. She wrote plays and, in her own inimitable way, reviewed the ones written by other people - one of her most infamous one being for the Broadway play, 'The Lake - "She delivered a striking performance that ran the gamut of emotions, from A to B," she observed of its star, Katharine Hepburn.
When she wasn't working, she was a popular, much sought after personality on the social scene. She made amusing conversation and there's nothing like sharp, scandalizing remarks to liven up a party:
"Another drink and I'll be under the host";
"If all the girls at Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn't be at all surprised.";
"That woman speaks 18 languages and can't say 'no' in any of them.";
"She must have done it sliding down a barrister."(regarding an actress's broken leg);
She flung herself headlong into a series of romantic affairs, observed all her lovers with a cynical detachment, and unhesitantly used these experiences as inspirational fodder for her writing:
'By the time you swear you're his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Lady, make a note of this-
One of you is lying.'
'Some men tear your heart in two,
Some men flirt and flatter,
Some men never look at you,
And that clears up the matter.'
'Whose love is given over-well
Will look on Helen's face in Hell;
While they whose love is thin and wise
May view John Knox in Paradise.'
Life in the fast lane was certainly fun, but not without its drawbacks. The affairs were short-lived, she suffered from depression, developed a taste for drinking, and attempted suicide at least thrice. In 1934, she married the Actor/Script-writer Alan Campbell, a relationship that was to rock along and survive her outrageous public claim of his being "queer as a billy goat", a divorce in 1947, a remarriage in 1950, and a series of more separations and reunions.
It was with Alan that Dorothy moved to Hollywood and began a flourishing career collaborating with him and others on successful film scripts, one of which was that of the 1937 Oscar winning film 'A Star is Born'. She also worked on the Alfred Hitchcock film 'Saboteur'. Together with Lillian Hellman, Dashiell Hammett and others, she founded 'The Screen Writers' Guild'.
Extremely well-paid and famous, Dorothy didn't mellow in Hollywood. Regarding her work experience there, she observed, "The only ism Hollywood believes in is plagiarism." The kid-gloves remained off too for the stars she encountered. When the super-egoist Joan Crawford attempted radical self-improvement to impress both her new husband Franchot Tone and her fans, Dorothy anyway wasn't encouraging. "You can take a whore to culture," she said, "but you can't make her think."
In Hollywood, Dorothy began dabbling with politics. She was one of the founders of the Anti-Nazi League and later veered towards Communism. This was to prove problematic during the witch-hunting McCarthy Era - she was actually investigated by FBI - and she found herself blacklisted and out of work in Hollywood. Her film script-writing career ended there and then.
Fortunately Dorothy was a tough personality and bobbed up once again in her favorite city, New York. She switched back to being a literary critic and went to work for Esquire, writing book reviews for the magazine from1957 until 1962.
In 1963, Alan Campbell died of a sudden heart attack. Grief-stricken and alone, Dorothy found it hard to cope by herself at their Volney Apartments home in New York, and her already existing problem with alcohol escalated.
On 7 June 1967, she too collapsed from a heart attack. She was just short of turning 74. Her estate, according to her will, was bequeathed to the civil rights activist, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.