dorothy parker, algonquin round table, the kitten life, what fresh hell is this

Dorothy Parker: insanely talented writer, vision of wittiness and attitude, total kitten.

There are few writers that make me want to pull my hair out, spitting and seething with envy at their insanely effortless talent, the mastery of their word-smithing, the acrobatics of their metaphors. Dorothy Parker is high on the list, not because she takes you into the flowery intricacies of time and place à la Tolstoy, but because she strikes to the very heart of the human condition without losing sight of the absolute insanity of being here in the first place.

Lilacs blossom just as sweet
Now my heart is shattered.
If I bowled it down the street,
Who’s to say it mattered?

If there’s one that rode away
What would I be missing?
Lips that taste of tears, they say,
Are the best for kissing.

Eyes that watch the morning star
Seem a little brighter;
Arms held out to darkness are
Usually whiter.

Shall I bar the strolling guest,
Bind my brow with willow,
When, they say, the empty breast
Is the softer pillow?

That a heart falls tinkling down,
Never think it ceases.
Every likely lad in town
Gathers up the pieces.

If there’s one gone whistling by
Would I let it grieve me?
Let him wonder if I lie;
Let him half believe me.
— Threnody by Dorothy Parker

Pick your poison, pick your debacle, Dorothy Parker has been there.

Oh, has she ever been there. There and many more places; places and events that despite being so easily walked away from, forgotten, are so goddamn difficult to let go of.

She has been the fascination, the comfort, the envy of women and men alike over the years. Many a Portable Dorothy Parker is speckled with the tears of many a heartbroken teenaged girl. Just as many of her play reviews were thrown with great force across many a room by many a disgruntled director, actor, actress.

I first came across Miss Parker when Big Blonde was required reading in my grade 12 English class. At the time, other than being a rather depressing love story of sorts, it wasn’t until my twenties that I was once again introduced to her writing and was able to fully appreciate and understand the depths and subtleties of that depression which extended outwards from a failed marriage and into the darkness of alcoholism, heartbreak and finally, suicide.

And thus we hit square on the head the main love and interest of Parker’s writing: the futility and hopelessness of life… and how hilariously, depressingly ironical it all can be.

Parker’s long career in writing began out of financial necessity. After a troubled childhood and losing both of her parents by the age of 20, her father’s poor management of money forced her to find work to support herself. She spent her days playing piano at a dance school in Manhattan and her evenings were spent writing. Her “big break” into the writing career that would end up supporting her till the end of her days, was the poem she was paid $12 for by Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield.

Crowninshield offered her a job writing captions at Vogue where she came up with such well-crafted zingers as, "There was a little girl who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good she was very very good, and when she was bad she wore this divine nightdress of rose-colored mousseline de soie, trimmed with frothy Valenciennes lace.” “Brevity is the soul of lingerie,” she captioned a spread of nightwear-clad models, which, side by side with her effortless re-purposing of Shakespearean prose, foreshadowed her inability to put up with or perpetuate the ignorance that pervades most capitalistic pursuits. She knew quality and class when she saw it and wasn’t willing to compromise to avoid ruffling a few feathers.

“Well, there are those who cannot distinguish between glitter and glamour, just as there are always those who cannot understand why you should desire real pearls when they can’t be told from the imitations. But you can, you see, tell them from the imitations. The neat surfaces of the imitations shine prettily; the real glow from within.”

She moved up the ranks at Vanity Fair to eventually become the magazine’s drama critic. At the time she was both the youngest and only female critic on the New York scene.

During this time she met Robert Benchley and Robert Sherwood, to form the nucleus of what would become the Algonquin Round Table, of which she was surely the wittiest.

From drama critic, Parker made a splash in Hollywood becoming one of the highest paid screenwriters of the time. And it was during this time that she became friendlier than ever with alcohol, relentless self-criticism and the dreary depths of her thoughts.

She was sympathetic with leftist causes, supporting the American Communist party, the Spanish Loyalist cause, and was one of the founders of the Anti-Nazi League in Hollywood. Her choice of activism eventually led to her being blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

Her flirtation with death, with despair, with the futility of being alive was pervasive in her writing.

Her poetry books were tellingly titled, “Enough Rope,” “Death and Taxes,” “Not So Deep As A Well,” and the poems they contained spoke in and around the subject like a dear old friend.

But they were damn well written in any case, so why is she reminisced about in such an exaggerated or over-compensating light?

In his introduction to The Dorothy Parker Portable, Brendan Gill writes, “The fact was that as she put on years she seemed unable to make a favorite of either life or death; she refused to take sides.”

Her almost profuse level of humility and apologies about her bad humour towards various subjects that should otherwise cause delight and mindless enjoyment, paint a picture of an inner world wrought with regret, teetering on the edge of alcohol and insomnia-induced madness.

As Hemingway, one of the people she held in her highest esteem, stood before a crowd of her peers and ridiculed her emotional difficulties following an abortion and a failed suicide attempt, one can only imagine how grateful the crowd was that she wasn’t present.

Like Big Blonde's Mrs. Morse and the constant jabs of her friends and lovers to “get over it” and out of slumps, with no explanation to why nor sympathy as to what led to her mood in the first place, we feel for Parker. If only she was born in a different era, or lived in the present where being a fiercely talented female goes over a little easier, or had met a different life partner, or had had that baby, or any baby… the weight on her prose makes us first slowly shake our heads with sad knowing, then sigh and shrug because there were so many who were able to figure it out and not let the futility drag them down.

“I suppose that's the one dependable law of life – everything is always worse than you thought it would be.”

Parker left her estate to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., someone she had never met, which was passed onto the NAACP upon his death a year after hers. After her ashes spent fifteen years in her lawyer's filing cabinet because they were left unclaimed by Lillian Hellman, the executor of her estate, she was then buried at the NAACP headquarters in Baltimore with a beautiful plaque that reads, “Here lie the ashes of Dorothy Parker (1893–1967) humorist, writer, critic. Defender of human and civil rights.” Her own request for her epitaph was “excuse my dust.”

And excuse her dust we will, but her place in the canon of American short stories and humour writing, we most lovingly clear a spot.

Four be the things I am wiser to know:
Idleness, sorrow, a friend, and a foe.

Four be the things I’d been better without:
Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt.

Three be the things I shall never attain:
Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.

Three be the things I shall have till I die:
Laughter and hope and a sock in the eye. 
— Inventory by Dorothy Parker