Hemingway, remarks are not literature,” said Miss Stein imperiously. In Dorothy Parker’s case, however, the remarks, the snappy comebacks, live on, no matter how inexpert the witnesses (Mrs. Parker included). Even if she never really followed Clare Boothe Luce’s “Age before beauty” with “Pearls before swine” or wrote of the young Katharine Hepburn “She ran the gamut of emotions from A to B,” most of us, suffering from the delayed reaction times that wake us up a day or so later with the perfect rejoinder, envy the expert parry, the swift thrust of a Parker epigram, even a faux one. That she had no Boswell is, well, just as well, for the panache with which time has crowned her off-the-cuffs makes her loom larger in our cultural memory.
In life, however, she did not loom very large, around five feet by most accounts, and, though she battled weight problems periodically, she appears shrunken and mummified in photographs of her last years—too many Chesterfields, too much scotch. Born Dorothy Rothschild (“We’d never even heard of those Rothschilds!”), she first appeared while her Upper-West-Side parents were vacationing in New Jersey, getting back to her almost-native city just after Labor Day, 1893. Her Jewish father sent her to Catholic and Protestant schools, and, oddly, given her apparent lack of religious beliefs, the figure of the Virgin Mary appears in several of her most serious poems. She left school for good at fourteen and spent the next six years with her father, whose fortune had declined to the point that there was little estate to settle on his four children. After his death, she worked at a dance studio, either as an instructor or as a pianist, depending on whose account one reads.
She had written verse since childhood, much of it to gain her father’s approval, and her breakthrough was “Any Porch,” which she sent to Vanity Fair. Her appearance in that Condé Nast publication led to a job with another, Vogue, and she spent two years there, primarily writing about such topics as permanent waves and ladies’ undergarments. In 1916 she moved to Vanity Fair, where she temporarily became drama critic; the position, unique at the time for a woman, gave her ample opportunity to hone her prose skills and her talons, both of which would later serve her well as The New Yorker’s “Constant Reader.” In 1919 she met, within the space of a few days, two new colleagues, Robert Benchley and Robert Sherwood, and all three were on the street in eight months. “I must say,” recalled Parker, “we behaved extremely badly.” She and Benchley, now freelancers, rented a tiny office near Times Square (“An inch smaller and it would have been adultery”) and both flourished; she published over a hundred poems in the slicks over the next three years. When Harold Ross launched The New Yorker in 1925, Parker and Benchley were both on board.
It was about this time that the famous Algonquin Round Table got started, and Parker, the shortest and, say some, quietest of the members, is about the only one whose work and reputation survive. Benchley may still be seen at a college film festival or on TCM in one of his Hollywood shorts, but the powerful columnist Franklin P. Adams (a.k.a. FPA), Heywood Broun, Alexander Woollcott, and Donald Ogden Stewart are not much more now than names, nor is Ross, whose legacy is perhaps the most enduring. Only George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber retain a tenuous hold on the public mind, but that is largely through the media of film and musical theatre.
In later life, Parker downplayed the level of conversation at the Round Table, making a distinction between wisecracks (“calisthenics with words”) and real wit, but the publicity generated there made it one of the forerunners of contemporary celeb-culture (with the caveat that most celebrities today are better seen than heard). By the time her first collection of poems, Enough Rope, appeared in 1926, she was already famous; it sold extraordinarily well for verse, ever commercial publishing’s neglected step-child. Over the next decade she published two more successful collections, Sunset Gun and Death and Taxes, but by the end of the 1930s, the muse seemed to have deserted her, though she continued to write prose for twenty-five more years.
Personal happiness constantly eluded her. Her first marriage, to a Wall Street nonentity who gave the author a surname and little else, ended in divorce after eleven years; this was followed by a disastrous affair with Charles MacArthur, which ended with an abortion and a suicide attempt. After that came other affairs and her on-again, off-again marriage to the actor and screenwriter Alan Campbell, who was eleven years her junior and was rumored to be bisexual. The couple moved to Hollywood and collaborated on one classic picture, A Star Is Born, and a considerable amount of fluff; they were well remunerated but managed to sink most of their earnings in unwise real estate ventures and a legendary amount of booze. Beginning in 1934, they divorced, remarried, separated, and were living together again when Campbell committed suicide in 1963. When asked by a less-than-favorite acquaintance if there was anything that could be done for her, Parker reportedly replied, “Get me a new husband.” The woman expressed astonishment, and Parker replied, “So sorry. Then run down to the corner and get me a ham and cheese on rye and tell them to hold the mayo.” Her last years were spent in a New York hotel, which she shared with the last of a long line of dogs; she died of a heart attack on June 7, 1967.
Two editions of Parker’s verse have recently been published after more than a decade in press, and it is a shame that they have had to contend messily with each other. Stuart Y. Silverstein’s Not Much Fun: The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker first appeared in 1996. Silverstein scrupulously (one is tempted to say obsessively) searched microfilms of old magazines and newspapers to collect the 125 poems that Parker did not include in her published collections. When Marion Meade’s Penguin edition, Complete Poems, was published in 1999, most of the fruits of Silverstein’s labors were included (he had earlier offered his own book to Penguin before turning to Scribner). Silverstein sued, winning a preliminary judgment, but in 2007 Penguin prevailed, making Not Much Fun largely superfluous. I say “largely” advisedly, for the introduction is a delight to read, and he is able to provide a full array of Parker’s bon mots in his riotously contrived footnotes. Here is a sample sentence:
Frequent references in “The Conning Tower” [FPA’s column] and talk around town caused Dorothy to develop a formidable reputation for repartee at the Algonquin, at Neysa’s, at Swope’s palatial Manhattan apartment and even more opulent Great Neck estate (reputedly the model for Fitzgerald’s Gatsby’s)31 at other country houses,32 at dinners and parties,33 playing games,34 and just walking down the street.35
One can let one’s imagination play over what is contained at the bottom of the page.
In comparison, Meade’s introduction seems a little staid, though, to her credit, she does range a bit more widely than Silverstein, especially regarding the term “light verse,” which, she says,
refers to short playful poetry that aims to make a point, sometimes major insights, by using literary wordplay including puns and alliteration… . Basically light verse presented a handful of irreverent lines, with a jaunty climax. It was this surprise twist that set it apart from regular verse.
While this does describe, to some degree, Parker’s technique, there are several points to take issue with. One is that while “puns and alliteration” may frequently appear in light verse, strict metrical regularity (often in triple or dipodic meters) and ingenious use of rhyme are far more important; one misplaced syllable or one false rhyme can spell disaster, as anyone who has ever attempted a limerick can attest. I had not previously noticed how rich the rhymes can be in Parker, but examples are abundant:
The bitter ills her fortune sends
She sprinkles smiles galore on;
It seems to me our little friend
Is something of a moron.
(“The Glad Girl”)
As for Meade’s remark about “an appreciative audience” for light verse, would that it were so. There is presently only one American print magazine devoted to light verse, the Chicago-based Light Quarterly. The New Yorker hasn’t published any (with the exception of Roger Angell’s year’s-end effusion) since John Updike got serious, and when Poetry devoted a special issue to light verse several years ago one would think, judging from the letters and blogs, that a major desecration of the temple had occurred. (England has got, thank God, Wendy Cope, but just try to buy her books here.) I do think that Meade is on target about the elements of irreverence and surprise, which show up most conspicuously in Parker’s refrains (she is adept at French repeating forms like the ballade) and closing couplets.
When one has been irreverently surprised four or five times in rapid succession, however, the trick begins to pall. Too often, Parker begins with a sendup of romantic mannerisms, and the constant reader marks time, eye on the sputtering fuse, as in the second stanza of the “lost” poems, “Lyric”:
If the blossoms refused their pale honey, the bees
Must in idleness hunger and pine;
While the moss cannot live, when it’s torn from the trees,
Nor the waxen-globed mistletoe twine.
Were it not for the sunshine, the birds wouldn’t sing,
And the heavens would never be blue.
But of all Nature’s works, the most wonderful thing
Is how well I get on without you.
Taken singly, this is delightful, but it resembles too many of the other uncollected poems in its “move,” providing, perhaps, a clue why poems like this did not make the final cut in Parker’s books.
In later years Parker was dismissive of what she resolutely refused to call “poems”: “Like everybody was then, I was following in the exquisite footsteps of Miss Millay, unhappily in my own horrible sneakers… . [M]y work is horribly dated—as anything once fashionable is dreadful now.” It is true that the high lyricism of contemporaries like Elinor Wylie and Sara Teasdale is a little hard for most of us to bear (though Millay’s harder-edged sonnets like “If I Should Learn, in Some Quite Casual Way” retain much of their appeal). One of the problems of light verse is that it thrives on topicality—it has a short shelf-life. The title and opening lines of “The Sheik” (“The desert chieftain here behold,/ The Dempsey of the Nile”) would probably stump most readers under seventy. Lynn Fontanne, the subject of one tribute, seems as remote a figure as Mrs. Siddons. Most of the merely topical poems were wisely excluded by Parker from her books, and there is enough pleasure to go around without them. After readers savor for the umpteenth time the bittersweet tang of anthology pieces like “Résumé” or “One Perfect Rose,” they will find many excellent sonnets and quite a few serious poems. The moving final two stanzas of “Prayer for a New Mother” spring no surprise and are certainly not irreverent:
Keep from her dreams the rumble of a crowd,
The smell of rough-cut wood, the trail of red,
The thick and chilly whiteness of the shroud
That wraps the strange new body of the dead.
Ah, let her go, kind Lord, where mothers go
And boast his pretty words and ways, and plan
The proud and happy years that they shall know
Together, when her son is grown a man.
Why Parker gave up writing verse is anyone’s guess, but it seems safe to assume that the drying up of her old markets, (the old Life was nothing like Mr. Luce’s new one), shifts in poetic fashion, and Parker’s own personal life, which seems to have always been going from bad to worse, are to blame. Additionally, Parker’s communal turn in politics may have made her doubt the value of her poetry, which is nothing if not individual and personal. In 1918 she could lampoon the “Table D’Hôte Bolsheviki,” but the Sacco and Vanzetti case and Depression-era Hollywood, where the only path to righteousness was a left turn, radicalized her to a strong degree, even causing breaks with many old friends, including Benchley. She probably never “carried a card,” but she wasn’t averse to hoisting a placard or two; even if her sentiments seem sincere enough, they were surely at odds with her lyrical impulse.
Silverstein lays much of the blame for her transformation at the clay feet of Lillian Hellman, who with every passing year more closely resembles the Wicked Witch of the West: “Whatever the reason, Hellman quickly gained, and jealously guarded, an intellectual and emotional influence over Dorothy that endured through the final thirty years of Dorothy’s life.” That emotional influence extended into the afterlife as well. Parker’s will stipulated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and, in the event of his death, the NAACP as beneficiaries, but Hellman, as Parker’s executor, hung on after King’s death (“milking” the estate, in Silverstein’s words) until 1972, when a court ordered her to relinquish control to the NAACP. A possible result of this acrimony was that Parker’s ashes remained unclaimed for years and were belatedly spread at the national headquarters of the NAACP in 1988.
As her earliest poems near their first centennial, we may well ask if Parker’s poems will be widely read on their second one. It would take a wholesale rejection of modernism for her to be considered, like her beloved Housman, without a “yes, but”; still, the mere fact that two trade publishers have updated their editions is a good indication that she still has readers. Both the Complete Stories and the venerable The Portable Dorothy Parker remain in print, and there are plenty of copies of the Modern Library edition in the used bookstores. If academia was slow to take her up, that is the price of popularity; it’s always amazing that supposedly populist academics can so offhandedly reject works that the public loves. Even the feminists, at first put off by her grin-and-bear-it stance, have admitted her into the canon; there is a good selection of her verse (but no prose) in The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, sandwiched between Rebecca West and Genevieve Taggard. One wonders what she would make of the company. It could be worse.