Article abstract: Parker’s ironic wit, astute observations, and acute verse, along with her place at the Algonquin Round Table, made her one of the twentieth century’s most popular writers.
Dorothy Rothschild was born on a rainy August night in 1893, at her family’s summer home on the shore of West End, New Jersey. Her father, Jacob Henry Rothschild, was the son of German-Jewish immigrants who came to the United States in the wake of the revolutions that spread across Europe in 1848. J. Henry, as he preferred to be known, joined his father in the men’s furnishings business. In 1868, he fell in love with his neighbor, Eliza Annie Marston, the daughter of Christian English gun merchants. The disapproval of her family kept the two apart for ten years, during which time Eliza took a job teaching public school; they finally married in 1878.
Dorothy, who was born when Eliza was forty-two years old, was the last of four children. The family lived the comfortable lives of the upper middle class, hiring Irish maids and residing on the fashionable Upper West Side. Disaster, however, does not acknowledge wealth: On July 20, 1898, when Dorothy was four years old, Eliza died of a combination of acute colic and heart disease.
Within less than two years, Henry married another well-educated gentile, Eleanor Francis Lewis. Dorothy cordially despised both her and the Blessed Sacrament Academy where Eleanor convinced Henry to enroll her as a day student. Eleanor’s determination to see Dorothy accept Christian dogma kept the two at constant loggerheads. Their struggles ended in April, 1903, when Eleanor died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage.
After Eleanor’s death, Dorothy attended the academically rigorous Miss Dana’s School in Morristown, New Jersey, where she learned Latin and French and was required to recite poetry. She graduated in 1911. From that moment until her father’s death in 1913, Dorothy’s social life revolved around tedious parties, piano playing, and composing silly rhymes to send to her father while she sat on the wide verandas of various seaside hotels.
Henry’s death on December 28, 1913, marked the end of Dorothy’s comfortable, middle-class life for a time. After the siblings divided up the household goods, Dorothy was forced to support herself by playing the piano at various Manhattan dance schools. She amused herself in the off-hours by writing light verse. Although she professed not to think of verse as a serious vocation, she thought enough of her efforts to send pieces to various publishers, including Franklin Pierce Adams, writer of the newspaper column “The Conning Tower,” and to Frank Crowninshield at Vanity Fair.
Acceptance finally came in 1914, when Crowninshield sent a letter accepting Dorothy’s poem “Any Porch” and a payment of twelve dollars. Thrilled, Dorothy immediately proposed that he might offer her a job as well. When he declined, she continued banging out tunes for would-be flappers. A few months went by, followed by another letter from Crowninshield, this time offering Dorothy a job at Vanity Fair’s sister publication Vogue. Her career was about to begin.
At Vogue, Dorothy’s wit showed itself in the advertising copy and picture captions she was assigned to write. “Brevity,” she quipped in one of her most-quoted captions, “is the soul of lingerie.” During this period, she met her first husband, a handsome young stockbroker named Edwin Pond Parker II. The two married over the protests of his well-connected Protestant family but lived together only briefly; Parker enlisted as an ambulance driver and shipped out to the battlefields of Europe almost immediately.
By 1918, Parker’s clever way with words had finally earned her a position on the editorial staff of Vanity Fair. Only twenty-four years old, Parker became New York’s only woman drama critic, replacing P. G. Wodehouse during his leave of absence. The reviews she wrote, penned in her highly individual style, attracted her first broad audience and put her name on the lips of sophisticated New Yorkers.
At Vanity Fair, Parker met two lifetime friends, Robert Benchley and Robert E. Sherwood, witty, relatively unknown writers who, like Parker, were poised on the brink of success. The three went everywhere together, including the first luncheon of the group that was to become the renowned Algonquin Round Table. Alexander Woolcott, Edna Ferber, Harpo Marx, George S. Kaufman, Irving Berlin, and many other celebrated authors, critics, artists, and songwriters gathered around this table for daily, lunchtime exchanges of ideas, observations, and witty repartee. Parker was reputedly the wittiest of the bunch, waiting calmly in the midst of the daily babble until she saw an opening for her deadly, often profane barbs, which the petite brunette delivered in a soft, cultivated voice.
(The entire section is 2058 words.)