Dorothy Parker 1893–-1967
American poet, essayist, and short story writer.
As a poet, Parker is best known for three slender volumes of verse, Enough Rope (1926), Sunset Gun (1928), and Death and Taxes (1931). She also achieved widespread acclaim for her short stories and frequently quoted witticisms. Though she penned prose and poetry throughout her life, Parker's literary reputation rests mostly on poetry and short stories she authored prior to 1938. Mostly traditional in form, Parker's verse packs caustic sarcasm into sonnets, lyrics, ballads, Horatian odes, epigrams, and epitaphs. In her poetry, Parker most often addresses women's issues, soured love relationships, and vacuous, superficial lives of upper-crust society women who lived during the 1920s. In her characteristic burlesque style, Parker lampoons cloying women who depend too much on men for emotional and economic well-being, as well as the types of men who twist these female traits to their advantage. Following its publication in 1926, Parker's first collection of poetry, Enough Rope, rose to best-seller status. Nevertheless, Parker was self-deprecating when assessing her own poetry, once referring to it in an interview with the Paris Review as light verse that was “no damn good.” In recent years, contemporary themes throughout Parker's poetry have received renewed critical acclaim. Today's readers continue to find deeper meanings in Parker's work than many of her contemporaries were able to appreciate—particularly in the poems and short stories that center on women's issues.
Parker was born in West End, New Jersey, in 1893 to Jewish clothier J. Henry Rothschild and Eliza Marston Rothschild. Her mother died shortly after her daughter's premature birth. Following her mother's death, Parker was raised by her father and stepmother, who Parker described as a “religious fanatic.” Parker grew up ashamed of her mixed ethnic and religious background, aspiring to write an autobiographical tale entitled “Mongrel,” which she never penned. Parker detested her stepmother for sending her to a convent school in New York City, an action taken to save Parker's soul from her “Jewish upbringing.” While at the convent, Parker began writing poetry, but her education among the nuns was short-lived. Already showing signs of a rebellious streak, Parker described the Immaculate Conception as “spontaneous combustion” and was expelled. Parker's father and stepmother sent the young writer to an exclusive finishing school in Morristown, New Jersey, where she graduated following a year of study in 1911. During her time at the finishing school Parker began developing as a writer. Parker's persistence paid off in 1915 when one of her poems captured the attention of a Vogue editor, who hired her to write captions for the magazine's fashion illustrations. Two years later, an editor hired her onto Vanity Fair as a drama critic. Parker's acerbic wit again invoked trouble, and she was fired from this post after writing a blistering review of a play starring the wife of one of the magazine's financial backers. Parker continued writing as a literary critic for the New Yorker's book review column under the pseudonym, “Constant Reader.” During the 1920s, Parker became well-known in New York literary and theatrical circles as a member of the Algonquin Round Table. The round table, which included other prominent writers such as Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman, and Franklin Pierce Adams, became famous when newspaper columnists reported the activities and discussions at the famed Algonquin Hotel debates. Many of Parker's derisive Round Table remarks, such as “Men seldom make passes / At girls who wear glasses” were often quoted and achieved catchphrase status. In 1917, Parker married Wall Street broker Edwin Pond Parker II. While her husband was away for two years' military service, Parker's whirlwind social life led her to speakeasies and parties in uptown apartments where she became well-acquainted with Ernest Hemingway, Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, and other literary figures. By the time her husband returned from the war, Parker's life seemed punctuated by unhappiness, which was mirrored in her poetry. By the end of the 1920s, Parker was drinking heavily, had a string of affairs, an abortion, and attempted suicide three times. After the dissolution of their marriage, Parker eventually married Alan Campbell, an actor eleven years her junior, and half-Jewish like herself. That relationship was also far from happy, and was marked by bickering, divorce, and eventual remarriage. In her later years, Parker became involved in a variety of social causes, including the Screen Writers Guild and the Anti-Nazi League. Parker's later years were marked by increasing financial instability. She died alone at the Hotel Volney in New York, where she was found dead June 7, 1967. As a final social statement, Parker willed her estate, consisting of about $20,000, to Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Parker's first poetry collection, Enough Rope, achieved widespread acclaim—particularly for a book of poems—shortly after its publication in 1926. Throughout the slim volume of poetry, Parker explores the threat of losing love and unveils the hypocrisy and mawkishness of romantic jargon. In “One Perfect Rose,” Parker mimics the frilly language of romantic greeting card verse, rambling about a rose from a suitor. But Parker adds an unexpected twist in the last stanza: “Why is it no one ever sent me yet / One perfect limousine, do you suppose / Ah no, it's always just my luck to get / One perfect rose.” In “Unfortunate Coincidence,” vows exchanged between two lovers are cynically dismissed: “By the time you swear you're his, / Shivering and sighing, / And he vows his passion is / Infinite, undying— / Lady, make a note of this: / One of you is lying.” Parker's second volume of poetry, Sunset Gun, which was published in 1928, also garnered widespread appeal. In Sunset Gun, Parker continued to expand on the themes of lost love and hollow promises that appeared in her first book of poetry. Also in Sunset Gun, Parker experimented with traditional literary forms, including a cycle of epigrams titled: “A Pig's Eye View of Literature.” Parker's third book of verse, Death and Taxes (1931), is more morose in tone than her first two publications. Critic Franklin P. Adams called Death and Taxes “her saddest and her best book.” In the poem, “The Flaw in Paganism,” Parker encourages readers to practice hedonistic behavior. “Drink and dance and laugh and lie, / Love, the reeling midnight through, / For tomorrow we shall die!” Parker then adds dryly: “(But, alas, we never do.)”—a sardonic remark perhaps referring to her own suicide attempts. By the time Parker's collected poetry was published under the title, Not So Deep as a Well (1936), Parker was writing more prose than poetry. Some of Parker's poems also were published in Life, the Saturday Evening Post, Everybody's, and the Ladies' Home Journal. In a telling article written in 1937, Parker disagreed that “ridicule is the most effective weapon,” saying that there are “things that never have been funny, and never will be … And I know that ridicule may be a shield, but it is not a weapon.” Ridicule, however, punctuates most of Parker's poetry, allowing her to lance through the hypocrisy of social customs, vows, and the inconstancy of love (“Scratch a lover and find a foe”). Parker's poetry is mostly an attempt to use her wit as a defense—first against pain, then despair. Parker's sharp humor and skill in translating classical forms into modern idiom prompted critic Arthur Kinney to call Parker “the best epigrammatic poet in our country, in this century.”
Dismissive about the quality of her poetic output, Parker described her efforts as light verse that was “terribly dated,” and was herself one of her worst and most constant critics. However, Parker's skill in packaging modern issues into classical poetic forms won the praise of many critics, noting that her lilting verse is often deceivingly airy which allows her to explore the contradictory nature of human behavior. Ogden Nash once wrote: “To say that Mrs. Parker writes well is as fatuous, I'm afraid, as proclaiming that Cellini was clever with his hands. … The trick about her writing is the trick about Ring Lardner's writing or Ernest Hemingway's work. It isn't a trick.” In 1931, Henry Seidel Canby wrote: “… this belle dame sans merci has the ruthlessness of the great tragic lyricist whose work was allegorized in the fable of the nightingale singing with her breast against a thorn.” Other critics have described her work as melodramatic, sentimental, and trivial because of the witticisms that thread throughout her poetry. Nevertheless, Parker's work has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, due in part to Marion Meade's Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This?, published in 1988. Writer W. Somerset Maugham once said Parker had a gift “ … for seeing something to laugh at in the bitterest tragedies of the human animal.”