Dorothy Parker Biography

Dorothy Parker once joked that she married her first husband to escape her name (Rothschild). She was a vibrant and complicated woman who is mainly remembered for her acerbic wit. Parker began her literary career as an editorial assistant for Vogue. While working as a theater critic for Vanity Fair, she became one of the founding members of the Algonquin Round Table, a sharp-tongued group of magazine and newspaper writers. Parker wrote many poems and short stories, but is most famous for her book reviews in The New Yorker known as “Constant Reader.” Parker moved to Hollywood in 1934 and worked on several films, but her vocal support of left-wing causes found her blacklisted. Parker’s personal life was fraught with marriages and affairs, suicide attempts and alcoholism, but in her writing, she is cool personified.

Facts and Trivia

  • Dorothy Parker was married three times, twice to screenwriter Alan Campbell.
  • Later in life, Parker criticized her once beloved Algonquin comrades, saying they were “just a bunch of loudmouths.”
  • Parker was arrested in Boston in 1927 for protesting against the controversial executions of two men, Ferdinando Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. She was charged with “loitering and sauntering” and fined $5.
  • Dorothy Parker left her estate to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Foundation. In 1988, the NAACP buried her ashes outside its headquarters.
  • Parker has been memorialized on a stamp, in several plays, and in numerous films, including Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle and Dash and Lilly.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2058

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.

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Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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.

Parker was fired by Crowninshield in 1920 for writing unfavorable reviews of three plays produced by prominent advertisers. Her marriage was also in trouble. Her husband, always a heavy drinker, had not stayed sober in Europe; in fact, his troubles with alcohol accelerated and became further complicated by his introduction to opiates. By the time he returned home in 1919, he and Dorothy had become strangers. By 1920, he was one of her most useful humorous topics at the Round Table; they separated in 1922 and divorced in 1928.

The friendships she developed at the Round Table and the ability of her friends to keep her name in the public eye helped Parker begin her long and successful freelance career. Harold Ross begged her to join the founding board of The New Yorker, where, under the pseudonym “The Constant Reader,” she wrote book reviews. Her short stories and verse appeared in a large number of publications, including The American Mercury, The Bookman, “The Conning Tower,” and others. In 1929, her short story “The Big Blonde” won the O. Henry Prize. All told, between 1926 and 1933 she published three collections of verse—Enough Rope (1926), Sunset Gun (1928), and Death and Taxes (1931)—which, along with two collections of short stories, Laments for the Living (1930) and After Such Pleasures (1933), captured the spirit of the times and enjoyed outstanding sales.

Parker’s life always contained heartaches as well as triumphs. She learned from her former husband the art of drinking to avoid pain; during the 1920’s, she and her Algonquin compatriots made cocktail hour a day-long experience. Her love life was flamboyant; she boasted of her many lovers, preferred men younger than herself, and knew no moderation in her feelings. When her relationship with playwright Charles MacArthur ended in abortion and abandonment, she attempted suicide, an act that she repeated four times between 1923 and 1932. The first time, she slashed her wrists with a razor; later, she tried Veronal, barbiturates, and even a bottle of shoe polish. The pain and confusion in her life provided the material for her short stories. Her technique seduced her readers into laughter at human foibles that transformed, at the story’s resolution, into an anguished cry of despair. Parker turned even suicide into laughter: “Resume,” one of her best-known verses, lists methods of self-annihilation and their drawbacks, finally concluding, with regret, “You might as well live.”

Writing was never an easy process for Parker; even during the productive 1920’s, she struggled over every word. As her life progressed, her output declined. She often missed deadlines, and she produced, over the course of her lifetime, a surprisingly small volume of work. What she did write, however, spoke volumes about the rage in her life, which, as she aged, turned from gender issues to social injustice. In 1927, she marched through the streets of Boston, protesting the pending execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. She was arrested on charges of “public sauntering” and reported from inside the prison on the course of the execution.

The decade of the 1930’s, which for most Americans held the hardships of the Great Depression, were years of wealth and happiness for Parker. In 1933, at the age of forty, she married Alan Campbell, a handsome actor eleven years her junior. They moved from New York to Hollywood, where they were paid exorbitantly as a screenwriting couple, at one point making a combined salary of $5,200 a week. They were hired because of Parker’s fame, but many people attribute their success to Campbell’s powers of organization and careful tending to Dorothy’s every need. Together they worked on dozens of screenplays, the most famous of which was made into the 1937 hit, A Star is Born.

In 1937, during the height of the Spanish Civil War, Parker and Campbell went to Spain. Parker’s experiences there, immortalized in her short story “Soldiers of the Republic,” further radicalized her. She returned to the United States determined to raise money to feed the starving children she had encountered. This involvement blossomed over the years into work opposing Nazi Germany. She conducted her political work largely by serving as a figurehead and public speaker for organizations she found worthy. In the 1950’s, this involvement resulted in threats from the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which considered her a communist. Although this charge was never proved, Parker was blacklisted in Hollywood.

By the 1940’s, Parker’s career and her marriage to Campbell had disintegrated. The couple divorced in 1947. Parker wrote a play based on the life of Charles Lamb, The Coast of Illyria, with beau Ross Evans in 1949, but it never made it to Broadway. She and Campbell remarried in 1950. They separated less than a year later, then reunited briefly in 1960, near the end of Campbell’s life. Writing became more difficult with the passing years; Parker wrote book reviews for Esquire but accomplished little creative work on her own. The years of high earnings in Hollywood had been accompanied by years of lavish spending. After Campbell’s death, Parker lived alone in two rooms at the Volney Hotel in New York City, strapped for money and starved for company. Typically, she immortalized this life in a play written with Arnaud d’Usseau, Ladies of the Corridor. Parker died of a heart attack on June 7, 1967.

Upon her death, Parker left her estate of $20,000 to the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., naming the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as the residual beneficiary. Lillian Hellman, her fellow writer and long-time friend, was named Parker’s literary executor.

Summary

Dorothy Parker flourished as a professional writer at a time when women’s lives and interests were still largely confined to their homes. She provided readers with brilliant, witty descriptions of her world and the people who inhabited it, painting their foibles and her own in a clear, unsentimental light. She has been praised for the economical language of her stories, for her evocative and funny verse, and for the sparkle of her conversation. She drew a compelling portrait of women in a rapidly changing world.

Despite her continual drinking, ruinous love affairs, and a tendency to waste her talents in endless hours of self-hatred, she created a body of work that has lasted well beyond her lifetime. The works collected into The Portable Dorothy Parker have proved to be enduring favorites, keeping Parker’s work in print for more than fifty years. Readers looking for insight into the literary world of the early twentieth century would do well to study Dorothy Parker, whose trenchant observations bring that world alive in a way unmatched by the work of her peers.

Bibliography

Acocella, Joan. “After the Laughs.” The New Yorker 69 (August 16, 1993): 76-81. A critical and biographical article in which the author argues that Parker let her personal insecurities cloud her artistic potential.

Keats, John. You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970. This work, the first popular biography of Parker, is both thorough and readable. Contains an index and a bibliography.

Kinney, Arthur F. Dorothy Parker. Boston: Twayne, 1978. Kinney combines a brief biography with detailed literary criticism of Parker’s work.

Meade, Marion. Dorothy Parker. New York: Villard Books, 1988. A thorough biography that places Parker squarely in the middle of New York’s literary society. The author stresses the personal side of Parker’s life, referring to Parker’s literary work only to illustrate biographical material.

Parker, Dorothy. The Portable Dorothy Parker. Rev. ed. New York: Viking Press, 1973. Parker’s own selections of her work to be included in the Viking edition of 1944 are joined here with new material and introductions by Brendan Gill and W. Somerset Maugham.

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