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Dorothy Parker: Razor Wit, Rebel Spirit

By Tara Mae

Well known for her acerbic writing, literary prowess, and co-founding of the Algonquin Circle, Dorothy Parker was also a staunch supporter and an ally to social and civil rights operations. Her lightning quick wit hid depths of pain that ensnared her at various points of her life. Parker’s understanding of suffering and injustice extended beyond her own experience; she supported causes and individuals who fought for a better existence for all people.  

Parker was born Dorothy Rothschild on August 22, 1893, in Long Beach, New Jersey, where her parents had a summer cottage. They quickly returned to New York, as her mother wanted her to identify as a native New Yorker. No matter where she roamed, New York City was home.  “I take New York personally. I am, in fact, somewhat annoyingly tender about it. A silver cord ties me tight to my city.” She was an arbiter of and contributor to the New York literary scene, and this status enabled her to broaden her career and extend her influence.

Her childhood was unhappy. Parker’s mother died before her fifth birthday, and her stepmother and father, to whom she was not close, passed away when she was still a teenager. Parker’s formal education ended when she was 14 years old. Alcoholism and depression were familiar foes and visited Parker throughout her life; she drank too much and attempted suicide four times. Such acute pain can either make someone more sensitive to the suffering of others and the cruelties of the world or it can make someone mypoic, seeing only their own sorrows. Parker cultivated a legendarily caustic tone that underscored strong moral convictions. Some of her work may appear to be preoccupied with her own circumstance and her biting commentaries could be self-directed, but she was acutely aware of other people’s struggles, and worked to right injustices. 

Employed as theater critic for Vanity Fair until too many high profile producers suffered the stings of her barbed critiques, she was also part of the original writing staff of The New Yorker  along with her dear friend Robert Benchley, who quit Vanity Fair in protest of her firing. Parker published her first collection of poetry, Enough Rope, in 1926. This volume established the style that would become her signature: brief, sharp statements often startlingly acidic or smart, with resonating impact. Her writing, regularly satiric, and frequently displaying a dark sense of humor, was not usually completely despairing or devoid of hope. The last line of the poem “Résumé” is after all, “You might as well live.”

A pioneer on many fronts, Parker had a comprehensive understanding of the insidious banality of everyday racism. In her short story, “Arrangement in Black and White,” first published in The New Yorker in 1927, she brilliantly and bitingly exposes the problematic folly of the “I’m not racist, but” trope. Skewering the stereotype of the beloved black “mammy,” and addressing the hypocrisy of claiming to love black servants who are simultaneously thought of and treated as inferior, Parker addresses the blunt but casual racism through the long-winded dialogue of a female party guest who is eager to make the acquaintance of a black male gospel singer.

She speaks to the man as if he is hard of hearing, “moving her lips meticulously, as if in parlance with the deaf,” and views beauty based on proximity to fair skin, remarking about an actress, “I thought she was much better looking. I had no idea she was so terribly dark.” Because the speaker equates service to white people with value, she feels modern and open-minded to support African Americans who in some way improve her life. The household servants provide domestic relief and the performers provide recreational entertainment. The character’s absurd hyperbolic attempts to convince her host of her acceptance only serve to highlight her bigotry. Parker conveys the host’s discomfort and disapproval through pointed silences and sardonic asides. Her condemnation is clear.

It was during this period that Parker helped establish the Algonquin Roundtable and began to become more socially and civically active. After learning about the upcoming executions of anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, she traveled to Boston with Roundtable member Ruth Hale to protest the proceedings. They were arrested for their participation and Parker pleaded guilty to the offense of “loitering and sauntering.” She paid a $5 fine.  

The literary success she achieved in New York led Parker to pursue a career in Hollywood. Having divorced her first husband, stockbroker Edwin Pond Parker II, she met and married actor/screenwriter Alan Campbell. They would later divorce and remarry. She earned a variety of writing credits, including contributing lyrics to the song “I Wished on the Moon,” and co-writing scripts for popular movies, including Little Foxes and the original version of A Star is Born. She collaborated with Alexander Woollcott, another member of the illustrious Roundtable, to produce a comprehensive anthology of her work. It consisted of more than 24 short stories, and poems from three previous books: Enough Rope, Sunset Gun, and Death and Taxes. It featured an introduction by W. Somerset Maugham and was produced for servicemen  stationed overseas during World War II. Published in the United States as The Portable Dorothy Parker, it is one of three in a series to remain in continuous print: the other two are The Portable Shakespeare and The Portable World Bible

During the 1930s and ‘40s, Parker became an increasingly active advocate of civil rights and social justice matters. She applied the networking skills finely honed in New York to these pursuits. Parker cultivated a robust social circle, including actors, composers, and other artists, with whom she collaborated on different reform campaigns. She was renowned for hosting big dinners and throwing lavish parties at the Garden of Allah’s extravagant celebrity villas.

To gain entry into these exclusive gatherings, gay men, including friends, acquaintances, and strangers, used the code “I’m a friend of Dorothy” as a secret password that had a double meaning. It indicated a relationship with Parker, even if none existed, and served as a code for the gay men to identify each other. Parker once mused “Heterosexuality is not normal, it is just common.” Her lack of prejudice enabled her to form important alliances but also gave her powerful adversaries.  

She supported the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers who were falsely accused of rape and sentenced to death. For The New Masses, Parker reported on the Loyalist movement in Spain. With screenwriter/author Donald Ogden Stewart, lyricist/producer Oscar Hammerstein, and actor Frederic March, she helped establish the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. As a chairperson for the Spanish Refuge Agency, the fundraising department of the Joint Anti-Fascist League, Parker arranged the transport of Loyalist veterans to Mexico, led the Spanish Children’s Relief, and gave her name to numerous left-wing organizations and efforts. Her vocal support of progressive agendas resulted in her being listed in Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television. The FBI assembled a 1000 page dossier on her activities, and she was blacklisted from Hollywood. Parker returned to New York. Although her writing output waned as her alcoholism worsened, she continued to publish and occasionally wrote for or appeared on radio. 

On June 7, 1967, Parker died of a heart attack. Having struggled with mental health issues and addiction, reoccurring themes of her impressive oeuvre allude to her own difficulties and directly regard societal troubles. Perhaps the best assessment of her writing comes from Parker herself: “There’s a hell of a distance between wise-cracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wise-cracking is simply calisthenics with words.” 

She bequeathed her entire estate, including copyrights and royalties to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man who she deeply admired but had never met. When he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, the literary estate, per Parker’s written instructions should anything happen to him, was transferred to the NAACP. Having resided in her lawyer’s filing cabinet for 21 years, in 1988 her ashes were interred in the Dorothy Rothschild Parker Memorial Garden, which the NAACP created in her honor at its Baltimore headquarters.  

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