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Dorothy Parker’s reputation as a writer has rested uneasily in the hands of literary critics and biographers. She was one of the few female members of the Algonquin Round Table, a daily gathering of New York writers and performers who exchanged barbs over lunch and bootleg cocktails in the 1920s. Her poetry, fiction, and play reviews graced the pages of Vogue, Vanity Fair, Life, The Smart Set, Ainslee’s, and The New Yorker, as well as a number of women’s magazines. This popular appeal separated Parker from the writers found in small, literary magazines who would later comprise the modernist canon. Combining accessible prose with more experimental techniques, Parker offers a witty and often acerbic assessment of human affairs — whether they concern romantic love, the family, war, racism, self-deception, economic disparity, or the intersection of these issues. She has been called a period writer, a humorist, and a (pejoratively speaking) sentimentalist. Yet her work remains in print, a testament to the relevance of her vision.
Parker’s childhood was a lonely period marked with loss. She was born two months prematurely on August 22, 1893, to Jacob Henry Rothschild and Annie Eliza (Maston) Rothschild during a New Jersey shore vacation. Her mother died in 1897, and two years after that her father married Eleanor Frances Lewis. Parker was much younger than her three siblings, and she was never close to her stepmother, who died in 1903. Details about Parker’s education are sketchy. She attended Blessed Sacrament Academy, a finishing school known as Miss Dana’s in Morristown, New Jersey, and the Art Student’s League in Manhattan. But she never received a high school diploma; her knowledge was acquired through her voracious reading.
Henry Rothschild had been a successful garment manufacturer in New York, but as the years progressed, his fortunes declined. He was penniless by the time he died in 1913 and Parker, who had been taking care of him, was forced to support herself. She worked as a dance instructor until she broke into magazine publishing by selling a poem, “Any Porch,” to Frank Crowninshield, the sophisticated editor of Vanity Fair. He later helped her get a job writing captions for Vogue in 1914. By 1916 she was a staff writer for Vanity Fair, eventually becoming their drama critic until 1920. These were crucial years in Parker’s development. Her marriage to Edwin Pond Parker, interrupted by World War I, would fall apart. Her friendships with Robert Benchley, Robert Sherwood, Alexander Woollcott, Franklin Pierce Adams, and other members of the Algonquin Round Table would develop. She would also establish the rapier wit that brought her fame and cost her a job. In 1920, she was fired from Vanity Fair for lampooning actress Billie Burke, wife of one of the magazine’s major advertisers.
Parker spent the next three years reviewing plays for Ainslee’s, and submitting poetry and short stories to a variety of magazines. Throughout the 1920s, her life took on the surface glamour of the Jazz Age, with its parties, drinking, speakeasy bars, trips to Europe, and salon-like gatherings at the Algonquin Hotel and vacation homes of New York’s millionaire families. Her poetry volumes were published (fiction volumes would follow in the early 1930s) and sold well, initially receiving largely positive reviews. She became one of the most quotable women in New York. But a dark side surged beneath the success and frivolity Parker experienced just as it did in the Jazz Age as a whole. She had a series of unsuccessful love affairs. The most intense of these, with writer Charles MacArthur, ended in pregnancy, abortion, and a suicide attempt. A second suicide attempt would follow in 1925. Her emotional dependence on men who didn’t lover her, but were willing to use her for their own career advantage, stood in contrast to her self-assertion in other areas of her life. Always sympathetic for the underdog, she supported the Actor’s Equity Strike in 1919, criticized pretentious and hypocritical men who hid behind leftist politics and art in several of her poems, and was arrested for protesting the Sacco and Vanzetti executions in 1927.
Not surprisingly, her work and life take a decidedly political turn in the 1930s. As the stock market crash of 1929 brought the Jazz Age to a close, two trends emerged: a number of writers left New York for screenwriting work in Hollywood; and writers, artists, and other intellectuals began to seek socialist solutions to the problems raised by capitalism, which had culminated in the Great Depression. Added to this mix was the increasing fascism in Europe and the Spanish Civil War. Parker participated in both trends. After marrying Alan Campbell, a writer and former actor who shared her Jewish-Gentile heritage, she moved to Hollywood and wrote or contributed to scripts for thirty-nine films, including A Star Is Born. While there, she served on the Motion Picture Artists Committee and the Screen Writers Guild, helped raise money for Loyalist Spain, China, and the Scottsboro defendants, and lent her name to more than thirty fund-raising activities. She traveled to Spain during its civil war and returned to write two of her war stories, “Soldier’s of the Republic” and “Who Might Be Interested,” as well as articles for New Masses. Later she helped Ernest Hemingway and Lillian Hellman finance the film The Spanish Earth, and served on the editorial board of Equality, a magazine in support of democratic rights and racial equality. Her pro-communist sympathies were noted by the F.B.I.; the agency kept a file on her. She wanted to be a World War II correspondent but was denied a passport. As a result, her two stories about the war years, “The Lovely Leave” and “Song of a Shirt, 1941,” examine war from a domestic point of view.
After the war, Parker’s life continued to be turbulent. She and Campbell divorced in 1947, and remarried in 1950, but they were separated from 1952 to 1961. They then lived together until Campbell’s death by an overdose of sleeping pills in 1963. During this period she wrote book reviews for Esquire, and collaborated on three plays which never achieved commercial success: The Coast of Illyria (1949), The Ladies of the Corridor (1953), and The Ice Age (1955); earlier play collaborations include Close Harmony (1924) and The Happiest Man (1939). She had traveled back and forth between Hollywood and New York for many years, but in 1964 returned to New York for the last time. She received awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was interviewed by several journalists. But she had outlived many of her contemporaries and was presumed dead by others. She was found dead of a heart attack in 1967 in the Hotel Varney, where she had been living. Her remains were cremated two days later; the urn with her ashes sat in a file drawer at the law firm of Oscar Bernstein and Paul O’Dwyer until 1988. The woman who left her estate to Martin Luther King, Jr., and to the N.A.A.C.P. in the event of King’s death, had no one to claim her for more than twenty years. At the suggestion of N.A.A.C.P. president Dr. Benjamin Hooks, her ashes were interred in a memorial garden named in her honor at the N.A.A.C.P. headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, on October 20, 1988.
Parker’s work has remained in print and popular since its original publication but, until recently, has remained outside the canon of “serious” or “important” literature. The reception of her work during the twentieth century has been shaped by a variety of critical trends. Critics initially praised her wit and concision, but a recurring concern was her sentimentality. This recurring concern became an increasing target from the mid-thirties through the sixties when New Critical values were taking hold in the academy. Mark Van Doren’s 1934 assessment of Parker’s poetry and fiction in The English Journal demonstrates the limitations of this approach. As affectionate memoirs about the Algonquin Round Table were published in the fifties and sixties ( e.g., Margaret Chase Harriman’s The Vicious Circle, 1951, and Corey Ford’s The Time of Laughter, 1967, as well as a number of magazine articles), it became fashionable to debunk the group’s talents. James R. Gaines emphasizes a lack of discipline, psychological darkness, and emotional dependency in Wit’s End, his 1977 portrait of the group. Ross Labrie claims the group’s talent was over-rated in an article for The Canadian Review of American Studies. Even Brendan Gill, who knew Parker and penned the introduction to her 1973 Portable Dorothy Parker, praises her prose at the expense of her poetry and calls her work a product of the twenties. The labels applied to Parker — “humorist,” light verse writer, and “period writer” — have, with exception of “period writer,” obvious technical merit, but nevertheless reflect the narrow context in which her work was read.
A reversal of sorts takes place in the mid- to late seventies. Arthur F. Kinney publishes the first book-length study of Parker’s work in all genres in 1978 (Dorothy Parker, published by Twayne; revised in 1998). He links much of her work to events in her life, but he also reads Parker beyond the confines of the Algonquin Round Table, focusing for example on her ties to classical and renaissance traditions in poetry. At the same time, the second wave of feminism brought renewed interest in Parker’s work, particularly with regard to her humor. Emily Toth, Suzanne Bunkers, Lynn Z. Bloom, and Nancy Walker interpret Parker’s humor as a form of social protest against patriarchal and societal conventions. Parker becomes part of a tradition of women humorists defined by Nancy Walker and Zita Dresner. Biographies of Parker begin to appear — by John Keats (1970), Leslie Frewin (1986), and Marion Meade (1988). There remained the sense, however, that we knew Parker’s life, particularly her Algonquin years, in much more detail than we knew her work.
This has begun to change in the 1990s. In addition to the Kinney revision, we have the publication of Randall Calhoun’s Dorothy Parker: A Bio-Bibliography (1993), containing a biographical sketch that respects Parker’s political work, three articles about Parker (“The Legend of Dorothy Parker” by Richard E. Lauterbach; “Whatever You Think Dorothy Parker Was Like, She Wasn’t” by Wyatt Cooper; and “Bittersweet” by Joseph Bryan, III), and detailed primary and secondary bibliographies. Parker also begins to appear as a factor in studies of Stevie Smith, women’s war writing, women’s love poetry, and the sentimental and modernist traditions (see bibliography below). New editions of her work, including previously unpublished prose and poetry, have been published by Penguin, including insightful introductions to her work, and by Scribner’s. A volume of critical essays about Parker’s work is being compiled. These developments should introduce new readers and old skeptics to the many dimensions of Parker’s work, and generate more thoughtful criticism in the future.