Dorothy Par (August 22, 1893 – June 7, 1967) was an American writer and poet, best known for her caustic wit, wisecracks, and sharp eye for 20th century urban foibles.
|Dorothy Parker |
|Born ||August 22, 1893 |
Long Branch, New Jersey, U.S.
|Died ||June 7, 1967 |
New York, New York, U.S.
Also known as Dot or Dottie, Parker was born Dorothy Rothschild at 732 Ocean Avenue in the West End village of Long Branch, New Jersey,  where her parents had a summer beach cottage. Parker wrote in her essay "My Hometown" that her parents got her back to their Manhattan apartment shortly after Labor Day so she could be called a true New Yorker. Her friends found her both a source of fun and of tragedy; she attempted suicide at least three times.
Her mother died in West End when Dorothy was a month shy of turning five. She grew up on the Upper West Side, and attended Roman Catholic elementary school at the Convent of the Blessed Sacrament, despite having a Jewish father and Protestant stepmother. Her stepmother died when Dorothy was nine. Dorothy later went to Miss Dana's School, a finishing school in Morristown, New Jersey. Her formal education ended when she was 13.
Her uncle, Martin Rothschild, died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912. Her father died a year later. In 1917, she met and married a Wall Street broker, Edwin Pond Parker II, but they were separated by his army service in World War I. Her family was not part of the Rothschilds' banking dynasty, and she had ambiguous feelings about her Jewish heritage given the strong anti-Semitism of that era. She joked that she married to escape her name, and she kept the name Parker after she and her husband divorced. When asked if there was a Mr. Parker, she responded: "There used to be."
After her limited schooling, she earned money by playing piano at a dancing school, among other things. She first sold a poem to Vanity Fair magazine in 1917, and some months later, she was hired as an editorial assistant for another Condé Nast magazine, Vogue. She moved to Vanity Fair as drama critic and staff writer following two years at Vogue.
The Round Table years
In 1919, her career took off while writing theatre criticism for Vanity Fair, initially as a stand-in for the vacationing P.G. Wodehouse. At the magazine she met Robert Benchley, who became a close friend, and Robert E. Sherwood. They began lunching at the Algonquin Hotel, among the founding members of the Algonquin Round Table. They were soon joined by Franklin Pierce Adams and Alexander Woollcott (both newspaper columnists who published Parker's witticisms), Harold Ross, Harpo Marx and many others.
Parker's caustic wit as a critic initially proved popular, but she was eventually terminated by Vanity Fair in 1920 after her criticisms began to offend too often. In solidarity, both Benchley and Sherwood resigned in protest.
When Harold Ross founded The New Yorker in 1925, she and Benchley were considered part of the staff, though at first they contributed little to the magazine. Parker was soon writing for The New Yorker as well.
Parker became famous for her short, viciously humorous poems, many about the perceived ludicrousness of her many (largely unsuccessful) romantic affairs and others wistfully considering the appeal of suicide. She never considered these poems as her most important works.
Her greatest period of productivity and success came in the next 15 years. She published seven volumes of short stories and poetry: Enough Rope, Sunset Gun, Laments for the Living, Death and Taxes, After Such Pleasures, Not So Deep as a Well (collected poems) and Here Lies. After her death, the critic Brendan Gill noted that these titles "amounted to a capsule autobiography." Some of this work was originally published in The New Yorker, to which she also contributed acerbic book reviews, under the byline "Constant Reader"; these were widely read and later published in a collection under that name. (Her response to a moment of whimsy in A. A. Milne's The House at Pooh Corner: "Tonstant Weader fwowed up.") She wrote or co-wrote several plays as well, some well-reviewed, though none of lasting note.
Her best-known story, published in Bookman Magazine under the title "Big Blonde," was awarded the O. Henry Award as the most outstanding short story of 1929. Her short stories, though often witty, were also spare and incisive, and more bittersweet than comic. She eventually separated from her husband, and had affairs with reporter-turned-playwright Charles MacArthur, and with the publisher Seward Collins.
In 1934, she married Alan Campbell, an actor with hopes to be a screenwriter. He was reputed to be bisexual — indeed, Parker did some of the reputing by claiming in public that he was "queer as a billy goat" — but there is no substantial evidence for this. Though Campbell's screenwriting ability soon proved ephemeral at best, Parker had a natural aptitude for the work, and she soon began earning a serious living as a freelance screenwriter for various Hollywood film studios. She and Campbell moved to Hollywood and worked on more than 15 films (on a salary of $5200 a week, an enormous sum during the Depression).
With Robert Carson and Campbell, she wrote the script for the 1937 film A Star is Born, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing - Screenplay. Her marriage with Campbell was tempestuous; they divorced in 1947, remarried in 1950, and remained together on and off until his death in 1963 in West Hollywood.
Parker was a longtime advocate of left-wing causes, a fierce civil libertarian and civil rights advocate, and a frequent critic of those in authority. During the 1930s she drifted increasingly towards the left, even declared herself a Communist, though she never joined the Communist party. She reported on the Loyalist cause in Spain for the leftist New Masses in 1937 and helped to found the Anti-Nazi League in Hollywood in 1936. Her former Round Table friends saw less and less of her. A glimpse of her attitudes towards government, fascism, and law enforcement can be found in her script additions to the Alfred Hitchcock film Saboteur, in which she also made a cameo appearance.
She also was heard occasionally on radio, including Information Please (as a guest) and Author, Author (as a regular panelist). She wrote for the Columbia Workshop, and both Ilka Chase and Tallulah Bankhead used her material for radio monologues. 
Parker was listed as a Communist by the publication Red Channels in 1950, and was investigated by the FBI for her suspected involvement in Communism during the McCarthy era. As a result, she was placed on the Hollywood blacklist by the movie studio bosses.
From 1957 to 1962 she wrote book reviews  for Esquire, though these pieces were increasingly erratic due to her continued abuse of alcohol. One of these reviews had a huge impact on the career of the young Harlan Ellison. Reviewing his paperback short story collection Gentleman Junkie and Other Stories of the Hung-Up Generation (Regency, 1961), she described Ellison as "a good, clean, honest writer, putting down what he has seen and known and no sensationalism about it" and lavished praise on his story "Daniel White for the Greater Good,"  commenting, "It is without exception the best presentation I have ever seen of present racial conditions in the South and of those who try to alleviate them. I cannot recommend it too vehemently... Incidentally, the other stories in Mr. Ellison's book are not so dusty, either."  This reaction from Parker was highly unusual as Ellison's collection was the only paperback Parker ever reviewed. Her favorable nod gave Ellison a foothold with both mainstream publishers and film producers, and shortly afterwards he headed for Hollywood. 
Parker resided in Hollywood with Campbell and worked on movie scripts; among her last was an unproduced film for Marilyn Monroe. Following Campbell's death in 1963, Parker returned to Manhattan.
Parker died of a heart attack at the age of 73 in 1967 at the Volney residential hotel in New York City. In her will, she bequeathed her estate to the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. foundation. Following King's death, her estate was passed on to the NAACP. Her executrix, Lillian Hellman, bitterly but unsuccessfully contested this disposition. Her ashes remained unclaimed in various places, including her attorney Paul O'Dwyer's filing cabinet, for approximately 17 years. The NAACP eventually claimed Parker's remains and designed a memorial garden for them outside their Baltimore headquarters. The plaque reads,
|“ ||Here lie the ashes of Dorothy Parker (1893 - 1967) humorist, writer, critic. Defender of human and civil rights. For her epitaph she suggested, 'Excuse my dust'. This memorial garden is dedicated to her noble spirit which celebrated the oneness of humankind and to the bonds of everlasting friendship between black and Jewish people. Dedicated by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. October 28, 1988. ||” |
Her home site was designated a national literary landmark by Friends of Libraries USA, and a bronze plaque marks the spot where the home once stood.
Spoken word recordings