Veil of Laughter; The Rediscovered Muse of Dorothy Parker

By Randy Sue Coburn

The Washington Post
November 20, 1994

ACCORDING TO Dorothy Parker, the Algonquin Hotel's legendary Round Table was nothing but a bunch of loudmouths showing off, the Roaring Twenties ought to have been called "The Dingy Decade" and as for her, a woman famous for being witty, she was "just a little Jewish girl trying to be cute." There is a certain amount of truth - as well as self-loathing - in each of these harsh assessments. But while the mystique of Parker's fellow lunching partners has faded over the years, hers remains persistently intact.

Since its initial publication in 1944, "The Portable Dorothy Parker" has never gone out of print and, in the current edition, the somber-eyed portrait of Parker that used to be slightly larger than a postage stamp takes up the entire front cover, as if her intensity is no longer something that has to be contained. Although Parker assiduously avoided writing memoirs and left behind no diaries, that hasn't stopped the production of several biographies, one-woman plays and, a new film about her in which I had a hand—Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, directed by Alan Rudolph. God knows what Dorothy Parker would have made of Kurt Cobain (she had trouble enough assessing Jack Kerouac), but the timelessness of her appeal seemed apparent when, in the aftermath of Cobain's suicide in Seattle, a flyer circulated through the city bearing the Parker poem "Resume," which lists the annoying drawbacks of various suicide methods and concludes, "You might as well live."

Given all the ways in which Parker has stood the test of time, it's perfectly understandable that for years now pundits (usually male) have rejoiced in pouncing upon some poor unsuspecting woman and labeling her "the contemporary Dorothy Parker." Understandable, but completely misguided. How is it possible for someone to be the contemporary version of a woman who was, in so many respects, this culture's first contemporary woman?

Parker competed with men and insisted upon equal treatment not only in the workplace, but in the barroom and bedroom as well. If this created conflicts and contradictions in her life, well, what could be more contemporary than that? "Please God," Parker typed in one of her frequent fits of dissatisfaction with her work, "make me stop writing like a woman." Of course, had this request been granted, we would not still be talking about her.

Probably the most erroneous impression of Parker, held mostly by those familiar only with her most famous one-liners, is that she was a gay, flip, boozy chronicler of the decade that defined her just as relentlessly as she defined it. Such a view would have Parker attempting suicide, as she did on at least five separate occasions, just to keep the clever guys she drank with supplied with material: e.g., "If you keep that up, Dottie, you might hurt yourself someday."

In some quarters, Parker's infatuations with death and alcohol might be part of what makes her so contemporary. Neither has fallen completely out of fashion since her demise, which was itself a testament to the woman's endurance, resulting as it did from natural causes in 1967, when she was 73.

What's certain is that even a glancing survey of Parker's light verse, short stories, theater and book reviews demonstrates how, as James Thurber wrote, "the wheels of {her} invention were turned by the damp hand of melancholy." In all the different books detailing Parker's life, the material about her that seems most dated and tourist-like - and there's a lot that does - is the material that ignores this fact, so central to both her writing and emotional life.

In 1920, Parker shared lofty literary aspirations with Robert Benchley, her loving best friend and managing editor at the first incarnation of Vanity Fair when she was beginning to make a name as a notoriously cranky theater critic. By the end of the '20s, the two of them could frequently be found sharing champagne at Polly Adler's tony Manhattan brothel.

Almost as if providing ballast for Parker's idealized vision of him as a frustrated but loyal suburban husband, Benchley had become a regular client at Polly's. He had also become such a well-known humorist that his one-time ambition to write a history of Queen Anne period humorists now sounds like part of his whimsical, self-deprecatory act.

Benchley claimed to have discovered he had no real talent for writing but couldn't give it up because he was too famous. Parker's dilemma was almost the opposite. Although she had proven the depth of her talent and sensibility as a short story writer, she was best known for producing what she called "doo-dads," many of which were based directly on her proclivity for, in doo-dadese, "putting all my eggs in one bastard." The irony of Parker and Benchley hanging out together in a fancy whorehouse couldn't have been lost on either one of them.

As a writer, it's easy for me to wonder how different things might have been for Parker if she had ever managed to finish the autobiographical novel she abandoned, not once but twice, before signing up in 1934 for a long haul in Hollywood - a town she described as "This Isle of Do-What's-Done-Before." (Does that sound contemporary?) Once she had been there long enough to appreciate the gulf that lay between what she wrote and the fragments of her sensibility that could be detected on-screen, her hefty paycheck became the thing that mattered most.

Parker didn't exactly waste her time in Hollywood. Along with Alan Campbell, a one-time actor who was both her second and third husband, Parker received a best screenplay nomination for the 1937 production of "A Star Is Born." She put a lot of energy into leftist causes in general and the Screenwriter's Guild in particular. A slow writer, Parker sweated just as much over Hollywood dreck as she did her finest short stories. But she felt guilty enough over ditching fiction to complain to F. Scott Fitzgerald about the impossibility of serving two masters.

From that point onward, Parker's output dwindled, but she remained an icon for young women who dreamt of breaking into journalism and dazzling all the men around them. Several years after John Keats's less-than-empathetic biography of Parker appeared in 1970, however, one such woman, Nora Ephron, devoted her column in Esquire to denouncing Parker as a role model, promoting the comforts of sisterhood over the dubious distinction of being the only woman at the table. As much as I probably agreed with Ephron then, this now seems an easy sort of shot to take at someone who rose to prominence in an entirely different era.

In Parker's heyday, few starkly personal literary novels were being written by her "sisters." One of these was Zelda Fitzgerald, and we all know what happened to her. There's a good chance that Parker's novel - as far as she got with it, anyway - was truly terrible. But my hunch is that it couldn't have been nearly so terrible as she undoubtedly thought it was.

"Big Blonde," her best-known and most highly praised short story, describes the despairing days and drunken nights of Hazel Morse, a woman so like Parker that she attempts suicide precisely the way Parker did, in her second effort, with an overdose of carefully hoarded Veronal tablets. In a piece the New Yorker published last year to coincide with the centennial of Parker's birth, it's said that what makes "Big Blonde" so wonderful is Parker's objectivity. Well, I'm probably missing the point, but if I had been Dorothy Parker's best friend - a thankless job, by all accounts, given the perversely familiar pleasure the motherless child in her took in feeling neglected - I'd have encouraged her to write more out of her subjective experience, not less. I'd have encouraged her to finish that novel.

Maybe Parker really was a sprinter by nature, not a marathon runner. Maybe completing a novel would have only deepened her depression instead of her talent. As it was, Parker ended her career the same way she began it, as an entertainingly scathing critic. It's tempting to think that in her case, being a critic was part of what held her back as an artist. It was always too easy for her to see what wasn't. The Round Table was no Mermaid Tavern, and she, thank you very much, was no Edna St. Vincent Millay.

While it's entirely in keeping with Dorothy Parker's character to have set standards that virtually guaranteed she would never be able to please herself, she left ample evidence that at the core of her being lay a profound feeling for writing well. One way to measure its depth is to read her. Another is to listen to the impassioned turn her distinctly accented voice takes in an interview recorded several years before her death.

"Writing is the toughest way you can possibly take," she says. "It's the loneliest way there is. There you are, you and your paper - that`s all. And nobody puts on their paper what they really meant to be there. You can't do it, you can't do it. Is it too much to ask that you're someday able to put something on your paper you won't be ashamed of? I haven't done it yet, but I hope to." Hearing this for the first time, I promptly burst into tears. And to cadge a line from the ever-relevant lady herself, it's impossible to enjoy a thing more than that.


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