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Dorothy Parker's exquisite misery
Or, how to say dark things lightly
When you look back on the Algonquin Round Table in the cold light of the present day, who stands out from that overly fabled assemblage of wits, cranks, hacks, and flacks? There are forgotten newspapermen, theatrical types, a Marx Brother — and then there’s Dorothy Parker. In popular memory, she set the Table. Think of the tagline for the 1992 film Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle: “At the center of the circle is a woman ahead of her time.”
With the exception of Dorothy Parker, everyone loved Dorothy Parker. As a bright woman in a sepia-toned world of men, every one of the relatively few words the poet put to paper was that much more memorable. Among her classics:
“One more drink and I’d have been under the host.”
“Four be the things I’d be better without:
Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt.”
“You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her drink.”
The caricature of Dorothy Parker has served her well. Like Churchill, she is one of the prime beneficiaries of the aphoristic snowball: Starting with a core of her actual lines printed in newspaper columns of her day, it’s rolled through the ages picking up similar witticisms to the point that Parker is routinely credited for japes she wouldn’t have, couldn’t have, and clearly hadn’t made.
In her case, you can call it Cooper’s Law. Wyatt Cooper, actor, writer, and father of Anderson, published a long remembrance of Parker in Esquire in 1968, the year after she died. In it, he posits that “If you didn’t know Dorothy Parker, whatever you think she was like, she wasn’t. Even if you did know her, whatever you thought she was like, she probably wasn’t.”
At the age of 29, she was married to a philanderer and pregnant with the child of another married man. She eventually had an abortion, one that left her traumatized at the thought of the embryo’s tiny hands. As her biographer Marion Meade recounts, this was a subject for which a famous talker could find no listeners: “she would unburden herself to her drinking companions, mostly males who classified abortion stories as women talk and wished she would go home and sleep it off.”
So then, did she really quip “that’s what I get for putting all my eggs in one bastard?” Or did she joke that, when the father contributed $30 toward the procedure, it was like Judas trying to get a refund?
Neither comment has been sourced by her biographers, but think of it this way: Is it meaner if the wits said that about her? Or if she got in front of her own pain and said it herself?
Even in her lightest verse, there is a touch of poison. Parker’s own experience as a badly nearsighted but rarely bespectacled woman suggests she internalized her two most famous lines: “Men seldom make passes/ at women who wear glasses.” The poem is called “News Item”, and she grew to hate it, telling a reporter many years later that it was “a terrible thing to have made a serious attempt to write verse and then be remembered for two lines like those.” A poem born of squinting led to years of wincing, and that’s how it went for Dorothy Parker.
If you were to look for an essential lesson in her recorded life — and that is precisely our mission here — it seems as clear as bathtub gin: Say the dark thing in a light enough way and the style will disguise the substance. Dorothy Parker was a melancholy woman, sometimes suicidal but more often wistful. She packaged that feeling in wit, and often had others package it on her behalf. At the core of her quips was her honest feeling. Her triumph and her tragedy is that the quips were so good, it was easy to ignore the feeling.
When the bartender asked, “What are you having?”, Parker responded “Not much fun.”
Quick quips; lightning
What is an estate to do when a wit spends her life suggesting epitaphs? Here are four Dorothy Parker offered up:
“Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.”
“If you can read this, you’ve come too close.”
“This is on me.”
“Excuse my dust.”
After Parker died in 1967, her ashes were unceremoniously kept in a filing cabinet in her lawyer’s office for more than 20 years. She had bequeathed her estate to Martin Luther King, Jr, and after his assassination it went to the NAACP. That organization retrieved her remains in 1988 and interred them on the grounds of their headquarters in Baltimore. Here’s what they went with:
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.
The 29th issue of Get Wit Quick was a bit of a downer, huh? My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting was peppier, at least. Cheer us all up by tapping the ❤️below.