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Miss Parker's Pain: the Romantic Heart of Dorothy Parker

Updated on February 19, 2013

A Brilliant Career

One time editor of Vanity Fair, Frank Crowinshield once said of Dorothy Parker "she had the quickest tongue imaginable, and I need not say the keenest sense of mockery".

Yet Parker's clever, cynical approach obscured a deep-seated romanticism that is evident in much of her work; particularly her poetry about relationships, which formed a large part of her creative output. It seems probable that the incessant, cynical quiping was a kind of protection from the disappointments and disillusionments of her life experience. As the saying goes...'scratch a cynic and you'll find a disappointed idealist beneath'.

Parker was forthright, nor was she frightened of confrontation and indeed her candour cost her her job at Vanity Fair in 1920, as a result of her barbed, witty pieces, which sometimes offended those those who were on the receiving end. Always in search of a passionate high, her private life was a heady soup of romantic highs and lows; she was emotionally adventurous and had, on more than one occasion, to pay the price for venturing into dangerous waters.

Irrespective of what was happening in her life, Parker always pressed on with her writing - eloquent, elegant compositions, spiced with a knowing cynicism that revealed her sharp insights into the human condition. Between 1927 and 1933 wrote book reviews for The New Yorker and from 1957 to 1962, for Esquire. Her first collection of poems, Enough Rope, was published in 1926 and was a bestseller. This was followed by Sunset Guns (1928) and Death and Taxes (1931), which were included in Collected Poems: Not So Deep As a Well (1936). In additon, she wrote for films,co- founded the Screenwriter's Guild and wrote two short story collections - After Such Pleasures (1932) and Here Lies (1939) .

The Algonquin

The audacious poet was something of a legend in the New York literary scene and she fraternized with many of the luminaries of the day. At the Algonquin Club she was absorbed into a group of clever wits known variously as "The Round Table" and "The Vicious Circle", although originally the group had referrred to themselves as "The Board" and their long, loquacious lunches as "Board Meetings."

The group included literary players like humourist Robert Benchley, critic Alexander Woollcott,  the founder and editor of The New Yorker; Harold Ross, columnists Franklin Pierce Adams and Heywood Broun, comedian Harpo Marx and playwrights George S. Kaufman, Marc Connelly, novelist Edna Ferber, and Robert Sherwood. Occasionally, visiting writer's and others would be permitted entry to the inner sanctum, such as notorious wit and British playwright Noel Coward.

When they weren't playing charades, cribbage and poker, the Algonquin crowd were engaging in witticisms, practical jokes, smart remarks, bitchiness and collaborative creative exchanges. It was a living hub of artistic egos at play and Dorothy Parker was a luminous player.

"Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone."~ Dorothy parker

Although not pretty in the conventional sense, Dorothy Parker was sophisticated, stylish in her own unique way and posessed the sort of sex-appeal that comes from a brightly animated spirit.


Some men break your heart in two,
Some men fawn and flatter,
Some men never look at you;
And that clears up the matter.

The Vicious Circle by Al Hirsrchfield
The Vicious Circle by Al Hirsrchfield

Satrical Quips

Parker's jaunty, sardonic style was often superficially matter of fact, yet the deeper truths are always evident. The reader smiles, but it's a knowing smile because we recognise the warts on the familiar:

~She runs the gamut of emotion, from A to B.~

~If all the girls who attended Yale Prom were laid end to end, I wouldn't be at all surprised.~

~That woman speaks eighteen languages and can't say no in any of them.~

~I like to have a martini. Two at the very most....At three I'm under the table. At four I'm under the host.~

~Tell him I'm too f*cking busy..or tell him I' m too busy f*cking~

~if you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.~

~The two most beautiful words in the English language are "cheque enclosed".~

~You can't teach an old dogma new tricks.~

Dorothy Parker: The Dark Heart of Love

Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Rumania.

Parker's cynicism about love is evident in the poem above and indeed, long term happiness in love eluded her. One of her lovers was literary star, F Scott Fitzgerald, - while he was still married, though the affair was brief and according to columnist Sheila Graham, who herself was involved with Fitzgerald, the affair was motivated "by compassion on her part and despair on his". It was not Parker's only extra-marital relationships and in between affairs she married twice.

"Serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard."

At twenty-six, she married a man called Edwin Pond Parker II, In 1917 and by the end of 1919, they were divorced. Pond Parker was a stockbroker and sadly, one with a troubled, damaged personality. Wounded in World War I, he was an alcoholic, and as a result of his injuries, he became addicted to morphine during the war. Parker once joked that she had only married him to shake off her Jewish maiden name of Rothschild and avoid the anti-semitism that was pervasive at the time.

"His voice was as intimate as the rustle of sheets."

Dorothy Parker didn't marry again until 1930, this time to actor and aspiring screenwriter, Alan Campbell, a man twelve years her junior. The pair moved to Hollywood where she took up a new career in screenwriting. Campbell too, ultimately proved to be a delicate soul and died in 1963 of a barbituate overdose. The marriage had lasted seventeen years until they divorced in 1947 but it had been a volatile match for much of that time - exacerbated by Parker's increasing alcohol dependence and Campbell's affair with a married woman. Nethertheless, it proved to be her most enduring relationship and they remarried in 1950 but while they remained good friends, they lived apart second time around.

The poem below, A Dream Lies Dead, reeks of dissillusionment yet the reader can sense the fragile idealism beneath:

A dream lies dead here. May you softly go
Before this place, and turn away your eyes,
Nor seek to know the look of that which dies
Importuning Life for life. Walk not in woe,
But, for a little, let your step be slow.
And, of your mercy, be not sweetly wise
With words of hope and Spring and tenderer skies.
A dream lies dead; and this all mourners know:

Whenever one drifted petal leaves the tree-
Though white of bloom as it had been before
And proudly waitful of fecundity-
One little loveliness can be no more;
And so must Beauty bow her imperfect head
Because a dream has joined the wistful dead!

Might as Well Live; Dorothy Parker's Suicidal Tendencies

Throughout the 1920s Parker succumbed to several extra-marital affairs, drank to excess and attempted suicide three times. Although professionally she was a raging success and never lost her motivation to write, her private passions were a source of profound disatisfaction, despair and disappointment. However, at least through her poetry, her attitude to the tragic imperfections of life was philosophical:


Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smell awful;
You might as well live

Such dark tendencies may have stemmed partly from what was by her own account, an unhappy childhood. Her mother died when she was five, she reputedly detested her step-mother and relations wth her father, Jacob Henry Rothschild, whom she accused of physically abusive, weren't much better. Rothschild died when she was twenty,

In politics, she was characteristically outspoken and was an early supporter of civil liberties and civil rights a well as a vocal critic of Fascism and Nazism. During the McMarthy era Parker was blacklisted, having declared herself a communist, though she was never a member of the Communist party. Her satirical wit was an effective weapon but she used it wisely, against pretence, hypocrisy and oppression and never against the oppressed.

Dorothy Parker did live and in the end died of natural causes at the age of 73, alone in her home in 1967 - a residential New York hotel. Childless, she left her estate to Martin Luther King, Jr , a man she had never met. Through all the vicissitudes of personal hurt, her social conscience never left her. In worldy matters, as in love, she was at heart a romantic idealist.


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