Every morning at 09:15 except Sunday, I hike five minutes to the Student Center of the Anna Amalia Library to read the Herald Trib and the London Guardian. Seated opposite me for some years now has been one sixtyish retired chemist from Munich doing the German dailies. We’ve gotten in the habit of serving as talking reference books for each other as our reading requires. He’s better than any German dictionary; I readily illuminate “most” American references.
Such as the other day he queried, “Who was Dorothy Parker and what was the Algonquin Round Table?”) I explained that the Round Table at the Algonquin Hotel at 44th and Fifth Avenue was the watering hole of “New Yorker” writers in the 1920’s who relished three hour lunches and liked to dazzle each other with their wit. For example, there was an egghead game in which they asked each other to put strange words in a new sentence. D P at once complied with “horticulture”. “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”
I always enjoy remembering her half-aphorism: “Men don’t make passes with gals who wear glasses!” Or “One more Martini and I’ll be laying under my host.” Robert Benchley parried: ”I’m getting out of these wet clothes and into a dry Martini.” She was wildly acclaimed when someone brought the news to their table that Cool Cal Coolidge had just died” with “How could they tell?”
The more I blabbed about her wit the more I realized that I knew very little about her life before and after the Round Table. So I did what culture-deprived Americans often do in Germany. I plunked one and a half Euros on the librarian’s desk after interneting the particulars of “The Portable Dorothy Parker”, edited by Marion Meade (Penguin Books, 1976) from that great German aid for wandering Americans, Gemeinsam Bibliothek Verein (Common Library Circle) and in a few days Bremen University had lent its copy to me for six weeks!
Was I ever in for some biographical surprises. Dorothy Rothschild was born in West End, New Jersey on August 22, 1897 to a wealthy business man and his ill wife. She died suddenly of E.Coli in 1902, throwing her father into panic. Dorothy never got on with the stepmother. And she soon died from a stroke.
She had beleaguered the young girl with daily queries: ”Did you love Jesus today?” She had sent Dorothy to the nuns of Blessed Sacrament School. Later in life she teased that the then controversial concept of the Immaculate Conception was a case of “Spontaneous Combustion”! Her father’s brother died on the Titanic, sending him into deep depression. Dorothy finally was on her own.
So superficially happy go lucky Dorothy would go on as an adult to try to commit suicide no fewer than four times! Characteristically, she wrote a poem about her suicidal failures, concluding it was easier to go on living! Her writing career began when she sold “Any Porch” to “Vanity Fair” for $12, a sly riff on the often empty but very diverse conversations heard there.
She parlayed her first “success” into a job writing photo captions for “Vogue” and the “Vanity Fair”. The “Parker” moniker started with a wealthy husband whose marriage didn’t last very long, but she kept for good even when married (twice) to actor Alan Campbell. They tried Hollywood together and by 1937 were earning $5000 a week, an astonishing amount in the middle of the Depression. Dorothy scoffed that the streets of Hollywood “were paved with Goldwyn.”
But the thing that astonished me the most about her life was her leftward drift. In 1927 she became outraged at the imminent execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, the Boston anarchists. She was arrested and fined for her critical maneuvers preceding the execution. She helped organize the Screenwriters Guild, joined the Communist Party, took up with equally aroused lefties like Lillian Hellman. She even had an FBI file over 900 pages long! She was blacklisted in Hollywood during the McCarthyite 50’s.
Would you believe that she willed her modest $20,000 fortune to Martin Luther King, Jr. and dedicated her literary rights to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Indeed, when she died on 6/7/1967, familyless, Hellman saw to it that she was cremated with dignity.
But Lillian forgot to collect her ashes. And after an erratic series of removals from one business desk to another in New York City, her remains in 1988, twenty-one years after her death, were safely ensconced at the Baltimore HQ of the NAACP. Except for her diverse and entertaining literary remains, easily accessible in “The Dorothy Parker Reader”.
Another version of this article appears at Broad Street Review.