Dorothy Parker (1893 – 1967) was an American poet, short story writer, critic, and satirist, best known for her wit and her wisecracks, a reputation she deplored. On August 22, 1893, she was born to J. Henry and Elizabeth Rothschild, at their summer home in West End, New Jersey. Growing up on Manhattan, hers was an unhappy childhood. Both her mother and step-mother died when she was young; an uncle went down on the Titanic in 1912; and her father died the following year. Dorothy first attended a Catholic grammar school, then a finishing school in Morristown, New Jersey. Her formal education abruptly ended when she was 14.
In 1914, she sold her first poem to Vanity Fair. At age 22, she took an editorial job at Vogue. She continued to write poems for newspapers and magazines, and in 1917 she joined Vanity Fair, taking over from P.G. Wodehouse as drama critic. That year she married a stockbroker, Edwin P. Parker. But the marriage was tempestuous, and the couple divorced in 1928.
She was a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, an informal gathering of writers who lunched at the Algonquin Hotel. These writers included Robert Benchley, Harpo Marx, George S Kaufman, and Edna Ferber, and they were known for their scathing wit and intellectual commentary. When the New Yorker was first produced in 1925, Parker was listed on the editorial board. Over the years, she contributed poetry, fiction and book reviews as the “Constant Reader.” Her first collection of poetry, Enough Rope, was published in 1926, and was a bestseller. One reviewer described her verse as “caked with a salty humor, rough with splinters of disillusion, and tarred with a bright black authenticity”. Two subsequent collections were Sunset Gun (1928) and Death and Taxes (1931). Despite her success, she suffered from depression and alcoholism and attempted suicide.
In 1934, Parker married actor-writer Alan Campbell in New Mexico. Later they moved to Los Angeles and became a highly paid and successful screenwriting team. They divorced in 1947, and remarried in 1950. Her successes in film, including two Academy Award nominations (one for A Star Is Born in 1937) ended when her involvement in left-wing politics led to a place on the Hollywood blacklist. Parker, who was a life-long socialist, was called before the House on Un-American Activities in 1955. She pleaded the Fifth Amendment. She was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1959 and was a visiting professor at California State College in Los Angeles in 1963. That same year, her husband died of an overdose. On June 6, 1967, Dorothy Parker was found dead of a heart attack in a New York City hotel aged 73. A firm believer in civil rights, she bequeathed her literary estate to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Her ashes remained in a crematory in Westchester, a New York suburb, for six years; they were then moved to her lawyer’s filing cabinet on Wall Street for 15 years; subsequently they were placed in a memorial garden in a yard behind the N.A.A.C.P. headquarters in Baltimore. Eventually, in August, 2020, due to the efforts of the Dorothy Parker Society, a fan group, they were carried on an Amtrak train from Baltimore to New York, and then in an Uber from Penn Station to the Upper West Side. She was reinterred, after a ceremony at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, on August 22nd, her birthday, when she would have turned 127 years old.
THE RAZOR-SHARP WIT OF DOROTHY PARKER
I have called this post “Razors”, not only because it is the first word of my favourite Parker poem, Resumé, a poem I have included despite it exceeding the length of a tweet, but also because it acknowledges the cut-throat sharpness of her wit and her social and literary wisdom. John Hollander recognises as much: Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) had a fine ear as well as a sharp tongue, and a good sense of timing and what in musical theater is called “build”–the timing and phrasing of a routine to allow a punch line to work. And her best verse is indeed set up for those punch lines. Initially I was inclined to select the best of her brief epigrammatic quatrains but, as even many of her lesser poems have a blunted but still cutting sharpness, I decided to spread the net wide and draw in a larger shoal. This may be light verse but, as Hollander notes, We are today in a literary age of what jazz musicians used to call a tin ear, and there is less light verse written, and less capacity, probably, to appreciate it than ever before. Much that is attempted results in appallingly inept doggerel whose defects seem unnoticed. There may be defects in some of the poems printed below but they are neither inept nor doggerel. And they have a cutting edge.
Brief Poems by Dorothy Parker
Alexandre Dumas and his Son
Although I work, and seldom cease,
At Dumas pere and Dumas fils,
Alas, I cannot make me care
For Dumas fils and Dumas pere.
Alfred Lord Tennyson
Should Heaven send me any son,
I hope he’s not like Tennyson.
I’d rather have him play a fiddle
Than rise and bow and speak an idyll.
So silent I when Love was by
He yawned, and turned away;
But Sorrow clings to my apron-strings,
I have so much to say.
Oh, both my shoes are shiny new,
And pristine is my hat;
My dress is 1922….
My life is all like that.
Who call him spurious and shoddy
Shall do it o’er my lifeless body.
I heartily invite such birds
To come outside and say those words!
I never see that prettiest thing-
A cherry bough gone white with Spring-
But what I think, “How gay ‘twould be
To hang me from a flowering tree.”
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 Roumania.
D. G. Rossetti
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Buried all of his libretti,
Thought the matter over – then
Went and dug them up again.
Oh, is it, then, Utopian
To hope that I may meet a man
Who’ll not relate, in accents suave,
The tales of girls he used to have?
Some men break your heart in two,
Some men fawn and flatter,
Some men never look at you;
And that cleans up the matter.
Faute De Mieux
Travel, trouble, music, art,
A kiss, a frock, a rhyme-
I never said they feed my heart,
But still they pass my time.
For a Sad Lady
And let her loves, when she is dead,
Write this above her bones:
“No more she lives to give us bread
Who asked her only stones.”
When I admit neglect of Gissing,
They say I don’t know what I’m missing.
Until their arguments are subtler,
I think I’ll stick to Samuel Butler.
What time the gifted lady took
Away from paper, pen, and book,
She spent in amorous dalliance
(They do those things so well in France).
Oh, seek, my love, your newer way;
I’ll not be left in sorrow.
So long as I have yesterday,
Go take your damned tomorrow!
Harriet Beecher Stowe
The pure and worthy Mrs. Stowe
Is one we all are proud to know
As mother, wife, and authoress-
Thank God, I am content with less!
I wish I could drink like a lady
I wish I could drink like a lady;
I can take one or two at the most:
Three and I’m under the table,
Four and I’m under the host.
Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses.
Ornithology for Beginners
The bird that feeds from off my palm
Is sleek, affectionate, and calm,
But double, to me, is worth the thrush
A-flickering in the elder-bush.
If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.
Whose love is given over-well
Shall look on Helen’s face in hell,
Whilst those whose love is thin and wise
May view John Knox in Paradise.
If I should labor through daylight and dark,
Consecrate, valorous, serious, true,
Then on the world I may blazon my mark;
And what if I don’t, and what if I do?
Hope it was that tutored me,
And Love that taught me more;
And now I learn at Sorrow’s knee
The self-same lore.
Long I fought the driving lists,
Plume a-stream and armor clanging;
Link on link, between my wrists,
Now my heavy freedom’s hanging.
Because your eyes are slant and slow,
Because your hair is sweet to touch,
My heart is high again; but oh,
I doubt if this will get me much.
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
Rhyme against Living
If wild my breast and sore my pride,
I bask in dreams of suicide;
If cool my heart and high my head,
I think, “How lucky are the dead!”
My land is bare of chattering folk;
The clouds are low along the ridges,
And sweet’s the air with curly smoke
From all my burning bridges.
Every love’s the love before
In a duller dress.
That’s the measure of my lore-
Here’s my bitterness:
Would I knew a little more,
Or very much less!
Should they whisper false of you,
Never trouble to deny;
Should the words they say be true,
Weep and storm and swear they lie.
You are brief and frail and blue-
Little sisters, I am, too.
You are Heaven’s masterpieces-
Little loves, the likeness ceases.
The Flaw in Paganism
Drink and dance and laugh and lie,
Love, the reeling midnight through,
For tomorrow we shall die!
(But, alas, we never do.)
Carlyle combined the lit’ry life
With throwing teacups at his wife,
Remarking, rather testily,
“Oh, stop your dodging, Mrs. C.!”
Thought for a Sunshiny Morning
It costs me never a stab nor squirm
To tread by chance upon a worm.
“Aha, my little dear,” I say,
“Your clan will pay me back one day.
The sun’s gone dim, and
The moon’s turned black;
For I loved him, and
He didn’t love back.
By the time you swear you’re his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying –
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.
Walter Savage Landor
Upon the work of Walter Landor
I am unfit to write with candor.
If you can read it, well and good;
But as for me, I never could.
Words of Comfort to be Scratched on a Mirror
Helen of Troy had a wandering glance;
Sappho’s restriction was only the sky;
Ninon was ever the chatter of France;
But oh, what a good girl am I.