Dorothy Parker, the eminent American writer best remembered for her pointed, mordant wit, was once asked of her choice of epitaph. "Excuse my dust," she replied. Black humor was Parker's stock-in-trade, understandable given the turbulent private life that often seeped into her fiction and verse. Even so, one suspects even she would have been startled by the black farce that ensued after her death, and how it took more than 20 years before she was finally interred, her choice of epitaph coupled with an eulogy that may have raised a wry smile.
Parker was born Dorothy Rothschild in 1893 in Long Beach, New Jersey, the third child of a father of German Jewish descent and a Scottish mother. Her early life was unstable; her mother died when she was five, and her father remarried, to a woman she loathed. When, once again widowed, he took ill when Parker was 14, she was obliged to leave boarding school in New Jersey to care for him, until his death six years later.
Rothschild had been a man of some means, but left his youngest daughter impoverished when he died. To earn a living, she played piano at a dancing school and started to submit short verses (she never liked the word "poem") to magazines. She sold her first piece in 1914; soon afterward, she was offered a job at Vogue as an editorial assistant. Two years later, she moved to Vanity Fair as a staff writer and drama critic, taking over the latter position from P.G. Wodehouse.
She developed a reputation as a tart-tongued and independent-minded critic, and was eventually fired for "fixing" - reviewing poorly - plays backed by powerful producers. As she put it, "Vanity Fair was a magazine of no opinions, but I had opinions. So I was fired." In 1917, she married Edwin Pond Parker II, a Wall Street broker. It was a turbulent marriage, punctuated by infidelity on both sides, addictions to morphine (Edwin) and alcohol (both), and two documented suicide attempts by Parker. The marriage was finally ended in 1928.
Much is often made of a quip Parker made at this time - "I married him to change my name" - as evidence of supposed ambivalence toward her Jewish roots. This is probably unfair. Parker often described herself, wryly, as "just a little Jewish girl trying to be cute"; in any case, her record of political activism later on in life contradicts this presumption.
Parker is often remembered as something of a poster girl for the Jazz Age, an era of free living and uninhibited behavior, times when "anything goes." Doyenne of the notorious Round Table at New York's Algonquin Hotel, she presided over a group of hard-drinking, talented reprobates from literary and theatrical circles, a position that did nothing - or perhaps everything - for her reputation.
But she had also begun to establish a reputation as a writer of subtlety, perception, social awareness and humor. Her first collection of verse, Enough Rope, was a best-seller in 1926, even though it had only been conceived to pay for an overseas trip; equally successful volumes of verse and short fiction followed throughout the 1920s and '30s. She also contributed influential reviews to The New Yorker under the byline Constant Reader.
In the mid-1930s, she moved to Hollywood with her second husband, Alan Campbell, a screenwriter and sometime actor 11 years her junior. Originally intending to stay for 10 weeks, working on scripts under contract to Paramount Pictures, she ended up staying for a decade and a half. Parker and Campbell were extremely successful as a screenwriting partnership, commanding salaries of $2,500 a week (a huge sum during the Depression), and writing more than 15 films together, including A Star Is Born, for which they received an Oscar nomination.
Later in life, Parker ruefully observed that this work, lucrative as it was, interfered with her serious writing; she never again reached the same level of literary productivity. Perhaps as sublimation, she became increasingly politically active, championing progressive and left-wing causes. She helped found both the Hollywood branch of the Anti-Nazi League and the Screenwriters Guild, and contributed financially for young war refugees to holiday at summer camps in Maine.
This activism came at a price. Her actions brought her to the attention of the FBI, which compiled a 1,000-page dossier on her activities. Publicly named as a communist in 1950, she was blacklisted by the Hollywood studios. In 1952 she moved back to New York and remained there for most of the rest of her life.
Her later years were largely unproductive. A play co-written with Arnaud d'Usseau in 1953 closed after only six weeks. She continued write well-regarded book reviews, mainly for Esquire, but her output was fitful. A second stint in Hollywood, working again with Campbell, whom she had divorced and remarried during the 1950s, was unproductive and came to an abrupt end when he accidentally overdosed on barbiturates in 1963. Parker was the first to discover his body.
Parker began to acknowledge, for once seriously, her own mortality. She was in her late 60s and had been in indifferent health for some years. And while remaining fiercely left-wing, active participation had dwindled as she grew older.
These factors no doubt influenced her decision to bequeath her entire estate, including copyright and royalties, to the Rev. Martin Luther King. She had never met King, but admired him and his work to champion racial equality. She also did two more things that caused no end of trouble later: She stipulated that, in the event of King's death, her estate should pass to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and she appointed her old friend Lillian Hellman as executrix.
Parker and Hellman had been friends for many years, drawn together by a mutual admiration and a shared commitment to left-wing causes. Hellman was an unknown at the time, but as Parker's star waned established herself as an award-winning playwright. She was articulate, opinionated and had a reputation for being extraordinarily disagreeable when she chose to be.
The two had drifted apart in later years, possibly a reflection of the change in their circumstances. Still, Parker's will was what it was, and when she died, of a heat attack, in June 1967, it fell to Hellman to arrange what ought to have been her burial.
Parker had asked to be cremated, and this took place in Hartsdale, New York. She had also requested, specifically, "no funeral service, formal or informal"; this stipulation Hellman ignored, arranging for Parker to be placed on view at the crematorium before a brief ceremony where she ostentatiously played the role of mourner in chief.
Hellman was not in support of Parker's will. Marion Meade, author of the definitive Parker biography What Fresh Hell Is This?, notes that Hellman was no big fan of King. More pertinently, Hellman had expected that Parker would leave her the literary estate. Nonetheless, she publicly applauded Parker's act. King, for his part, was bemused by the bequest but nonetheless deeply grateful for her generosity toward the civil rights movement.
The following year, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Under the terms of Parker's will, her estate passed to the NAACP, by default relieving Hellman of any further responsibilities. However, Hellman didn't see it quite that way.
Hellman, for one thing, actively despised the NAACP, which she considered timid and ineffectual. Also, she had no intention of watching what she considered her rightful inheritance pass from her again. So she went to court. The matter remained there for some years before judgment was passed, in 1972, in favor of the NAACP. Hellman was ungracious in defeat; "[Parker] must have been drunk when she did it," she fumed. Her association with the estate of Dorothy Parker ended, and so to the story of Dorothy Parker's curious afterlife.
In 1987, Marion Meade was completing work on her biography of Parker, and decided to visit what she presumed to be her final resting place in Hartsdale. She had been in touch with Hellman's erstwhile attorney, Paul O'Dwyer, and casually mentioned her plans during a telephone conversation. "But she's not there," he told her.
Meade recounts the story: "I began to argue. 'No, no,' he interrupted. 'I'm looking at her.' A funny thing had happened to Parker's ashes, he explained. They hadn't been claimed. 'Excuse me?' I said. 'Never buried?'"
Hellman had ignored repeated reminders for payment of storage fees for Parker's remains. Eventually, she advised the crematorium to forward the "package" to her attorneys, to await further instructions. There they remained, first in a drawer and later on the top of a filing cabinet, for 15 years. Further instructions never did arrive; Hellman died in 1984.
Meade and O'Dwyer convened a meeting of interested parties at - where else - the Algonquin to determine what should be done. Interesting, if impractical suggestions were mooted, but the final word lay with Benjamin Hooks, at the time director of the NAACP. As he noted, "The idea of a white woman leaving her entire estate to a black cause was unparalleled"; it was incumbent upon them to bury her in a manner that befitted her legacy.
Parker was finally laid to rest on October 20, 1988, in a memorial garden commissioned by the NAACP at its Baltimore headquarters. None of her friends were there; most had died many years before. The final choice of epitaph perhaps encapsulates best the legacy of an acerbic, contrary woman who nonetheless used what she did have at her disposal - words and wit - to make the word a better place.
"Here lie the ashes of Dorothy Parker, 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."