Dorothy Parker: Witty, wise, wistful and wonderful

I wish I could have met her, just once, held her hand and whispered, “I understand.”

 HER LETHAL wit marked her out from the start. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
HER LETHAL wit marked her out from the start.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Everyone has a hero or heroine – someone of whom they stood in awe and would have loved to have met. For me, even as a teenager, it was Dorothy Parker. Maybe it started because we shared a name (I was born Dorothy, before Israel, when I Hebraized it to Dvora), but even then I loved her witticisms like:

“Men never make passes,At girls who wear glasses.”(smug in the knowledge that I didn’t need them)

The bare facts about her life were that she was born Dorothy Rothschild (her father was Jewish, her mother Scottish Protestant) on August 22, 1893 in New Jersey, and died at age 73 in New York. She was married three times: first to Edwin Pond Parker in 1917 for 11 years and divorced; and then surprisingly twice to the same man – Alan Campbell – whom she married in 1934 for 13 years; divorced and then remarried in 1950. She had no children.

She grew up on the Upper West Side and was sent to a Catholic school: the Convent of the Blessed Sacrament. Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know, but she said she was expelled for characterizing the Immaculate Conception as spontaneous combustion. Following her father’s death in 1913, she played the piano at a dancing school to support herself, while she worked on her poetry. She sold her first poem to Vanity Fair in 1914, later became an editorial assistant at Vogue and two years later became a staff writer at Vanity Fair.

Her lethal wit marked her out from the start. The 1920’s were her decade, when she published 300 poems. In 1926, her first volume of poetry became a best-seller. She was also contributing short stories to The New Yorker. At this time, she became part of the literary luncheon crowd at the Algonquin hotel they called the Round Table.

 WILL MEN make passes? (credit: Scott-Van-Daalen/Unsplash) WILL MEN make passes? (credit: Scott-Van-Daalen/Unsplash)

Some of her funniest quips (and a lot of naughty ones) were “Brevity is the soul of lingerie,” “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think,” “Take me or leave me or, as is the usual order of things, both,” and “The first thing I do in the morning is sharpen my tongue.”

“The first thing I do in the morning is sharpen my tongue.”

Dorothy Parker

Her poems were often cynical:

“By the time you swear you’re his,Shivering and sighing,And he vows his passion isInfinite, undying.Lady make a note of this –One of you is lying!”

Her personal life was a mess. There is unfulfilled longing coursing through her verse. She was involved with a series of men who were emotionally unavailable, often married. She self-medicated, joking that she wasn’t a writer with a drinking problem, but a drinker with a writing problem. She twice tried to commit suicide (once after an abortion), and then at 42 she became pregnant again, but miscarried shortly thereafter.

But underneath the sarcasm and occasional bitterness, I have always detected a fragile woman, often heartbroken. She may dismiss men’s human frailties with smart jibes, but the pain is there, nevertheless:

“My own true love, he is strong and boldAnd he cares not what comes after,His words ring sweet as a chime of goldAnd his eyes are lit with laughter.He is jubilant as a flag unfurled –Oh, a girl she’d not forget him.My own dear love, he is all my world –And I wish I’d never met him.”(From “Love Song” 1926)

“The sun’s gone dimAnd the moon’s turned blackFor I loved himAnd he didn’t love back.”(From “Vagabond”)

People forget that she was a great campaigner for social justice. During the Spanish Civil War, she went to Europe to further the anti-Franco cause. In her will, she left the bulk of her estate to Martin Luther King Jr.

Whenever her name is mentioned, people think of her biting wit, her cynical jokes. But I think of a fragile woman, buffeted and wounded in life; a sensitive soul lurking beneath a devil-may-care attitude.

I wish I could have met her, just once, held her hand and whispered, “I understand.” ■

The writer is the author of 14 books. Her latest novel is Searching for Sarah. [email protected]