Monday, June 14, 2021. It was a nice quiet weekend in New York with temps in the mid-60s up to the early 70s; not hot but comfortable. And some precipitation, however light, briefly now and then.
Dreams Undelivered. Sunday morning. Sunny day. Quiet out there on the street. I’m a reader of the New York Review of Books which I discovered it back in the early ‘60s when I was first living in New York. They’re too much to read all at once, and so I save them for the articles that appeal to my curiosity. I have a pile of them nearby, always waiting for my spare time to read another.
It is a serious publication but it also appeals to my need to learn more for myself. For decades it was run by the same staff of founders Robert Silvers, Jason Epstein, et al. It was the mainstream version of a serious American literary magazine. The founders were not a famous or celebrated group — except among their friends, admirers and writers with serious intentions. With them, they were very famous. But they were educators for this boy who had private dreams if not greatness in making the most of life.
Getting back to my unread NYRB, one of those in the pile (once much larger) of back issues with specific articles still waiting to be read was a piece called “Brilliant, Troubled Dorothy Parker” written by Robert Gottlieb.
Mr. Gottlieb, if you didn’t know, was/is a “legendary” American book editor of the last half of the 20th Century and now the 21st too. He’s still with us — age 90 — and is also a writer himself. I do not know him, but I’ve long been aware of his distinguished career and reputation with his writers — many of whom were/are famous.
I was attracted to the article because of the portrait of Dorothy Parker photographed in 1932 by Edward Steichen. At that time, both subject and photographer were famously prominent in the world of the arts and letters in America and especially in New York. I’d read references to her and had a sense of her public personality (today she would be called a celebrity writer/journalist). Gottlieb’s portrait captures the public personality enough for you to wonder what the lady was like behind that image.
My knowledge about Ms. Parker was limited but memorable. I came upon her a long time ago — as a high school student — in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. This was in the 1950s. I knew very little about her work. She had been a columnist, a theatre critic, a social commentator, screenwriter, biographer, all adding up to a prolific, witty, intelligent writer. She had been famous from her early ’20s in the 1920s — and was definitely one of the club that was publicly referred to as the “Algonquin Round Table” of Wits and Vilifiers back in the 1920s.
I was looking through Bartlett’s that day for something and I accidentally came upon a page of hers and this line:
Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.
The cleverness caught this teenager’s eye. Continuing on the page I found this — the foundation of my now life-long passing interest in Dorothy Parker. It kind of explained something to me about her and about life:
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.
As a teenager, I often spent time at the house of a school friend Lynn Holmes whose father was a college professor and whose mother was my high school English teacher. I initially had a crush on her, and it turned into a friendship with the family which was very rewarding. The parents loved the company of Lynn’s school mates who were interested in knowing. It was an atmosphere of conversation of all kinds of sophisticated (“grownup”) worlds out there.
Mr. Holmes had a great sense of humor and when I told him about my discovery of “Razors pain you…” etcetera, he told me of another Dorothy Parker limerick which may or may not have been written by her.
The story behind it was that at one time she was working as a columnist for the Hearst newspapers and Mr. Hearst decided to fire her for whatever reason. He did this by inviting her to spend a weekend at San Simeon with his party of guests. At the end of the weekend just before she was departing, he also informed her that he would no longer be using her services; she was fired.
Having packed her bags, as she left the castle, she was said to have pinned this message on the bedroom door of Marion Davies, the lifelong mistress of Mr. Hearst:
Upon my honor
I’ve seen the Madonner
Set high in a golden niche.
But beyond this door
Lies the beautiful whore
Of the world’s worst son of a bitch.
Mr. Gottlieb has written a fascinating biographical portrait of the lady, long and detailed enough to give you a sense of her personality and social presence. She was one of those girls who was brilliant, witty, with a down-home of the commonness in our behavior. She was also one of those girls who liked the boys but also had a good time challenging them. Gottlieb credits her for her talents, comparing her work to other women and men writers because of the impact of her talent.
Born in 1893, she came of age as a member of the first 20th century American generation of women. With her generation came vast changes in our entire civilization, the profound result of the Industrial Revolution. Cars, telephones, electric lights, radios, movies marked the transformation. We can’t even imagine the profoundity of the change. The world was becoming noticeably smaller and more accessible to its citizens.
It was revolutionary for her generation, and reflected these enormous changes as well as the role of women in the world outside the home. Parker was the modern woman, out there in the world of men, catching their interest with her mind (and her talent). She was the first of a role many women have now pursued and succeeded in.
By the 1950s, with the country having gone through the Depression and the Second World War Dorothy Parker had gone through personal changes, both professionally, personally and politically. She was very impressed by the Civil Rights Movement and particularly with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She made it her business to come to know him personally. Her attentions were re-directed to what were then called liberal causes, particularly the issues of black Americans. None of this is uncommon today, but back then it was very rare, particularly for a single white woman to re-direct her interests to their causes.
Her employment opportunities had lessened enormously after all those years on top of her world. She was living full time in New York, solo, at the Hotel Volney on East 74th Street. As she got older she was more isolated with her aloneness and more prone to alcoholic. She had some friends but she apparently withdrew to her rooms much of the time. Those mentions of methods to end it all (“razors pain you…”) which she listed forty years before with the intention to amuse were clever, but also the stuff of thoughts that she and many of us have had about our lives and ourselves at certain times. It is always real even when it is presented as humor.
Dorothy Parker died here in New York on June 7, 1967 in her 74th year. Robert Gottlieb, who knew her and her talent well, wrote about her passing: “The tragedy of Dorothy Parker, it seems to me, isn’t that she succumbed to alcoholism or died essentially alone. It was that she was too intelligent to believe that she had made the most of herself.” She left her entire estate to the Martin Luther King Jr. Foundation. Still way ahead of her time.