Authors: Dorothy Parker

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American writer of screenplays, drama, short stories, and poetry

August 22, 1893

West End, New Jersey

June 7, 1967

New York, New York

Biography

Dorothy Parker, called the wittiest woman in America during her heyday in the 1920s, was born Dorothy Rothschild in West End, New Jersey, in 1893. Her Scottish Presbyterian mother died when she was still an infant; her Jewish father was a strict disciplinarian who showed her little affection. After being gently asked to leave a Catholic convent school for her somewhat heretical wit, she attended Miss Dana’s School for Young Ladies in Morristown, New Jersey, where she was matriculated in 1911. After one year there, however, she left, and for the next few years, she lived in a Manhattan boardinghouse, supporting herself as best she could and writing poetry, which was regularly rejected.

Parker’s life began to change when the editor of Vogue magazine not only accepted one of her poems but also offered her a job writing captions for fashion illustrations. In 1917 she was offered a job as drama critic for Vanity Fair, an important literary magazine of the time. As a result of this influential position and her biting and witty reviews, she became one of the few women to be included as a regular of the so-called Algonquin Round Table, a group of New York’s literary elite who met for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel. Among the members were such columnists, novelists, playwrights, journalists, and wits as Alexander Woollcott, Heywood Broun, George S. Kaufman, Robert Benchley, Robert Sherwood, Edna Ferber, and Harold Ross.

Dorothy Parker

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(Library of Congress)

When Ross started The New Yorker in 1925, the slick and sophisticated magazine became a further catalyst for the group, whose clever remarks became infamous when dutifully reported in newspaper columns. Parker, who contributed more than her share, is perhaps better known today for her witty sayings, such as “Men seldom make passes/ At girls who wear glasses,” than for her poetry or her short stories.

After losing her job at Vanity Fair because of a biting review of the performance of Billie Burke, wife of the influential producer Florenz Ziegfeld, Parker wrote columns for various magazines such as McCall’s and freelanced, publishing poems, stories, and sketches in a variety of New York magazines. Her first volume of poetry, Enough Rope, delighted sophisticated readers with its brittle wit and epigrammatic style and became a remarkable success. Her second collection, Sunset Gun, did almost as well, for it continued her whimsical satire and skepticism. It was not until her third volume, Death and Taxes, that her poetry began to reveal the kind of underlying nihilism and bitter sarcasm that led Parker to more than one suicide attempt.

Although it was her poetry and her witty sayings that earned fame in the 1920s, Parker’s short stories will perhaps remain with readers the longest. Although many of them are merely clever and crisp brief pieces of wit, some of them reflect a depth of understanding of despair and loneliness that has since struck a familiar chord, especially among women readers. Two of her best-known stories—“A Telephone Call” and “Big Blonde”—illustrate why Parker has come to be appreciated by feminist critics and readers. The first is an insightful monologue which reflects the helplessness of a woman waiting for a phone call from a man. In spite of her realization that men always hate it when a woman says what she is really thinking, the narrator is trapped by social conventions. Hazel Morse’s situation in “Big Blonde” is more extreme, for she is a painful reflection of woman as object, a woman who has no other way to define herself than in terms of how she is used by men.

After Parker and her husband, Edwin Parker, were divorced in 1928, she married actor Alan Campbell in 1933; she then went to Hollywood to write a number of screenplays with him in the 1930s. Along with Lillian Hellman, she formed the Screen Writers Guild in 1933 and became active in various other organizations. Because of her Marxist sympathies, she was subpoenaed to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1952 and was consequently blacklisted, as were many Hollywood writers and directors who fell victim to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunt. Parker moved back to New York after her unpleasant encounter with the HUAC, but this episode, combined with the death of her husband in 1963, seemed to cause her to lose her will to live. She still wrote and taught, but she had no zest for either. She died of a heart attack in 1967 in a shabby East Side Manhattan hotel.

Called an odd blend of Little Nell and Lady Macbeth by Round Table colleague Alexander Woollcott, the “wittiest woman of our time” by writer William Rose Benét, and the best epigrammatic poet in America in the twentieth century by later critics, Parker played an important role as a social satirist of the 1920s. Although she never achieved the respect she desired as a serious writer, her poetry will remain as a model of epigrammatic verse in modern American literature, and her profound understanding of the dilemmas faced by twentieth century American women will continue to make her a central figure in feminist writing.

Author Works Short Fiction: Laments for the Living, 1930 After Such Pleasures, 1933 Here Lies: The Collected Stories, 1939 The Portable Dorothy Parker, 1944 The Penguin Dorothy Parker, 1977 Complete Stories, 1995 Nonfiction: Constant Reader, 1970 Drama: Nero, pr. 1922 (with Robert Benchley) Close Harmony: Or, The Lady Next Door, pr. 1924 (with Elmer Rice) The Coast of Illyria, pr. 1949 (with Ross Evans) The Ladies of the Corridor, pr., pb. 1953 (with Arnaud d’Usseau) Screenplays: Business Is Business, 1925 (with George S. Kaufman) Here Is My Heart, 1934 (with Alan Campbell) One Hour Late, 1935 (with Campbell) Mary Burns, Fugitive, 1935 Hands Across the Table, 1935 Paris in Spring, 1935 Big Broadcast of 1936, 1935 (with Campbell) Three Married Men, 1936 (with Campbell) Lady Be Careful, 1936 (with Campbell and Harry Ruskin) The Moon’s Our Home, 1936 Suzy, 1936 (with Campbell, Horace Jackson, and Lenore Coffee) A Star Is Born, 1937 (with Campbell and Robert Carson) Woman Chases Man, 1937 (with Joe Bigelow) Sweethearts, 1938 (with Campbell) Crime Takes a Holiday, 1938 Trade Winds, 1938 (with Campbell and Frank R. Adams) Flight into Nowhere, 1938 Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, 1939 Weekend for Three, 1941 (with Campbell) The Little Foxes, 1941 Saboteur, 1942 (with Campbell, Peter Viertel, and Joan Harrison) A Gentle Gangster, 1943 Mr. Skeffington, 1944 Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, 1947 (with Frank Cavett) The Fan, 1949 (with Walter Reisch and Ross Evans) Queen for a Day, 1951 A Star Is Born, 1954 Poetry: Enough Rope, 1926 Sunset Gun, 1928 Death and Taxes, 1931 Not So Deep as a Well, 1936 Not Much Fun, 1996 Complete Poems, 1999 Edited Texts: Short Story: A Thematic Anthology, 1965 (with Frederick B. Shroyer) Bibliography Calhoun, Randall. Dorothy Parker: A Bio-bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. A helpful guide for the student of Parker. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Freibert, Lucy M. “Dorothy Parker.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Short Story Writers, 1910-1945, edited by Bobby Ellen Kimbel. Vol. 86. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989. Freibert’s excellent entry on Dorothy Parker provides some general biographical information and close readings of some of her most important stories. Includes a bibliography of Parker’s work and a critical bibliography. Keats, John. You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970. Keats’s book was the first popular biography published on Parker and it is quite thorough and readable. Supplemented by a bibliography and an index. Kinney, Arthur F. Dorothy Parker. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1998. In this excellent study of Parker’s life and work, Kinney incorporates facts recorded for the first time and provides the first full critical assessment of her writing. Kinney calls Parker the best epigrammatic American poet of her century. Contains a bibliography and extensive notes and references. Meade, Marion. Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? London: Heinemann, 1987. Meade has produced a good, thorough biography that relates events in Parker’s fiction to situations in her life. Nevertheless, Meade’s focus is biographical and the discussion of Parker’s work is mostly in passing. Includes notes and an index. Melzer, Sondra. The Rhetoric of Rage: Women in Dorothy Parker. New York: Peter Lang, 1997. Explores Parker’s representation of female characters in her works. Pettit, Rhonda S. A Gendered Collision: Sentimentalism and Modernism in Dorothy Parker’s Poetry and Fiction. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson, 2000. A study that attempts to shift the focus of Parker criticism from the poet’s life to the wider literary environment. Simpson, Amelia. “Black on Blonde: The Africanist Presence in Dorothy Parker’s ‘Big Blonde.’” College Literature 23 (October, 1996): 105–116. Claims that “Big Blonde” exposes the way race and gender are mutually constitutive and how blackness contests and constructs the privilege of whiteness; argues that three seemingly unimportant African figures are the key to this narrative about the subjugation of white women in America. Walker, Nancy A. “The Remarkably Constant Reader: Dorothy Parker as Book Reviewer.” Studies in American Humor, n.s. 3, no. 4 (1997): 1–14. A discussion of Parker’s book reviews for The New Yorker from 1927 to 1933 and for Esquire from 1957 to 1962 as a reflection of her literary sensibility.

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