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Recommended Reading: The Tragic Wit of Dorothy Parker

By Clara Frey 

Staff Writer

Parker circa 1935 - Photo Credit: Alamy Stock

Best-selling poet, critic, short story writer and master of the one-liner, Dorothy Parker was the witty ‘it girl’ of the roaring twenties. Dorothy “Dot or Dottie” Parker was born to Henry and Eliza Rothschild in 1893 and grew up in New York’s Upper West Side. At just fourteen, her sharp tongue got her expelled from her convent school when  she insisted on referring to the Immaculate Conception as the “spontaneous combustion.”

 Though Parker lived in considerable comfort, her youth was full of sorrow. Both her mother and her stepmother died very young. At 19, her uncle Martin Rothschild drowned on the Titanic, and her father passed away the following year. She turned to writing light verse to express the sadness of her early years.

     In 1915, Vanity Fair purchased her poem, “Any Porch,” and Parker was offered a position writing advertisement captions at the new and fashionable women’s magazine Vogue, their sister publication. “At Vogue, Parker famously transformed Shakespeare’s line “brevity is the soul of wit” into an erotic epitaph: “brevity is the soul of lingerie.” 

In 1917, Parker was finally promoted to editor for Vanity Fair, becoming New York City’s first ever female drama critic. The same year, she married stockbroker Edwin Pond Parker. 

     As Parker became a prominent figure of New York City’s magazine industry, she also rose to celebrity as a founding member of The Algonquin Round Table. The group, dubbed “the vicious circle,” included humorist and Vanity Fair writer Robert Benchley, playwright and The New Yorker editor Robert E. Sherwood, and comedian Harpo Marx, the second oldest of the Marx brothers, among other literary wits. They met over lunch to exchange clever repartee and share artistic inspiration at the Algonquin Hotel in Midtown. 

Dorothy circa 1920 with Round Table members


     If Dorothy Parker’s literary career was a success, her personal life was a mess. She was entangled with a series of emotionally distant and usually married men. Beneath her sharp satire, there is an undercurrent of yearning and intimate pain in her poetry. "Accept me as I am, or reject me; or, as it usually goes, both,” she wrote.

     Parker’s first husband was an alcoholic and morphine addict, and shortly after their divorce she became involved with married fellow Round Tabler and debonair playwright Charles MacArthur. Their affair led to an unwanted pregnancy and Parker's subsequent abortion. In a characteristic display of wit, Parker lamented: “It serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard.” Parker, however, downplays her heartbreak at their troubled relationship. Following her abortion, she fell into a deep depression that would lead her to attempting suicide and would then plunge her into a habit of self-medicating with alcohol, which she would never shake. Parker famously observed: she wasn’t a writer with a drinking problem, but a drinker with a writing problem.

     Published shortly after Parker’s personal ordeal, Mr. Durant is a short story written in 1924 that seemingly draws inspiration from her tumultuous relationship with MacArthur. It tells of Mr Durant, a married rubber company worker, who, after having ‘taken care of’ the greatly inconvenient event of his mistress falling pregnant, can finally relax and return to admiring the stockinged legs of younger women on the bus. 

Parker’s second marriage to actor Alan Campbell in 1934 was also a turbulent affair. Campbell was 11 years her junior and had a reputation as a flirt. The two divorced in 1947, only to remarry three years later. They would stay married until Campbell died of an overdose in 1963. 

     In 1920, the same cutting wit that got Dottie expelled from the convent also got her fired from Vanity Fair. Parker poorly reviewed a Broadway production of Caesar’s Wife, and leveled a lethal quip at actress Billie Burke, wife of one of Vanity Fair’s biggest advertisers. “Vanity Fair was a magazine of no opinion- but I had opinions,” she later defended.

     But this event proved only a minor blow for Dottie– and she quickly rose to literary stardom. In the 1920s, she published over 300 poems in New York City’s flourishing print industry and wrote stories for The New Yorker. Parker single-handedly invented the New Yorker short story. She also published her first book of poetry- Enough Rope, which, in spite of being reviewed by the New York Times as “flapper verse,” sold 70 000 copies. Parker's poetry bears the hallmark of both wit and profound melancholy. Exploring power dynamics, particularly those embedded in gender, her verse delves into the intricate layers of American societal norms. Here is General Review of the Sex Situation from Enough Rope, 1924: 

“Woman wants monogamy;

Man delights in novelty. 

Love is Woman’s moon and sun; 

Man has other forms of fun. 

Woman lives but in her lord;

Count to ten, and man is bored. 

With this the gist and sum of it, 

What earthly good can come of it?” 

     Though some feminists are reluctant to embrace Parker for her interest in men and lines such as: “If you wear a short enough skirt, the party will come to you,” many of her main characters are women seeking emancipation in a world limited by societal expectations and she avant-garde-ly broached taboo women’s issues, such as abortion. 

     Parker’s works are hard to come by in bookstores due to their slight scale. Look for The Portable Dorothy Parker by Penguin Classics to discover the full breadth of Dot Parker’s tragic wit online.



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