Dorothy Parker once said that she didn’t mind what was written about her as long as it wasn’t the truth, so apologies for this blog. Dorothy’s caustic one-liners tell the true story of 1920s New York as well as any historical account of the Jazz Age.
Born Dorothy Rothschild in New Jersey in 1893, she had an unhappy childhood: her mother died shortly before her fifth birthday and her father remarried two years later. Dorothy started sharpening her tongue at an early age: she hated her father and stepmother and referred to her as “the housekeeper.” In return, her stepmother sent her to a convent boarding school. After her stepmother died, she attended a finishing school in New Jersey, where she began writing poems. In 1917 she married stockbroker Edwin Parker, an unsuccessful marriage during which Dorothy had many affairs and later quipped, “I only married him to change my name.”
In 1918 she worked as a theatre critic for Vanity Fair, where she met Robert Benchley and Robert E Sherwood. The three met regularly at the Algonquin Hotel and founded the Algonquin Round Table, a group of actors, writers and critics that became known as the Vicious Circle because of their cutting wit, and she later described as “just a bunch of loudmouths showing off.” Dorothy soon gained a reputation for wisecracks such as, “That woman speaks eighteen languages, and can’t say ‘No’ in any of them.” Here’s another, “If all the girls attending [the Yale prom] were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.” When president Calvin Coolidge died, she said, “How could they tell?” But her reviews became too caustic and Vanity Fare terminated her contract in 1920. She later said, “Vanity Fair was a magazine of no opinion, but I had opinions.”
But the most celebrated period of her life was about to begin. In 1925, she became part of the editorial board of The New Yorker and in the next fifteen years published over 300 poems. Here’s one of my favourites:
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.
Dorothy was herself no stranger to depression. In 1922 she fell in love with a journalist, Charles MacArthur, a womanizer. When the relationship ended, it took her a long time to recover. But she threw herself into work and extended her writing repertoire to include plays. She also remained in demand as a critic and worked for the New Yorker, The Nation, The New Republic, Cosmopolitan and American Mercury. She once commented that Katharine Hepburn in a Broadway play: “She ran the whole gamut of the emotions from A to B.”
In 1929 Dorothy won the O. Henry Prize for her short story Big Blonde, which established her as a serious writer. She married Alan Campbell who encouraged her to go Hollywood. They became a successful screenwriting team, peaking with their Oscar nomination for A Star is Born in 1937, and lived a glamorous existence in a Beverly Hills mansion. During the 1930s and 1940s, she championed causes like civil liberties and civil rights and founded the Hollywood Ant-Nazi League.
Although Dorothy made a vast amount of money in Hollywood, she spent every cent of it. She divorced and remarried Alan Campbell before his suicide in 1963. She spent her final years in poverty in New York City, in poor health, a result of heavy drinking. But her legacy is her writing and her quotes, which still raise a smile today.