Dorothy Parker – The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue

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;

Nooses give;

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.


Vera Brittain: testament of an inspiring woman

Last week, I heard that a film adaptation of Vera Brittain’s ‘Testament of Youth’ is about to be released. If you’ve never read it, you should. I first discovered it when I was sixteen and was blown away by it.

Vera was born to a middle class family in 1893, and rebelled against convention throughout her childhood. She was desperate to study at Oxford but her provincial parents didn’t approve of education for women. She eventually wore them into submission, and won a place at Oxford without any coaching or encouragement. But she’d barely started her studies when war broke out. Frustrated by her own inability to be make a difference, she enrolled in the Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse, tending to wounded servicemen in England, Malta and France. Her idealism soon faded. In the hospitals, she heard stories of atrocities committed by British and Germans, as well as witnessing horrific injuries, and became cynical about the war coverage in the British media. She also lost the four people she cared most about in the world: her fiancé Roland, two close male friends, Victor and Geoffrey, and her brother, Edward. Meanwhile her parents urged her to return to her ‘rightful’ place at home, obsessed with petty worries about lack of decent domestic staff.

When she returned from the war, she found it hard to adjust. She returned to Oxford and was devastated when she received a hostile response from younger fellow students following her description of her wartime experiences at the debating society. But she formed a close and lifelong friendship with fellow student Winifred Holtby and, after Oxford, the two of them moved into in a studio flat in an arrangement that was considered bohemian and led to later rumours about their sexuality. They scraped a living by writing articles and lecturing, though both were passionate about becoming writers. Vera had to contain her jealousy when Winifred was the first to have her novel published (she became a successful novelist and is best known for South Riding.) In 1925, Vera married George Catlin, a philosopher and political scientist. They had two children, one of whom is Shirley Williams, former Labour Cabinet minister and now a Liberal Democrat peer, who remembers her mother being constantly haunted by the loss of Roland, Victor, Geoffrey and Edward. Although she was a good mother, her writing came first; Shirley Williams recalls that ‘interruptions were permitted only for deaths, serious accidents or wars.’

Vera published Testament of Youth in 1933 and it became one of the most famous memoirs of the twentieth century. Although she wrote two more memoirs and a handful of novels, nothing came close to the success of Testament of Youth. And her life became further touched by tragedy. In 1935, her father, who never recovered from her brother’s death, committed suicide by jumping from a bridge. Also that year, Winifred died of Bright’s disease, aged only 37.

After this double blow, Vera threw herself into campaigning for pacifist causes. But she acted as well as talking; in the Second World War she worked as a fire warden, helped people whose homes had been bombed as well as working on food relief campaigns. Controversially, she also campaigned against the mass bombing of Germany.

Vera died in 1970, believing that she’d been forgotten as a writer, ‘the fading voice of a dying generation’. She was wrong. Testament of Youth was adapted for TV in 1979 and is still considered one of the greatest accounts of World War I ever written. I hope the new film does it justice.