"The Flaw in Paganism"
by Dorothy Parker
Drink and dance and laugh and lie,
Love, the reeling midnight through,
For tomorrow we shall die!
(But, alas, we never do.)
Over the weekend, I caught the 1994 movie, "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," on one of the cable movie channels. The picture is a disappointment, especially given its richly complicated subject matter. Jennifer Jason Leigh fails to capture the champagne sparkle of Dorothy Parker's presence; instead, Leigh plays Parker as alternately drunk and morose or sober and morose -- reminiscent of another actress of whom Parker herself said, "Come and see her run the gamut of emotion from A to B." (Quiz - who was the actress? Extra credit - what was the production?)
In this clip, Leigh as Mrs. Parker recites her most infamous poem at a lunch party:
Great hat, though.
How did this unhappy Jewish girl from New Jersey end up the toast of Manhattan and charter member of the famous Algonquin Round Table? She was talented, resilient, and lucky, selling her first poem to Vanity Fair at the age of 21 and landing her first editorial position at Vogue at 23. She was also pretty, sophisticated, and murderously witty, holding her own with a formidable group of writers, editors, and critics both intellectually and in drinking capacity. The Round Table crew consisted of such literary giants of the early 20th century as Robert Benchley, Edna Ferber, George S. Kaufman, Alexander Woollcott, Robert Sherwood, and Heywood Broun, and an actor or two, notably Charles MacArthur and Harpo Marx. It was a tough club to gain admittance to and even tougher to stay in. Groucho Marx, not a member, described it in awe as "a sort of intellectual slaughterhouse...the quips flew thick, fast, and deadly, and God help you if you were a dullard! The admission was a viper's tongue and a half-concealed stiletto." (Harpo apparently gained entre' not by his repartee but by his skills at high-stakes poker and croquet; as Groucho relates, "Hardly a week went by when quiet little Harpo didn't come away from there with a large bundle of their money.")
Some of the Vicious Circle. Harpo (sans wig and bicycle horn) is standing behind Mrs.P. Alexander Woollcott is seated to the right.
Dorothy Parker is probably the group's most widely-known writer today; even those who scorn poetry can recite her best-known couplet, "Men seldom make passes/At girls who wear glasses" or the witticism, "You can lead a horticulture but you can't make her think." Wordplay appears to have been an almost unconscious ability. She favored highly metered, highly-rhymed forms for her poems, all the better to puncture expectations with a devastating last line. She could do funny like no one else. But often, like much humor that has staying power, there is an underpinning of sadness or grief in her work. Her short stories are populated with characters hysterically comical or appallingly cruel (see "Little Curtis," or "Mr. Durant"), sometimes both at the same time (Mrs. Whittaker in "The Wonderful Old Gentleman").
Mrs. Parker in her 30s.
Parker's battles with alcoholism are well-documented, as are her marriages, affairs, and tragedies, including an abortion at a time when the procedure was both extremely dangerous and a felony, and four suicide attempts. But she was also involved in many social causes, marching against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti; working for civil and women's rights; reporting on the Loyalist cause during the Spanish Civil War for New Masses; co-founding the Anti-Nazi League. She worked in Hollywood as a screen writer and helped found the Screen Writers Guild. Her left-wing politics got her hauled before the New York Legislature (she pleaded the First Amendment) and denounced to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee; she ended up blacklisted in Hollywood.
As she aged, the turmoil of her earlier years seemed to ease. She continued to write poems, stories, and plays until her death of a heart attack at age 73 in 1967. But that wasn't quite the end of the story. In a scenario not out of place in Parker's own fiction and the black humor of which she would have relished, her estate and remains ended up at the center of protracted legal battle involving Lillian Hellman, lawyers everywhere, and the NAACP. There's not enough room here to explain the details of the complicated narrative, but the main points are that Parker left her estate to Martin Luther King, and Hellman, the executrix, contested the will. By the time the estate was settled and Parker's will allowed to stand, King had been assassinated. According to King's will, most of his estate went to the NAACP, so that's where Parker's money went. But, with Hellman in a snit and no family heirs, there was no one left to claim Parker's ashes. They bounced from place to place for years, ending up in a file drawer in her lawyer's office. In 1988, the NAACP, hearing of the predicament and in gratitude for the legacy, took custody of them. The ashes were interred at the organization's Baltimore headquarters, under a plaque that reads,
"Here lie the ashes of Dorothy Parker (1893–1967) humorist, writer, critic. Defender of human and civil rights. For her epitaph she suggested, 'Excuse my dust'. This memorial garden is dedicated to her noble spirit which celebrated the oneness of humankind and to the bonds of everlasting friendship between black and Jewish people. Dedicated by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. October 28, 1988."
(by Dorothy Parker)
Her mind lies in a quiet room,
A narrow room, and tall,
With pretty lamps to quench the gloom
And mottoes on the wall.
There all the things are waxen neat
And set in decorous lines;
And there are posies, round and sweet,
And little, straightened vines.
Her mind lives tidily, apart
from cold and noise and pain,
And bolts the door against her heart,
Out wailing in the rain.
from Complete Poems, Penguin, 1999.