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Historically Speaking: The Literary Rebel With Many Causes

By Tom Morrow

“This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” – Dorothy Parker upon writing a book review.
Dorothy Parker was an American poet, short-story writer, critic, and satirist, best known for her wit, wisecracks and eye for 20th-century urban foibles.
She was born Dorothy Rothschild Aug. 22, 1893 in Long Branch, N.J. Parker rose to acclaim, both for her literary output in publications such as The New Yorker and as a founding member of the famed Algonquin Round Table of noted writers and humorists.
Dismissive of her own talents, she deplored her reputation as a “wisecracker.” Nevertheless, her literary output and reputation for sharp wit have endured. Parker once joked that she was asked to leave a Catholic high school following her characterization of the Immaculate Conception as “spontaneous combustion.”
She sold her first poem to Vanity Fair magazine in 1914 and some months later was hired as an editorial assistant for Vogue magazine. She moved to Vanity Fair as a staff writer two years later.
In 1917, she met and married a Wall Street stockbroker, Edwin Pond Parker II. She had ambivalent feelings about her Jewish heritage given the strong anti-semitism of that era and joked that she married “… to escape my name.
Her career took off while she was writing theatre criticism for Vanity Fair, which she began to do in 1918 as a stand-in for the vacationing P. G. Wodehouse. At the magazine, she met humorist Robert Benchley, who became a close friend, and writer Robert E. Sherwood. The trio began lunching at the Algonquin Hotel on a near-daily basis and became founding members of the Algonquin Round Table.Historically Speaking,Tom Morrow,Dorothy
Parker began developing a national reputation as a wit. One of her most famous comments was made when the group was informed that famously taciturn former president Calvin Coolidge had died; Parker remarked, “How could they tell?” One of her acerbic book reviews under the byline “Constant Reader” (in response to the whimsy of A. A. Milne’s “The House at Pooh Corner,” she wrote: “Tonstant Weader fwowed up.”
Her best-known short-story, “Big Blonde,” published in The Bookman magazine, was awarded the O. Henry Award as the best short-story of 1929.
What would become a life-long commitment to activism began in 1927 with the pending executions of Sacco and Vanzetti. Parker travelled to Boston to protest the proceedings. She married Alan Campbell, an actor with aspirations to become a screenwriter. They moved to Hollywood and would eventually earn upwards of $5,000 per week as freelancers for various studios. She and Campbell worked on more than 15 films.
Parker co -wrote the script for the 1937 film “A Star is Born,” for which she and fellow writers were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Written Screenplay. She wrote additional dialogue for “The Little Foxes” starring Bette Davis in 1941 and received another Oscar nomination, with co-writer Frank Cavett, for “Smash Up,” starring Susan Hayward.
After the United States entered World War II, Parker and Alexander Woollcott collaborated to produce an anthology of her work for servicemen stationed overseas. The volume compiled over two dozen of Parker’s short stories. It was released in the United States in 1944 under the titleThe Portable Dorothy Parker.” This book is one of only three of the serviceman’s “Portable” series (the other two being William Shakespeare and The Bible) to remain continuously in print.
Parker helped start the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League in 1936 (which was suspected by the FBI of being a Communist Party front). The Hollywood Anti-Nazi League’s membership eventually grew to some 4,000 strong. During the McCarthy era, the FBI compiled a 1,000-page dossier on her because of her suspected involvement in Communism. As a result, she was placed on the Hollywood blacklist by the movie studio bosses.
In her later years, Parker would come to denigrate the Algonquin Round Table, the group that brought her such early notoriety. “These were no giant,” she said. “Think who was writing in those days — Lardner, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway. Those were the real giants. The Round Table was just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were.
Parker died on June 7, 1967, of a heart attack at the age of 73. In her will, she bequeathed her estate to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Following King’s death, her estate was passed on to the NAACP. Her executor, author/playwright Lillian Hellman, bitterly but unsuccessfully contested that disposition. Her ashes remained unclaimed in her attorney Paul O’Dwyer’s filing cabinet for approximately 17 years. – a sad ending to one of America’s great literary talents.

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Historically Speaking: The Literary Rebel With Many Causes