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Dorothy Parker: America’s most treasured wit

By: James Aitchison

The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”

And she was not exaggerating.  Dorothy Parker (1893 — 1967) was famed as an American poet, writer, critic, and screenwriter.  Most of all, she is known for her caustic wit.  Referring to her affair with a publisher which resulted in a pregnancy, Parker quipped: “How like me, to put all my eggs in one bastard.”

Perfecting the art of the New York one-liner seemed to come naturally to Parker.

Insults flowed with consummate ease.  “Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone,” Parker observed of one woman.  On another occasion, Parker stated: “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”  When she heard that a friend had injured her foot, Parker replied: “She must have hurt herself sliding down a barrister.”

Dorothy Parker was born Dorothy Rothschild in New Jersey.  Her father was of Prussian-Jewish heritage, her mother of Scottish descent.  Parker was said to have hated her father, despite an indulgent, affectionate upbringing.  When her father died in 1913, Parker played piano at a dancing school while she worked on her poetry.

A year later Parker sold her first poem to Vanity Fair and was hired as an editorial assistant for sister magazine Vogue.  In 1917 she met and married Wall Street stockbroker Edwin Pond Parker.  The union survived until 1928.

1918 saw Parker’s career take off.  She was writing theatre criticism for Vanity Fair, filling in for P. G. Wodehouse.  By 1925 she had joined the editorial board of The New Yorker.  Her short, viciously sardonic poems spotlighted her many unsuccessful affairs while others wistfully considered the appeal of suicide.  In the 1920s alone Parker published 300 poems and free verses in Vanity Fair, Vogue, Life, McCall’s, The New Yorker, and The New Republic.

Her reputation as a wit knew no bounds with such one-liners as “One more drink and I’ll be under the host,” “Don’t look at me in that tone of voice,” “Brevity is the soul of lingerie,” and “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”  Her drift into alcoholism inspired another quote: when a bartender asked, “What are you having?” Parker replied, “Not much fun.”  When told that President Calvin Coolidge had died, Parker remarked, “How could they tell?”

In the 1930s Parker was earning more than $5,000 a week in Hollywood writing screenplays with her second husband Alan Campbell.  Parker co-wrote the script for 1937’s A Star is Born and The Little Foxes in 1941.  She was nominated for two Academy Awards.  Her involvement in social movements and civil liberties resulted in Senator Joseph McCarthy suspecting her of Communist sympathies.  She was put on the Hollywood blacklist.  Soon her life and writing became erratic, marred by a tragic slide into alcoholism.

Perhaps Parker’s most enduring legend concerns the famous lunches at the Round Table in New York’s Algonquin Hotel in the 1920s.  At any given lunch were the foremost writers, critics, actors, and wits of the day — “people famous for being famous”: drama critic Alexander Woollcott, playwrights George S. Kaufman and Robert E. Sherwood, humorist Robert Benchley, writer Ring Lardner, novelist Edna Ferber, comedian Harpo Marx, actress Tallulah Bankhead — and of course Dorothy Parker.  It was at one such lunch, when members challenged one another to use a particular word in a sentence, that Parker’s arguably most famous quote was first heard.  Asked to use the word “horticulture” in a sentence, Parker fired back: “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.”  

Years later Parker would condemn those lunches as “just a lot of people telling each other how good they were, just a bunch of loudmouths showing off…” As she explained, “There’s a hell of a distance between wise-cracking and wit.  Wit has truth in it; wise-cracking is simply calisthenics with words.”

When Dorothy Parker died of a heart attack at 73, she bequeathed her estate to Martin Luther King Jnr.  For her epitaph she suggested, in true Parker fashion, “Excuse my dust.”

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