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Women's History Month

Celebrating Women's History Month (Part 1) — Dorothy Parker: New York Writer, New York Woman

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In honor of Women's History Month, the theme for the March schedule of Mixed Bag: Story Time for Grown-Ups is "Dorothy Parker: New York Writer, New York Woman." Dorothy Parker, nee Rothschild, (1893-1967) was an American poet, short story writer, critic, and a native New Yorker. She is best remembered for her sarcastic wit as a member of the Algonquin Round Table in the 1920s. Although her marriage in 1917 to stockbroker Edwin Parker ended in divorce in 1928, she continued to be known as Mrs. Parker.

Parker wrote poems and short stories for The New Yorker, as well as (usually acerbic) book reviews under the byline “Constant Reader." All of her New Yorker stories published in 1925 and after are available online in the archives of The New Yorker. Her most well-known story is “Big Blonde,” published in The Bookman magazine in 1929. It won the O. Henry Prize in 1929. Sally Kellerman and John Lithgow starred in the television adaption shown on Great Performances in 1980. The stories from the Story Time program on March 7 are good examples of her work from this period.

Parker’s short, satiric poems were as popular as her short stories and book reviews. In 1914 she sold her first poem, “Any Porch,” to Vanity Fair. Her first volume of verse, Enough Rope, was published in 1926 and became a best seller. Her brief epigrammatic poems are often compared to Ogden Nash. An audiobook in the Voice of the Poets series called American Wits features poems read by both poets. In the archival recordings, you can listen to Parker herself read some of her poems. One of her most well-known poems is "Resume," a list of seven suicide methods, none of which she recommends.

After she married Alan Campbell in 1934, they moved to Hollywood to write screenplays. She was nominated for two Academy Awards, one for the 1937 version of A Star is Born and another for Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman, starring Susan Hayward in 1947.
After Campbell’s death in 1963, Parker returned to New York City, where she died in 1967 in her apartment on East 74th Street, not far from her childhood home on West 72nd Street. For more information about Parker, especially photos of her New York City homes and hangouts, visit the Dorothy Parker Society website.

The best biography to date of Parker was written by Marion Meade in 1988, Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? Although Parker herself did not write an autobiography, Barry Day used quotations from Parker to write the book Dorothy Parker In Her Own Words, published in 2004, that works as a companion piece to Meade's biography. Another book, part biography, part walking tour, and filled with photos and maps, is A Journey into Dorothy Parker's New York, published in 2005 by Kevin Fitzpatrick.

The closest thing to a film biography is Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, which was released in 1994. Jennifer Jason Leigh played the role of Parker and was nominated for a Golden Globe Award in 1995. Tallulah Bankhead, the whiskey-voiced actress and sometime visitor to the Algonquin Round Table, performed several of Parker's stories on the radio in the 50s. Audio clips are available on YouTube.

Parker established her literary voice as a liberated woman of her time, using her incisive wit to skewer the self-important people of her day and to mock the sexist attitudes prevalent in American society. She also addressed social themes, such as civil liberties, civil rights, and the horrors of war (based on her war correspondence reporting during the Spanish Civil War). In the 1940s, Parker was blacklisted in Hollywood because of her involvement in left-wing causes. Parker's personal life included many failed love affairs, several miscarriages, alcohol abuse, and at least three attempted suicides. Her sarcastic humor was often directed at her own failings, as in her short story "A Telephone Call," an interior monologue of a woman waiting (impatiently) by the telephone for a man to call. Perhaps her continued appeal to readers today is her attempt in her writing to deal with the tragedies of daily life by confronting them head on with humor. After her death, her estate was bequeathed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and reverted to the NAACP after his death. The stories from the March 21 Story Time program are good examples of her writing on these themes.

Researching Parker’s work for Story Time reminded me of many other women authors who asserted their independence in their work, and in so doing, encouraged all women to assert themselves. In my next blog post, Celebrating Women's History Month Part 2, I will list 10 women authors that most influenced me in my (distant and somewhat) misspent youth, assuming I can remember that far back.

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