Dorothy Parker was born in West End, New Jersey, two weeks premature on August 22, 1893, the night four hurricanes co-existed off the coast of North America(i). She was born to Henry and Eliza Rothschild of Manhattan. Her family was loud, boisterous and silly at family gatherings, causing more of a gap in the emotional closeness that Dorothy felt towards her family. She was the fourth child in the family, and because of the age difference between the siblings she often felt a sense of estrangement.
Dorothy was very young when she had her first experience with death. Her mother fell ill when Dorothy was five, and died a month into their annual vacation to the Jersey Shore. Two years after her mother’s death, her father remarried. Dorothy referred to her new stepmother as Mrs. Rothschild and “the housekeeper”(ii). Dorothy, age seven, made life extremely difficult for her father and his second wife. She was too young to understand anything other than the betrayal and hatred a child feels for the surviving parent who takes a new spouse.
John Keats once described Dorothy’s childhood by saying, “It was quite a childhood: a terrifying father hammering her wrists; a rather lunatic stepmother hammering her mind; a sister and a brother too remote in age for any communion; the servant put out of reach by social convention She hated being a Jew and began to think her mother had deserted her by dying. She began to hate herself” (iii). This statement sums up Dorothy’s own version of her childhood. In her own reality, Parker preferred to depict herself as a deprived child, an innocent victim of a heartless father, a wicked stepmother, and a dysfunctional family (iii). This slanted reality is portrayed in her short story “the Wonderful Old Gentleman.”
To solve the problems Dorothy was causing her parents, they sent her to finishing school after a short stint at Catholic school. She later described this time as the happiest of her life. Instead of adhering to the confines of feminine life of the early twentieth century, after graduation, Dorothy moved to the City and set out to be a writer. Ultimately, her professional pursuits were matched by her quest for two things: love and a new last name. Both came by way of Edwin Pond Parker II. Dorothy was enchanted and fell in love with him over a short period of time (iv). World War I sped up their courtship, and they were married shortly before he was shipped overseas.
Unfortunately, the Eddie Parker that returned home from the war was a man haunted by the horrors of what he had seen (ii). He was an alcoholic and said to have become addicted to drugs as a way to quiet the nightmares that plagued his existence. Today, we would see him as a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder, a more enlightened view not widely accepted in those days. Dorothy’s Jewish background and own childhood stresses made her a less tolerant and understanding wife than others might have been. Dorothy’s intolerance for his weakness was an intolerance and suppression of her own weaknesses, feeding her sarcasm. Eventually, their growing contempt for each other became overwhelming; they parted and never looked back. Donald Ogden Stewart, screenplay writer for “The Philadelphia Story”, summed up marriage to Dorothy by saying “I think if you had been married to Dottie, you would have found out, little by little, that she wasn’t really there. She was in love with you, let’s say, but it was her emotion; she was not worried about your emotion” (ii). This lack of concern for other’s feelings was a trait that she demonstrated excessively throughout her life.
Dorothy landed a job at “Vanity Fair” as a drama critic and then went on to be a regular writer for “The New Yorker”, and while her in-depth criticism was not always strong, her flair for dramatic quips was superb. Many of her quips have been quoted sarcastically in daily life through often without giving credit to Parker. She would often use her coined phrase “What fresh hell is this?” to describe any new undesirable event, including poorly performed dramatic events she attended. During these first years of writing, opportunities to hob-knob with some of the literary greats of the time presented themselves on a frequent basis. Dorothy, with her quick wit and ability to fit in anywhere, was often the only woman at the daily lunch meeting of the Algonquin Round Table, attended by some of the up and coming rising stars in the writing industry. Many of the members went on to become screenplay writers, editors and novelists.
Throughout her life, Dorothy exhibited the bravado and sarcasm to deal with and hide from her own emotional weaknesses. Broken love affairs that led to a string of suicide attempts, failed marriages, a traumatic abortion, depression and drinking, were a testament to the terrible despair of her private hell a place of insecurity, loneliness and fragility (iii). Only when she was at the end of a relationship did she produce her best writing. She published books of verse, Enough Rope and Sunset Gun, at particularly difficult emotional and financial times in her life (iv). Her short stories were often a reflection of the moments she lived and she had no qualms writing them in. Parker undercut her own ascension to muse or loved object through her irony (v), which became the trait most synonymous with the Dorothy Parker name.
Parker’s short stories became autobiographical sketches in which the reader got a glimpse into what it was like to be Dorothy. As she matured as a writer and became increasingly dissatisfied with her life, Parker often would use people she knew as characters for her stories. The short story “The Wonderful Old Gentleman” was written in 1926 and seemed to owe much of its tone to Parker’s perception of her childhood by addressing the death of the patriarchal character, the child that lives under the tyrannical rule of the parent, and the self-righteous sibling. The story, “Big Blonde” contains allegories of Parker’s “failed relationships with men, her drinking problems, and her loneliness and suicide attempts” (iv). The main character in “Mr. Durant” is as emotionally crippled, and as chauvinistic and unconcerned about the feelings of the women in his life as Dorothy felt Charles MacArthur was after her affair with him ended due to abandonment and lack of concern for Dorothy’s state of mind following a terminated pregnancy.
Authors of the feminist movement try to convey that Parker wrote about the estrangement and alienation of women during her time. However, when read in conjunction with a biographical study of Parker, it is difficult to not see the story as an autobiographical sketch of Parker’s own life. Instead of seeing the parallels with Dorothy’s actual life, these writers’ myopic view and preconceived agenda limited their ability to give a well-rounded analysis of Parker’s stories.
Dorothy Parker, born the first day of a week of horrific storm activity, lived her entire life trying desperately to weather storms that were thrown in her path, whether self-inflicted (as most seemed to be) or not. Her verse collections show the morbidity of her thoughts, her lifelong fascination with death. She died in a hotel room, alone with her dog. One cannot help but wonder if after a life of loneliness and several failed suicide attempts, she felt this to be a fitting, dramatic end.
i. New Jersey Lighthouse Society. “Excerpts from the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1893″ NJLS, 2005. Available: http://www.njlhs.burlco.org/1893.htm
ii. Harmon, Melissa Burdick. “the Bright Wit and Dark Soul of Dorothy Parker”. Biography. Aug 1998, 2.:8, 78. Mar 2005
iii.Melzer, Sondra. The Rhetoric of Rage: Women in Dorothy Parker. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1997.
iv. Meade, Marion. Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell is This? New York: Penguin Books, 1989
v. Miller, Nina. “Dorothy Parker and her Intimate Public”. Excerpted from a longer essay in Making Love Modern: The Intimate Public Worlds of New York’s Literary Women. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. Available: http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/parker/mi ller.htm
vi.Simpson, Amelia. “Black on blond: the Africanist presence in Dorothy Parker’s “Big Blonde.” College Literature. Oct 1996, 23.3, 105(12). Mar 2005