Commentary Magazine


You Might As Well Live, by John Keats

No Joking Matter

You Might As Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker.
by John Keats.
Simon and Schuster. 319 pp. $7.50.

Freud said there were no jokes and, as usual, wasn’t kidding. One likes to think that this time out he was wrong, but in the case of Dorothy Parker, at any rate, the remark is deadly accurate. The wittiest woman writer America has ever had, Dorothy Parker appears rarely to have written or cracked a line, no matter how brilliantly clever, that at bottom she didn’t seriously mean, or that didn’t in some way express her bleak view of the world. In the 20′s, when she came up pregnant and had to have an abortion, she was quoted as saying, “It serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard.” Funny, but, in the context of her sad life, also not so funny. In his biography, John Keats notes that “hers was the laughter of disdain.” The truth of the matter is, when Dorothy Parker’s wit had most sting, it was usually supplied by the whip of her own extreme self-loathing.

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Although a very uneven performance, Mr. Keats’s biography offers a good deal of interesting and carefully researched material and does not attempt to hide any of its subject’s soiled linen in closets or under the bed. Mr. Keats’s defects are those of sensibility and literary training. His biography has many passages guaranteed to make one wince—as, for example, when he labels Dorothy Parker an “existentialist,” or when he quotes Hamlet (“The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King”) to explain the motive behind her few lame attempts to write for the theater. He also badly overrates her writing, calling her poetry as good as Edna St. Vincent Millay’s and her best short stories the equal of Hemingway’s. Neither, of course, is true, which Dorothy Parker herself knew even if her biographer doesn’t. Mr. Keats is at his best when he is farthest away from literary matters and is tracking down the authenticity of an anecdote or chronicling the chaos of Dorothy Parker’s life.

Of the latter there was no shortage. What little order Dorothy Parker had in her life went into her writing and, as is well known, her literary output was slight. For the rest, there were mainly long stretches of disaster punctuated by periods of depression and remorse. “Mongrel” was the title Dorothy Parker had in mind for the autobiography she never got around to writing. Born Dorothy Rothschild in 1893, she was the daughter of a well-to-do New York garment merchant. Her mother died before Dorothy was a year old. Her father, who appears to have been a man of towering insensitivity, next married a woman whom she could never bring herself to call mother or even stepmother, and in later life could barely mention without almost lapsing into apoplexy. Although her father was Jewish her mother was not, and so her stepmother sent Dorothy off to a Catholic school, where she was made to feel different and out of it. She had a brother and a sister, but both were considerably older, and she apparently never connected with either. As a child, she had no friends, she played no childish games—she had, in effect, no childhood.

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Given this dismal beginning, Dorothy Parker’s almost immediate success once out in the world must have seemed puzzling to her. In her early twenties, she had a poem accepted at Vogue by Frank Crowninshield, who offered her a job as a caption writer at $10 a week. The following year, 1917, she moved over to the staff at Vanity Fair, a magazine which was then, as Mr. Keats puts it, the nation’s arbiter elegantiarum. She was soon joined at Vanity Fair by Robert Benchley and Robert Sherwood, the three of whom took to lunching at the nearby Algonquin hotel. What was to become famous as the Round Table was shortly filled in by Franklin Pierce Adams, Alexander Woollcott, and Harold Ross. During its height, other Round Table regulars included Heywood Broun, Deems Taylor, George S. Kaufman, Donald Ogden Stewart, Harpo Marx, Douglas Fairbanks, Jascha Heifetz, and Herbert Bayard Swope. Frank Sullivan and George Jean Nathan were less regular members of the group, and when in town the Baltimore Bad Boy, H. L. Mencken himself, would occasionally put in an appearance.

The Algonquin wits, as the Round Table group was called, have been soaking in the rich gravy of myth for years. Perhaps this is not so startling, for American writers have long hungered for, and seem so rarely to have achieved, a sense of artistic and intellectual community. In point of fact, the Round Table appears to have supplied neither. Far from having much of the content of art or intellect, it took its character from the theater and the performing arts, from show business and smart journalism. The Algonquin wits, as F. W. Dupee has remarked, were committed to the spectator’s role, and to making it pay, both in money and in anecdotes. Toward the end of her life Dorothy Parker told a reporter:

People romanticize it. . . . It was no Mermaid Tavern, I promise you. There were no giants. Think of 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 people how good they were. . . . I remember hearing Woollcott say, “reading Proust is like lying in someone else’s dirty bath water.” And then he’d go into ecstasy about something called “Valiant Is the Word for Carrie,” and I knew I’d had enough of the Round Table.

Yet it was at the Round Table that Dorothy Parker first acquired her reputation—a reputation for being a consummate put-down artist. She came divinely equipped for the job—just five feet tall, plumpish in an attractive way, with lush dark hair and wonderfully large eyes. Woollcott once described her as a combination of Little Nell and Lady Macbeth. When the name of a much-talked-about woman came up in conversation, she would demurely murmur, seeming all admiration, “You know, that woman speaks eighteen languages? And she can’t say ‘No’ in any of them.” She kept a bird, a canary, whom she called Onan because he spilled his seeds on the floor. She had the consistently low view of people that is available only to those who have a consistently low view of themselves.

Dorothy Parker knew what advantages she was entitled to as a woman. Her wit, for example, was altogether feminine, at least in the sense that her best lines depended on a female voice for successful delivery: so much so that many of them, if gotten off by a man, would not be merely unfunny but would clearly merit a fist in the face. She also knew something about female vulnerabilities. Her own list was headed by men. “Her taste in men was, indeed, bad, even for writer ladies,” her friend Lillian Hellman has said. “I require only three things of a man,” Dorothy Parker once remarked. “He must be handsome, ruthless, and stupid.” This, too, was no joke. After her first marriage to a stockbroker named Edwin Parker broke up, she flopped from man to man, without much discernment. “She had been loved by several remarkable men,” according to Miss Hellman, “but she loved only the ones who did not love her, and they were the shabby ones.” In her thirties, a young man fresh out of Yale, a celebrity-hunting stud, was bruiting it about New York that she had given him “the treatment.” As he told it: “It was excellent. She knew all the tricks.”

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Where self-hate runs deep, self-destruction is usually not far behind. By her early thirties, Dorothy Parker had twice attempted suicide, once by slashing her wrists, the second time by an overdose of sleeping pills. “Dottie,” Robert Benchley is reported to have said after her second attempt, “if you don’t stop this sort of thing you’ll make yourself sick.” Benchley, a very decent man, was the first of a number of people who, as Mr. Keats puts it, “were beginning to discover that a certain part of their lives would have to be devoted to helping her through her own.” Odd how people who live with true abandon somehow always manage to cultivate others who stand ready to help clean up the mess they leave. Odd, too, how the really self-destructive often do not self-destruct. From her middle twenties on, Dorothy Parker breakfasted on whiskey sours and drank at a good clip through most of the day and night; she practically chewed Chesterfields; her entire life was untainted by any sort of regularity, not to speak of organization—and she survived to the age of seventy-three.

Yet the way she lived left its scars. By her mid-thirties she began to run to alcoholic fat. Her photographs show the too-quick transformation from a plump gamine to a pudgy matron. In 1933, after securing a reputation initially established through clever talk by publishing some of her best short stories and bringing out a volume of verse that was to go through eight printings, she married for a second time. She was now forty; her new husband, Alan Campbell, was a Southerner, a half-Jew like herself, a Broadway actor, very handsome, and eleven years younger. It was a strange coupling, involving, insofar as one can make out, more in the way of mutual dependence than clear strong feeling. She was to divorce Alan Campbell, then remarry him three years later. More than once she accused him of being a homosexual. The marriage was not your usual TV family-situation comedy.

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The year she married Campbell, the two of them moved out to Hollywood. There, at the height of the Depression, they earned $5,200 a week as a screenwriting team. As for so many others, the 30′s marked her politicization. She once told Vincent Sheean she was a Communist, though her Communism often took bizarre turns. Once for example, she joined a walk-out of waiters at the Waldorf only to cross a picket line shortly afterward to join Heywood Broun for a drink at “21.” Her politics may have been contradictory, but unlike the case with the current adherents of radical chic, they were not unserious: during this period she chucked many old friends, Robert Benchley among them, for no better reason than that they did not share her political views. Her politics also turned out to have serious consequences. During the McCarthy era, she appeared on a list of some three hundred actors, writers, and directors suspected of being Communist by the studios. Her attitude toward the House Un-American Activities Committee was one of total disdain, and that group’s own extraordinary activities only seemed to confirm her in the Tightness of her radicalism.

The 30′s, the time of Dorothy Parker’s greatest fame and wealth, also marked her decline. After the Spanish Civil War, which she had traveled off to view firsthand, and the Soviet Union’s pact with Hitler, which left her trapped in an ideological maze as it had many others, it seemed that her life was destined to be one long ride to hell in a very slow handcart. Earlier, at forty-two, she had become pregnant, and had put great stock in the possibility of having a child, but then she miscarried, and another hope was dashed.

Everything she touched turned to crud. Her marriage to Alan Campbell broke up; an attempt to write for Broadway failed; she wrote almost no successful fiction, and felt guilty about neglecting her talent. She went back with Campbell for a second go, both at marriage and at screenwriting, but neither came to much. For a time they lived on their unemployment checks, till Esquire came along to offer her $750 a month to do a book-review column. Her copy was certainly less regular than Esquire’s checks, and she often found herself having to lie to the magazine’s editors about having sent her piece off in the mails days ago. Her drinking, heavy for years, increased; more nights than not she and Campbell, after a full schedule of boozing, would straggle off to bed in an alcoholic haze. Then on the morning of June 14, 1963, she woke up to find Alan Campbell in the bed next to her—dead. Having taken sleeping pills after booze, he had apparently thrown up in his sleep and strangled on his own vomit.

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Dorothy Parker’s last years provided no let-up; they were a tortured coda to a life of pain. They were lived, in the main, in an alcoholic fog. She moved into New York’s Volney Hotel, where most of her time was spent drinking and talking to her poodle. Mr. Keats cites her greeting to one of her visitors at the Volney: “Jew-hating Fascist son of a bitch”; she greeted two other visitors with, “You’re Jew-Fascists. Get out of here.” All the old wounds, the old hates and self-hates, rattled confusedly round in her mind. Strangely enough, whatever her state of physical and mental decay, photographs taken of her in her seventies show a delicate and rather elegant elderly woman. Although the alcoholic fog thickened, there were moments when she stepped out from behind it to demonstrate flashes of the old brilliance: a woman I know who spent an evening with her during these last years recalls her quietly announcing that Malcolm Cowley looked like an atheist’s idea of God.

In 1967, at the age of seventy-three, she was found dead in her room at the Volney, booze bottles and dog crap strewn about the floor and checks amounting to more than $10,000 in a bureau drawer. There is something hideous and yet something appropriate about this. Dorothy Parker was a hotel person—one of the earth’s permanent temporaries. She is today, and probably always will be, most closely identified with the Algonquin. In earlier years, at the end of her various love affairs, she liked to take a large suite at the Plaza, where a week or so of living as a grande dame rejuvenated her for her next inevitable defeat. With her taste for the macabre, she used to tell people how when a person died at the Volney the corpse was taken to a back elevator which was so small that it had to be stood upright to be taken down into the lobby. That, presumably, is how she went down herself.

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At her funeral Lillian Hellman said: “She was part of nothing and nobody except herself [and] it was this independence of mind and spirit that was her true distinction.” There is not much else to say: no lesson to be derived, no moral to be drawn, from such a life. Out of seventy-three years of nearly complete personal disaster, there remains a handful of nice stories, some wickedly funny lines, and a few magnificent gestures. It is worth remembering that in her will Dorothy Parker left all her money to Martin Luther King.

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About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.




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