Acerbic of tongue, quick of wit, and a member of the celebrated Algonguin Roundtable that included writers Robert Sherwood and Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker was a critic, satirical poet and short story writer who is probably most remembered for the short mot: "Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses." However, her quips were many and varied. In her realm, Parker was not given to subtlety, and paid a price for some of her harsh criticisms. In reviewing a book, she once wrote, "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly - it should be thrown aside with great force." And in reviewing a young and then-unlauded Katherine Hepburn in the 1933 play "The Lake", Parker wrote, "Miss Hepburn runs the gamut of emotions from A to B". It was this brutal, yet sharply-honed sarcasm that defined Parker and illuminated her name above many of her contemporaries.
Born in West End, New Jersey in 1893 to a Scottish mother and Jewish father, Parker lost her mother when she was only four. After her father remarried, Parker’s homelife was strained and unhappy. Escape came through a series of private schools. As a young woman she suffered more loss when her father passed away in 1913, shortly after her brother Henry and his wife Lissie perished aboard the Titanic in 1912. Suffering from both depression and alcoholism, a 23-year-old Parker joined the editorial staff of Vogue in 1916. In 1917, she became a theater critic for Vanity Fair, who had published her first poem in “Any Porch” in 1914. It was at Vanity Fair that Parker met Benchley. When Parker was unfairly dismissed from Vanity Fair, Benchley followed her out the door. Soon after, they started a writing firm they dubbed “Park-Bench” and began meeting with a group of intellectual writers during lunch at New York's Algonguin Hotel that would become known as the Algonguin Roundtable. In addition to Sherwood and Benchley, the Roundtable included James Thurber, Edna Ferber, George Kaufman as well as many others.
Parker married Edwin Parker, a stockbroker, in 1917, but their marriage lasted less than a year. She married her second husband, Allan Campbell, in 1934, divorced him 16 years later in 1950, only to turn around and remarry him that same year; they remained married until Parker's death of a heart attack, June 7, 1967.
Parker published two volumes of light verse in Enough Rope (1927) and Death and Taxes (1937), that were both concise, elegant yet cynical. She also wrote two collections of short stories, Laments for the Living (1930) and After Such Pleasures (1933), which contained her most famous story, “Big Blonde.” In both, her prose is ironic and poignant. In Parker's literary career, she also scripted films for Hollywood and collaborated on a couple of Broadway plays. No matter the genre, Parker managed to caricature those with whom she had little patience: the self-important, the vain, the autocratic, the self-deluded. Regina Barraca, in an introduction to Parker’s Collected Stories wrote: “When Parker goes for the jugular, its usually a vein with blueblood in it.”
Parker’s writing style influenced many writers who came after her, and her bold literary presentation of the ironies and inequities of life helped changed the perception of American culture, and preceded the feminism that would take root during the 1960’s.
Of herself, Parker once said: “I don’t care what they say about me, as long as it isn’t true.”
But maybe Parker wouldn’t mind that both admirers and critics seem to agree, in truth, that Parker was a woman of her time and beyond. Listen to Parker’s story “Arrangement in Black and White” (featured in Wonderful Town - New York Stories from The New Yorker read by Tyne Daly for Salon.