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Bio-Critical Summary and Selected Bibliography

Rhonda Pettit

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Dorothy Parker 1893-1967
Peggy Bacon (1895-1987)
Charcoal on paper for Off with Their Heads, 1934
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Dorothy Parker's reputation as a writer has rested uneasily in the hands of literary critics and biographers. She was one of the few female members of the Algonquin Round Table, a daily gathering of New York writers and performers who exchanged barbs over lunch and bootleg cocktails in the 1920s. Her poetry, fiction, and play reviews graced the pages of Vogue, Vanity Fair, Life, The Smart Set, Ainslee's, and The New Yorker, as well as a number of women's magazines. This popular appeal separated Parker from the writers found in small, literary magazines who would later comprise the modernist canon. Combining accessible prose with more experimental techniques, Parker offers a witty and often acerbic assessment of human affairs -- whether they concern romantic love, the family, war, racism, self-deception, economic disparity, or the intersection of these issues. She has been called a period writer, a humorist, and a (pejoratively speaking) sentimentalist. Yet her work remains in print, a testament to the relevance of her vision.

Parker's childhood was a lonely period marked with loss. She was born two months prematurely on August 22, 1893, to Jacob Henry Rothschild and Annie Eliza (Maston) Rothschild during a New Jersey shore vacation. Her mother died in 1897, and two years after that her father married Eleanor Frances Lewis. Parker was much younger than her three siblings, and she was never close to her stepmother, who died in 1903. Details about Parker's education are sketchy. She attended Blessed Sacrament Academy, a finishing school known as Miss Dana's in Morristown, New Jersey, and the Art Student's League in Manhattan. But she never received a high school diploma; her knowledge was acquired through her voracious reading.

Henry Rothschild had been a successful garment manufacturer in New York, but as the years progressed, his fortunes declined. He was penniless by the time he died in 1913 and Parker, who had been taking care of him, was forced to support herself. She worked as a dance instructor until she broke into magazine publishing by selling a poem, "Any Porch," to Frank Crowninshield, the sophisticated editor of Vanity Fair. He later helped her get a job writing captions for Vogue in 1914. By 1916 she was a staff writer for Vanity Fair, eventually becoming their drama critic until 1920. These were crucial years in Parker's development. Her marriage to Edwin Pond Parker, interrupted by World War I, would fall apart. Her friendships with Robert Benchley, Robert Sherwood, Alexander Woollcott, Franklin Pierce Adams, and other members of the Algonquin Round Table would develop. She would also establish the rapier wit that brought her fame and cost her a job. In 1920, she was fired from Vanity Fair for lampooning actress Billie Burke, wife of one of the magazine's major advertisers.

Parker spent the next three years reviewing plays for Ainslee's, and submitting poetry and short stories to a variety of magazines. Throughout the 1920s, her life took on the surface glamour of the Jazz Age, with its parties, drinking, speakeasy bars, trips to Europe, and salon-like gatherings at the Algonquin Hotel and vacation homes of New York's millionaire families. Her poetry volumes were published (fiction volumes would follow in the early 1930s) and sold well, initially receiving largely positive reviews. She became one of the most quotable women in New York. But a dark side surged beneath the success and frivolity Parker experienced just as it did in the Jazz Age as a whole. She had a series of unsuccessful love affairs. The most intense of these, with writer Charles MacArthur, ended in pregnancy, abortion, and a suicide attempt. A second suicide attempt would follow in 1925. Her emotional dependence on men who didn't lover her, but were willing to use her for their own career advantage, stood in contrast to her self-assertion in other areas of her life. Always sympathetic for the underdog, she supported the Actor's Equity Strike in 1919, criticized pretentious and hypocritical men who hid behind leftist politics and art in several of her poems, and was arrested for protesting the Sacco and Vanzetti executions in 1927.

Not surprisingly, her work and life take a decidedly political turn in the 1930s. As the stock market crash of 1929 brought the Jazz Age to a close, two trends emerged: a number of writers left New York for screenwriting work in Hollywood; and writers, artists, and other intellectuals began to seek socialist solutions to the problems raised by capitalism, which had culminated in the Great Depression. Added to this mix was the increasing fascism in Europe and the Spanish Civil War. Parker participated in both trends. After marrying Alan Campbell, a writer and former actor who shared her Jewish-Gentile heritage, she moved to Hollywood and wrote or contributed to scripts for thirty-nine films, including A Star Is Born. While there, she served on the Motion Picture Artists Committee and the Screen Writers Guild, helped raise money for Loyalist Spain, China, and the Scottsboro defendants, and lent her name to more than thirty fund-raising activities. She traveled to Spain during its civil war and returned to write two of her war stories, "Soldier's of the Republic" and "Who Might Be Interested," as well as articles for New Masses. Later she helped Ernest Hemingway and Lillian Hellman finance the film The Spanish Earth, and served on the editorial board of Equality, a magazine in support of democratic rights and racial equality. Her pro-communist sympathies were noted by the F.B.I.; the agency kept a file on her. She wanted to be a World War II correspondent but was denied a passport. As a result, her two stories about the war years, "The Lovely Leave" and "Song of a Shirt, 1941," examine war from a domestic point of view.

After the war, Parker's life continued to be turbulent. She and Campbell divorced in 1947, and remarried in 1950, but they were separated from 1952 to 1961. They then lived together until Campbell's death by an overdose of sleeping pills in 1963. During this period she wrote book reviews for Esquire, and collaborated on three plays which never achieved commercial success: The Coast of Illyria (1949), The Ladies of the Corridor (1953), and The Ice Age (1955); earlier play collaborations include Close Harmony (1924) and The Happiest Man (1939). She had traveled back and forth between Hollywood and New York for many years, but in 1964 returned to New York for the last time. She received awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was interviewed by several journalists. But she had outlived many of her contemporaries and was presumed dead by others. She was found dead of a heart attack in 1967 in the Hotel Varney, where she had been living. Her remains were cremated two days later; the urn with her ashes sat in a file drawer at the law firm of Oscar Bernstein and Paul O'Dwyer until 1988. The woman who left her estate to Martin Luther King, Jr., and to the N.A.A.C.P. in the event of King's death, had no one to claim her for more than twenty years. At the suggestion of N.A.A.C.P. president Dr. Benjamin Hooks, her ashes were interred in a memorial garden named in her honor at the N.A.A.C.P. headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, on October 20, 1988.

Parker's work has remained in print and popular since its original publication but, until recently, has remained outside the canon of "serious" or "important" literature. The reception of her work during the twentieth century has been shaped by a variety of critical trends. Critics initially praised her wit and concision, but a recurring concern was her sentimentality. This recurring concern became an increasing target from the mid-thirties through the sixties when New Critical values were taking hold in the academy. Mark Van Doren's 1934 assessment of Parker's poetry and fiction in The English Journal demonstrates the limitations of this approach. As affectionate memoirs about the Algonquin Round Table were published in the fifties and sixties ( e.g., Margaret Chase Harriman's The Vicious Circle, 1951, and Corey Ford's The Time of Laughter, 1967, as well as a number of magazine articles), it became fashionable to debunk the group's talents. James R. Gaines emphasizes a lack of discipline, psychological darkness, and emotional dependency in Wit's End, his 1977 portrait of the group. Ross Labrie claims the group's talent was over-rated in an article for The Canadian Review of American Studies. Even Brendan Gill, who knew Parker and penned the introduction to her 1973 Portable Dorothy Parker, praises her prose at the expense of her poetry and calls her work a product of the twenties. The labels applied to Parker -- "humorist," light verse writer, and "period writer" -- have, with exception of "period writer," obvious technical merit, but nevertheless reflect the narrow context in which her work was read.

A reversal of sorts takes place in the mid- to late seventies. Arthur F. Kinney publishes the first book-length study of Parker's work in all genres in 1978 (Dorothy Parker, published by Twayne; revised in 1998). He links much of her work to events in her life, but he also reads Parker beyond the confines of the Algonquin Round Table, focusing for example on her ties to classical and renaissance traditions in poetry. At the same time, the second wave of feminism brought renewed interest in Parker's work, particularly with regard to her humor. Emily Toth, Suzanne Bunkers, Lynn Z. Bloom, and Nancy Walker interpret Parker's humor as a form of social protest against patriarchal and societal conventions. Parker becomes part of a tradition of women humorists defined by Nancy Walker and Zita Dresner. Biographies of Parker begin to appear -- by John Keats (1970), Leslie Frewin (1986), and Marion Meade (1988). There remained the sense, however, that we knew Parker's life, particularly her Algonquin years, in much more detail than we knew her work.

This has begun to change in the 1990s. In addition to the Kinney revision, we have the publication of Randall Calhoun's Dorothy Parker: A Bio-Bibliography (1993), containing a biographical sketch that respects Parker's political work, three articles about Parker ("The Legend of Dorothy Parker" by Richard E. Lauterbach; "Whatever You Think Dorothy Parker Was Like, She Wasn't" by Wyatt Cooper; and "Bittersweet" by Joseph Bryan, III), and detailed primary and secondary bibliographies. Parker also begins to appear as a factor in studies of Stevie Smith, women's war writing, women's love poetry, and the sentimental and modernist traditions (see bibliography below). New editions of her work, including previously unpublished prose and poetry, have been published by Penguin, including insightful introductions to her work, and by Scribner's. A volume of critical essays about Parker's work is being compiled. These developments should introduce new readers and old skeptics to the many dimensions of Parker's work, and generate more thoughtful criticism in the future.

NOTE: Some of the material for this essay was drawn from the biographies listed on the Selected Bibliography below

Selected Bibliography

The list below is a small sampling of works by and about Dorothy Parker and her writing. Although it stops at 1992 and is missing some book reviews, Randall Calhoun's Dorothy Parker: A Bio-Bibliography is the most comprehensive Parker bibliography available and a valuable resource for Parker scholars.

 Works by Parker

Complete Poems. Introduction by Colleen Breese. New York: Penguin, 1999.

Not Much Fun: The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker. Compiled with an introduction by Stuart Y. Silverstein. New York: Scribner, 1996.

Complete Stories. Introduction by Regina Barreca. New York: Penguin, 1995.

The Poetry and Short Stories of Dorothy Parker. New York: Modern Library, 1994.

The Coast of Illyria (with Ross Evans). Introduction by Arthur F. Kinney. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1990.

The Portable Dorothy Parker. Introduction by Brendan Gill. New York: Viking, 1973.

"Who Might Be Interested." Ed. John Miller. Voices Against Tyranny: Writing of the Spanish Civil War. New York: Scribner/Signature, 1986.

Out-of-print, individual volumes include: Poetry -- Enough Rope (1926), Sunset Gun (1928), Death and Taxes (1931), and Not So Deep as a Well: Collected Poems (1936); Fiction -- Laments for the Living (1930), After Such Pleasures (1933), and Here Lies: The Collected Stories of Dorothy Parker (1939); Book Reviews -- Constant Reader (1970).


Bloom, Lynn Z. "Dorothy Parker." Critical Survey of Poetry Vol. 5. Ed. Frank Magill.Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1982. 2164-2168.

Bone, Martha Denham. "Dorothy Parker and New Yorker Satire." Diss., Middle Tennessee State University, 1985.

Bunkers, Suzanne. "'I Am Outraged Womanhood': Dorothy Parker as Feminist and Social Critic." Regionalism and the Female Imagination 4 (1978): 25-35.

Calhoun, Randall. Dorothy Parker: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993.

Labrie, Ross. "Dorothy Parker Revisited." Canadian Review of American Studies 7 (1976): 48-56.

Kinney, Arthur F. Dorothy Parker, Revised. New York: Twayne, 1998.

Kinney, Arthur F. "Dorothy Parker's Letters to Alexander Woollcott." Massachusetts Review 30:3 (Autumn 1989): 487-515.

Kline, Virginia. "Dorothy Parker." Encyclopedia of American Humorists. Ed. Steven H. Gale. New York: Garland, 1988. 344-349.

Lansky, Ellen. "Female Trouble: Dorothy Parker, Katherine Anne Porter, and Alcoholism." Literature and Medicine 17:2 (Fall 1998): 212-230.

MacDermott, Kathy. "Light Humor and the Dark Underside of Wish Fulfillment: Conservative Anti-realism." Studies in Popular Culture 10:2 (1987): 37-53.

Melzer, Sondra. The Rhetoric of Rage: Women in Dorothy Parker. New York: Peter Lang, 1997.

Miller, Nina. Making Love Modern: The Intimate Public Worlds of New York's Literary Women. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Mitsch, Ruthmarie H. "Parker's 'Iseult of Brittany.'" Explicator 44:2 (Winter 1986): 37-40.

Pettit, Rhonda. A Gendered Collision: Sentimentalism and Modernism in Dorothy Parker's Poetry and Fiction. Cranbury, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press,2000 (forthcoming).

Pettit, Rhonda. "'Here We Are'"; "'The Lovely Leave'"; and "'The Waltz.'" Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction Vols. 9-11. Ed. Kirk H. Beetz. Osprey, FL: Beacham Publishing Corp., 1998.

Pettit, Rhonda. "Material Girls in the Jazz Age: Dorothy Parker's 'Big Blonde' as an Answer to Anita Loos's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." Kentucky Philological Review 12 (1997): 48-54.

Schweik, Susan. A Gulf So Deeply Cut: American Women Poets and the Second World War. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

Severin, Laura. Stevie Smith's Romantic Antics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.

Toth, Emily. "Dorothy Parker, Erica Jong, and New Feminist Humor." Regionalism and the Female Imagination 2:2 (1977): 70-85.

Treichler, Paula A. "Verbal Subversions in Dorothy Parker: 'Trapped Like a Trap in a Trap.'" Language and Style: An International Journal 13:4 (1980): 46-61.

Walker, Nancy. "The Remarkably Constant Reader: Dorothy Parker as Book Reviewer." Studies in American Humor, New Series 3:4 (1997): 1-14.

Walker, Nancy. A Very Serious Thing: Women's Humor and American Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

Walker, Nancy and Zita Dresner, eds. Redressing the Balance: American Women's Literary Humor from Colonial Times to the 1980s. Jackson and London: University Press of Mississippi, 1988.

Wallinger, Hanna. "Speech Patterns in Dorothy Parker." Style: Literary and Non- Literary. Eds. Wolfgang Grosser, James Hogg, and Karl Hubmayer. Lewiston, NY and Salzburg, Austria: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1995.

Biographies and Interviews

Calhoun, Randall. "A Biographical Sketch." Dorothy Parker: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993.

Capron, Marion. "Dorothy Parker." Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. Ed. Malcolm Bradley. New York: Viking, 1957. Rpt. in Women Writers at Work. Ed. George Plimpton. New York: Penguin, 1989.

Frewin, Leslie. The Late Mrs. Dorothy Parker. New York: Macmillan, 1986.

Keats, John. You Might As Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970.

Kinney, Arthur F. "Her Life: The Events Leading Up to the Tragedy." Dorothy Parker, Revised. New York: Twayne, 1998.

Meade, Marion. Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? New York: Villard Books, 1988.

Steinem, Gloria. "Dorothy Parker." New York Journal 1965: 118e, 118n, 118o.

Woollcott, Alexander. "Our Mrs. Parker." While Rome Burns. New York: Viking, 1934.

Background: Roaring Twenties/Jazz Age and Algonquin Round Table

Brown, John Mason. The Worlds of Robert Sherwood: Mirror to His Times. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.

Case, Frank. Tales of a Wayward Inn. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1938.

Douglas, Ann. Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995.

Drennan, Robert. The Algonquin Wits. New York: Citadel Press, 1968.

Ferber, Edna. A Peculiar Treasure. New York: Literary Guild, 1939.

Ford, Corey. The Time of Laughter. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1967.

Gaines, James R. Wit's End: Days and Nights of the Algonquin Round Table. New York: Harcourt, 1977.

Grant, Jane. Ross, The New Yorker, and Me. New York: Raynel & Morrow, 1968.

Harriman, Margaret Case. The Vicious Circle: The Story of the Algonquin Round Table. New York: Harcourt, 1977.

Hoffman, Frederick J. The Twenties: American Writing in the Postwar Decade. New York: Macmillan, 1949.

Kramer, Dale. Ross and The New Yorker. New York: Doubleday, 1951.

Kunkel, Thomas. Genius at Work: Harold Ross of The New Yorker. New York: Random House, 1995.

Loos, Anita. A Girl Like I. New York: Viking, 1966.

Marx, Harpo and Rowland Barber. Harpo Speaks! New York: Limelight, 1961.

Miller, Linda Patterson. Letters from the Lost Generation: Gerald and Sara Murphy and Friends. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991.

Wilson, Edmund. The Twenties. Ed. Leon Edel. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1975.

Audio and Video

An Informal Hour with Dorothy Parker, read by the author. New York: Westminster Spoken Arts, 1956. Audiotape.

Rudolph, Alan, dir. Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle. Fine Line Features, 1994.

Slesin, Aviva, dir. The Ten-Year Lunch: The Wit and Legend of the Algonquin Round Table. PBS American Masters, 1987.

Would You Kindly Direct Me to Hell: The Infamous Dorothy Parker. Stage production, Arts & Entertainment Television, 1994.

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