You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think. – Dorothy Parker (August 22, 1893 – June 7, 1967)
From Volume 238 of Short Story Criticism:
Dorothy Parker was a literary celebrity in the United States during the period between the world wars, known for her association with the Algonquin Round Table, a literary and social circle that embodied the urbane sophistication of New York’s intelligentsia in the 1920s. She was acclaimed as a poet, playwright, screenwriter, and one of the great wits of the twentieth century. Modern critics regard her as a serious social satirist who pioneered freedom of expression for women authors.
While Parker is sometimes labeled as a writer with a narrow focus, her short fiction explores such themes as love, death, romance, racial inequality, and the sexual double standard. Her sardonic style epitomizes the alienation of postwar society, and her stories touched on taboo topics including abortion, lesbianism, and domestic abuse. The central concern of her short fiction is the emotional life of women, explored through stories about love, courtship, and marriage. Some of her best-known pieces, such as “A Telephone Call” (1928) and “TheWaltz” (1933), employ a stream-of-consciousness interior monolog to reveal the gap between a woman’s thoughts and her actions. Other stories are subversively satirical, using sharp dialog and crisply observed details to illustrate the social manners, norms, and expectations that constrain women’s choices.
Parker was born Dorothy Rothschild on 22 August 1893 in West End, New Jersey. Her father, J. Henry Rothschild, was Jewish, and worked in the garment trade in New York. Her mother, Eliza Annie (Marston) Rothschild, was a Protestant of Scottish descent. She died during Dorothy’s infancy, and Henry remarried in 1900 to Eleanor Frances Lewis. Dorothy grew up ashamed of her mixed heritage and resentful of both her father’s tyrannical ways and her stepmother’s religious piety. Her parents sent her to a Catholic convent school in Manhattan, from which she was dismissed at age fourteen for, as she later recalled, equating the Immaculate Conception with “spontaneous combustion.” She then attended Miss Dana’s School for Young Ladies in Morristown, New Jersey, where she was exposed to the classics and contemporary social issues.
A year after her graduation in 1911, her father died, and Dorothy lived in a boarding house in Manhattan. Her literary inclinations eventually led to a job writing captions for photographs and illustrations at Vogue magazine. In 1917 she married a young Wall Street professional named Edwin Pond Parker II. That year she moved to Vanity Fair magazine, where she was soon promoted to drama critic, a position that gave her the opportunity to demonstrate a flair for scathing humor, especially when reviewing shows of lesser quality. In 1919 she became associated with a group known as the Vicious Circle, composed of writers, artists, and intellectuals that included Parker’s Vanity Fair colleagues Robert Benchley and Robert Sherwood, among others. Meeting regularly for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel, the circle’s barbed repartee was legendary, and they became known as the Algonquin Round Table after an Edmund Duffy cartoon portrayed its members sitting at a round table in suits of armor, as if dressed for verbal combat. In 1920, after her negative review of a play starring actress Billie Burke annoyed Burke’s husband, the eminent producer Flo Ziegfeld, Parker was fired from Vanity Fair. She became a freelance writer, selling poems and prose sketches to numerous periodicals and writing a theater column for Ainslee’s magazine. Her first published short story, “Such a Pretty Little Picture,” appeared in Smart Set in December 1922.
As the 1920s progressed and her popularity grew, Parker attained celebrity status as the petite woman with the daggerlike tongue. She was among the original contributors to the New Yorker, which published her stories and sketches beginning in 1925. Her book reviews, which appeared under the pseudonym Constant Reader, were a regular feature of the magazine from 1927 to 1931. Parker’s first poetry collection, titled Enough Rope (1926), was a best seller. She published another book of poems, Sunset Gun, in 1928. Beginning that year Parker’s personal life took a dark turn. After a series of affairs and an abortion, she divorced Edwin, her heavy drinking increased, and she attempted suicide three times. In 1929 she won the prestigious O. Henry Award for her short story “Big Blonde.”
The success of “Big Blonde” prompted Parker’s two short-story collections: Laments for the Living (1930) and After Such Pleasures (1933), both favorably reviewed. In 1933 she met Alan Campbell, an American actor. The couple married in 1934 and moved to Hollywood, where they formed a scriptwriting team, receiving some fifteen credits for Paramount, David O. Selznick, and United Artists between 1934 and 1941. Collaborating with Robert Carson, they received an Academy Award nomination for their original screenplay for A Star Is Born (1937). Parker was active in left-wing politics and in 1937 traveled to Spain to report on the Spanish Civil War for the New Masses. She was cited by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1951 for her association with Communist-front organizations, and she was accused of being a party member. Although she denied those allegations, she was blacklisted by the movie studios, effectively ending her career as a screenwriter. In her later years her writing slowed. She and Campbell were divorced in 1947 but remarried in 1950. Her play The Ladies of the Corridor (1953), co-written with Arnaud d’Usseau, ran for forty-five performances on Broadway. In 1958 she received the Marjorie Peabody Waite Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which recognized her for stories that “produced a brilliant record of our time.” From 1963 to 1964 she was a visiting professor of English at California State College in Los Angeles. Parker was found dead of a heart attack in a New York hotel room on 7 June 1967. She had named Martin Luther King, Jr., the beneficiary of her estate, with instructions for it to pass to the NAACP on his death