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Surfari: Dorothy Parker and Other Tough, Old Broads

By Rogi Riverstone
(May 11, 2001)

Authors and actors and artists and such
Never know nothing, and never know much.
Sculptors and singers and those of their kidney
Tell their affairs from Seattle to Sydney.
Playwrights and poets and such horses' necks
Start off from anywhere, end up at sex.
Diarists, critics, and similar roe
Never say nothing, and never say no.
People Who Do Things exceed my endurance;
God, for a man that solicits insurance!

Net4TV is run by a tough, old broad. We're funny and smart. We don't take bull pucky from anybody. We don't tolerate whining and sniveling. We have big hearts, sore feet and a million projects going at the same time. We exhaust most mere mortals. So, here's to tough, old broads!

Use the word, "horticulture," in a sentence:
"You can lead a horticulture,
but you can't make her think."

For instance, if there is such a thing as reincarnation, I want to come back as Tina Turner. I may be tough, but my girl's got the legs! If you haven't seen "The Tina Turner Story", starring Angela Bassett, you really need to buy it, or rent it. It took real strength to grow from Anna Mae Bullock of Nutbush, Tennessee to Tina Turner.

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

So, Dudette (Tough, Old Broad Numera Una at Net4TV) and Dexter Davenport (her right-hand Tough, Old Broad Appreciator) were working feverishly one day when the subject of Dorothy Parker came up. Now, Dudette can quote whole passages of Dorothy Parker, which isn't really surprising when one considers the eclectic nature of both the woman herself and of as her business. Dex chimed right in and showed her some links. Pretty soon, my email chirped. Now, the staff at never suggests topics for my Surfaris. But here was a message from Dex, requesting a Surfari on Dorothy Parker.

In 1925, Harold Ross was struggling
to keep The New Yorker magazine alive
with a tiny, inexperienced staff
and an office with one typewriter.
Running into Dorothy, Ross said,
"I thought you were coming into the office
to write a piece last week.
What happened?"
Dorothy replied,
"Somebody was using the pencil."

So, I'm taking requests. This time. For a couple of reasons: Dudette and Dex are two of the smartest, funniest, hard-working, creative people I know and I genuinely like them, for one thing. For another, I was reading Dorothy Parker and Ogden Nash and listening to Spike Jones by the time I was seven years old, because I had very peculiar parents. While other kids were reading picture books and listening to nursery songs, I was already warped beyond repair.

"I don't care what is written about me
so long as it isn't true."

Dorothy Rothschild was born on August 22, 1893 to a Scottish mother (who died when Dorothy was four years old) and Jewish father. Her home, as a girl, seems to have been rather grim and unloving. It may be why humor and sarcasm became so important to her.

Her father remarried and, from what the biographers hint, Dorothy had the Stepmother From Hell. Throughout her life, she never had much trust in women. She found most women to be shallow, manipulative, silly and artificial. Perhaps this says something about the stepmother?

"That woman speaks eight languages
and can't say no in any of them."

She went to Blessed Sacrament Convent School, which probably explains her evil wit and independence. She was bright; she questioned everything; she didn't bother to try to fit in (she was Jewish; the school was Catholic). She was expelled for her attempts at a scientific explanation for Immaculate Conception; she insisted it must have been some form of spontaneous combustion. She went on to Miss Dana's School in New Jersey, where she excelled at translating Latin poetry, and at writing her own, particularly epigrams.

"Are you Dorothy Parker?" a guest at a party inquired. "Yes, do you mind?"

When she was a young woman, her brother died aboard the Titanic --a peculiar and singular maritime tragedy. A year later her father passed away.

Dorothy moved in 1911, renting a room in a boarding house and playing piano at a dance school to support herself. It was the same year as The Triangle Shirt Waist Fire, in which 146 immigrant women burned to death. It was the time of union organizing, blossoming socialism, growing feminism. Her father had been big in the garment industry, and probably owned "sweat shops," himself.

"I can't write five words but that I change seven."

She was a closet writer for awhile, finally submitting items to periodicals in her twenty first year. "Vanity Fair" ("VF") finally accepted her poem, "Any Porch." "VF's" companion magazine, "Vogue," hired her a few months later. She continued to be published in "VF," as well and was transferred there after two years.

"His body has gone to his head."

She married a stock broker, Edwin Parker and changed her name to Dorothy Parker. The marriage didn't survive, but the name became famous. The Parkers rented an apartment, one block from Broadway. He went into the service; she wrote and hung out with the theater crowd. They say she always ate out.

Of the play "The House Beautiful":
"The House Beautiful is The Play Lousy."

She was the only female drama critic in New York City, home of the most celebrated theater on the planet. It was a rarified atmosphere of good old boys: precocious, witty, biting, and quick. She held her own and flourished. From her connections there, she was soon invited to the Algonquin Hotel.

In a 1933 review of the play
"The Lake" starring Katherine Hepburn:
"Miss Hepburn runs the gamut of emotions
from A to B."

She was the only female founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, a circle of literary intellectuals. Here, she shot the breeze with Robert Benchley, Robert Sherwood, Harpo Marx, James Thurber (pocketa, pocketa), George Kaufman and others.

"This is not a novel to be
tossed aside lightly.
It should be thrown with great force."

Her writing was, apparently, getting too honest for "VF;" her reviews were sarcastic. Thank heavens, they fired her, which left her free to grow as a writer.

"He is beyond question
a writer of power;
and his power lies
in his ability
to make sex so
thoroughly, graphically and aggressively
that one is fairly shaken
to ponder
how little one has been missing."

She got a "hack" job (what writers do to schlep home bacon, instead of writing what we love). Fortunately, it was a job writing subtitles for a movie by D.W. Griffith. Subtitles? Ahem, remember silent films? This "Hollywood experience" would later grease the skids for screenwriting.

"The only "ism" Hollywood believes in is plagiarism."

Soon, "Ainslee's" magazine hired her and not only didn't want to muzzle her, but turned her loose. Of course, "Ainslee's" hired only the best; such greats as Mark Twain, Steven Crane, Edna St. Vincent Millay and O. Henry were published there.

"Salary is no object: I want only enough to keep body and soul apart."

She wrote her first short story, "Such a Pretty Little Picture." She divorced, moved into the Algonquin Hotel and began writing plays. "Close Harmony" was her first. She started writing for "The New Yorker" when it opened in 1925, contributing poetry and drama reviews in a few of the first issues.

The following year, she packed up and headed --as any good writer worth her beans would, in those days-- for Paris. She mailed home articles to "The New Yorker" and to "Life" magazine.

Paris in the '20s was a marvelous place. Lots of intelligent and creative Americans escaped there to be part of the action. It wasn't unusual to dine with the likes of Picasso and Gertrude Stein. She was pals with Earnest Hemingway. Some biographers think this was odd, as Hemingway was a notoriously sexist pig and Parker was a New Woman. Well, Parker had a low tolerance for silly women, as you can probably tell by some of the quotes in this article. Hemingway had a Mind: wild and creative, potent and expressive. Why wouldn't Parker be his friend? She was one of the boys.

"Men seldom make passes
at girls who wear glasses."

When she moved back to New York, her first book of poetry Enough Rope was published and prospered.

"If all the girls at Brandeis were laid end-to-end,
I wouldn't be surprised."

In the late '20s, she became very involved in the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, traveling to Boston to join the protests against their executions. The trial's outcome fueled the radicalization of many Americans, many of whose sympathies compelled them to join the Communist Party. She was arrested and insisted on walking (rather than being driven in a paddy wagon) to jail to make more public her resistance to the injustice. From that day forward, she firmly identified herself as a Socialist. While many in the intellectual elite, on both continents, ignored the hardships of the poor, of ethnic minorities, of the disenfranchised, Parker was a firm voice in the turmoil.

A Child's horror-to watch my mother die!
My father was flabby, a fraud. I knew,
"For now at least, I'll have to live a lie:
outside smiling, inside raging." I grew
to hate his narrow greed-not sure why.
Bright, brash, I thought my "brilliant" friends
lived and loved beyond his loutish range.
But when I fight for Sacco, illusion ends.
Woollcott calls him, "Dago killer," calls me, "strange."
Calls me, "Hebe." My contempt firms --and never bends.
I work for the poor, for Blacks --for Spain.
Won't play the "Yes, sir" game. Or quit the booze.
At least I'm used to loneliness and pain.
Can't handle winning. Sure know how to lose.
Here lies a gal who whistled in the rain.

Parker started reviewing books for "The New Yorker" magazine; her column was called, "The Constant Reader".

In a New Yorker review of
A.A. Milne's House at Pooh Corner:
"Tonstant weader fwowed up."

1929 Dorothy published, "The Big Blonde," which won the O. Henry Award for the best short story of the year. She also began doing screen writing for Hollywood. Like many New York artists, the lure of big, California money pulled at her: would screenwriting mean selling one's soul? Could she maintain artistic integrity? Some of her "circle" had already taken the plunge: people she liked and respected. Surely, Hollywood couldn't be that superficial and shallow! Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) offered her a contract, and she became part of the writing "stable". They kept her busy; she wrote many screen plays.

"Look at him, a rhinestone in the rough."

Apparently, MGM paid well enough, because in 1933 she returned to Europe to shake off the tinsel and have some intelligent company. She met her second husband, Alan Campbell, while she was there. He could relate to Parker's upbringing and it's affect on her life; he was also of Scottish and Jewish descent.

"Brevity is the soul of lingerie."

The next, few years seem to have been quite productive for Parker, as she worked in partnership with Alan. They started writing screenplays together. Eventually, they signed a contract with Paramount Pictures in 1935. The following year, they co-founded The Anti Nazi League. Parker won an academy award in 1937 for the joint screenplay of "A Star is Born".

During the 1940's, Parker's writing career flourished. She frequently published prose and short stories in a variety of magazines. Viking Press published an anthology of them. She continued screenwriting.

As it did with many artists and intellectuals of her day, her commitment to social justice came back to haunt her in the 1950's. Called, as dozens were, before the House on un-American Activities (HUAC), she was expected to "rat out" any friends and associates whom she might be able to link to the Communist Party.

First Amendment to the
Constitution of the
United States of America

"Congress shall make no law respecting
an establishment of religion,
or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
or abridging
the freedom of speech, or of the press;
or the right of the people peaceably to assemble
, and to petition the Government
for a redress of grievances

Fifth Amendment to the
Constitution of the
United States of America

"No person shall be
held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime,
unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury,
except in cases arising in the land or naval forces,
or in the Militia,
when in actual service in time of War or public danger;
nor shall any person be subject for the same offence
to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb;
nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property,
without due process of law;
nor shall private property be taken for public use,
without just compensation.

Emphasis: the author's.

Many of her contemporaries (and even friends, such as Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett) pleaded the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the USA. Parker didn't; she pleaded the First Amendment. She never named names.

It was career suicide: those who gave up the names of their associates, falsely or not, were permitted to continue on with their careers. The tactics were identical to those used during the Witch Hunts. Hysteria, fear, a chance to get back for old grudges, anti-Semitism, anti-intellectualism, prejudice, old jealousies and greed motivated many to brand their peers as "Communists," whether or not they actually were.

Parker had been a member of the Communist Party, back in the '20s and '30s. So were a lot of patriotic and loyal Americans whose objectives, with 20/20 hind sight, may have been naive, but were honorable and sincere.

In 1952-1953 someone finally gave testimony against her before the HUAC. She was immediately "blacklisted" from the movie industry and her screenwriting career was over.

She finished out her life as a venerated member of the literary elite. From 1957-1963 she worked as a book reviewer for "Esquire" magazine. In 1959 The American Academy of Arts and Letters inducted her into it's ranks. She was a distinguished Visiting Professor of English at California State College in L.A. Her final magazine article was published by "Esquire" in 1964.

She was found dead in her room at Hotel Volney on June 7, 1967. The official cause of death was stated as a heart attack.

Parker struggled all her life with depression and alcoholism. She experimented with suicide as an option on several occasions.

It isn't easy, being the smartest woman in the room. People listen to smart women speaking, and react as though these women just grew a horn from their foreheads. Many men wither in the presence of tough, old broads. Many women whisper or sneer.

The price of a good mind that works hard at original creativity is often finding one's self alone in the crowd, misunderstood, betrayed and, sometimes, outright attacked.

"I like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I'm under the table,
After four I'm under my host!"

With few role models of tough, old broads who came before her, Parker had to struggle and find her way, pretty much alone. The temptation to self-medicate with alcohol, in order to blunt the pain, turned to physical addiction. She was in good company; many of the best minds on the planet at the time fought similar struggles.

As her life began, so it ended: let down by a woman whom she ought to have been able to trust with her needs. She had named Lillian Hellman executor of her will. In her will, she had promised all proceeds from her literature to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Hellman challenged this bequest in court, trying to secure the rights for herself. Hellman did not prevail, and the NAACP received the bequest which, to this day, still benefits this venerable Civil Rights organization.

It took fifteen years before someone finally discovered Parker's cremated remains in a file drawer in her lawyer's offices. Seems, once all the fuss was over, no one had remembered to inter her. The NAACP received her remains and built a memorial in her honor.

"Excuse my dust."

Author's Note: Happy Mothers' Day, Ms. Dudette's Mom and Marianna Dengler (who taught this author how to read and write, and pass the gift on.)!

"She looks like something
that would eat it's young."

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