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Dorothy Parker, 73, Literary Wit, Dies

The New York Times, Thursday, June 8, 1967, Page 1

By Alden Whitman

Dorothy Parker, the sardonic humorist who purveyed her wit in conversation, short stories, verse and criticism, died of a heart attack yesterday afternoon in her suite at the Volney Hotel, 23 East 74th Street. She was 73 years old and had been in frail health in recent years.

In print and in person, Miss Parker sparkled with a word or phrase, for she honed her humor to its most economical size. Her rapier wit, much of it spontaneous, gained its early renown from her membership in the Algonquin Round Table, an informal luncheon group at the Algonquin Hotel in the nineteen-twenties, where some of the city's most sedulous framers of bon mots gathered.

Franklin P. Adams, the somewhat informal elder statesman of the group, printed Miss Parker's remarks in his "Conning Tower" column and fame was quickly rapping on her door.

Miss Parker was a little woman with a dollish face and basset-hound eyes, in whose mouth butter hardly ever melted. It was a case, as Alexander Woollcott once put it, of "so odd a blend of Little Nell and Lady Macbeth."

Many of Miss Parker's writings appeared in The New Yorker magazine, to which she was a contributor from its second issue, Feb. 28, 1925, until Dec. 14, 1957. In paying tribute to her last night, William Shawn, the magazine's editor, said:

"Miss Parker, along with Robert Benchley, E.B. White, James Thurber, Frank Sullivan, Ogden Nash, and Peter Arno, was one of the original group of contributors to the New Yorker, who, under Harold Ross's guidance, set the magazine's general tone and direction in its early years."

The humorist's personal and literary style, Mr. Shawn added, "Were not only highly characteristic of the twenties, but also had an influence on the character of the twenties at least that particular nonserious, insolemn sophisticated literary circle she was an important part of New York City."

Sentimentalist at Heart

Her lifelong reputation as a glittering, annihilating humorist in poetry, essays, short stories and in conversation was compiled and sustained brickbat by brickbat. One of her quips could make a fool a celebrity, and vice versa. She was, however, at bottom a disillusioned romantic, all the fiercer because the world spun against her sentimental nature. She truly loved flowers, dogs and a good cry; and it was this fundamental sadness and shyness that gave her humor its extraordinary bite and intensity.

When the mood was on her, Miss Parker's conversation was like a Fourth of July sparkler; but humor did not come easily to her pen. "I can't write five words but that I change seven," she once confessed.

The best of Miss Parker's humor was wry and dry, antic and offbeat, even that about herself. For her epitaph she suggested "Excuse My Dust," and of her poetry she said, "I was following in the exquisite footsteps of Miss Edna St. Vincent Millay, unhappily in my own horrible sneakers."

Barred Glasses in Public

She took seriously her couplet about women and glasses: Men seldom make passes/At girls who wear glasses. Although she was quite nearsighted, she refrained from wearing her horn-rimmed spectacles in public, or when men were present. She much preferred to blink her luminous hazel-green eyes.

"Deceptively sweet" was the phrase her friends most often applied to her. And indeed she looked it, for she was elfin, with a warm smile and perfect manners and a short-stepped ladylike walk. She had a mass of dark hair, that, toward middle age, she cut off and wore in bangs.

She was "the verray parfit, gentile knight" of the squelch, which she delivered deadpan in a clear, mellow, lamblike voice. Informed that Clare Boothe Luce was invariably kind to her inferiors, Miss Parker remarked, "And where does she find them?" Of a well-known author, "The only 'ism' she believes in is plagiarism." And of a cocky friend, "His body has gone to his head."

Miss Parker's background was not literary. She was born on Aug. 22, 1893, in West End, N.J. Her father, J. Henry Rothschild, was a New Yorker of means, her mother, the former Eliza Marston, was of Scottish descent. She attended Miss Dana's School at Morristown, N.J., and Sacred Heart Convent in New York.

She was, she recalled, "a plain disagreeable child with stringy hair and a yen to write poetry."

After she had by chance sent some of her verses to Vogue magazine, she was hired at $10 a week to write picture captions. At the same time, Mr. Adams, who was generally known by his initials, F.P.A., published some of her poetry in his column, then appearing in The Daily Mail.

Miss Parker worked for Vogue for two years, 1916 and 1917, and in the latter year was married to Edwin Pond Parker 2d. The marriage was terminated in divorce in 1928, but she retained Parker as her professional name.

After her marriage, Miss Parker became drama critic for Vanity Fair from 1917 to 1920, when, during an office reorganization, she resigned. It was during the following five years that she attained her celebrity for sizzling, off-the-cuff wit from her repartee at the Algonquin Round Table.

Miss Parker, Mr. Benchley and Robert E. Sherwood were the founders of the group when they all worked at Vanity Fair, which had offices at 19 West 44th Street. The group got going because the Algonquin was nearby on 44th Street, and the three could not bear to suspend their office conversations.

The group rapidly expanded, and Frank Case, the hotel's proprietor, provided a round table for it. The group, usually about 10 a day, lunched together for about a decade. At one time or another it included George S. Kaufman, Harold Ross, Donald Ogden Stewart, Russell Crouse, Edna Ferber, Heywood Broun, Ruth Gordon and, of course, F.P.A. and the three founders.

Miss Parker was one of the luminaries, but took a down view of the Round Table. "People romanticize it," she said. "This was no Mermaid Tavern. These 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 each other how good they were.

"At first I was in awe of them because they were being published. But then I came to realize I wasn't hearing anything very stimulating.

"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, "Valliant is the Word for Carrie," and I knew I had enough of the Round Table.

"The one man of real stature who ever went there was Heywood Broun. He and Robert Benchley were the only people who took any cognizance of the world around them. George Kaufman was a nuisance and rather disagreeable. Harold Ross, the New Yorker editor, was a complete lunatic; I suppose he was a good editor, but his ignorance was profound."

As one result of her poems and stories, Miss Parker was pointed out at parties and literary gatherings, not always to her amusement.

"Are you Dorothy Parker?" a woman at one party inquired. "Yes, do you mind?" the humorist retorted.

On another occasion, assured by a drunk who accosted her that he was really a nice person and a man of talent, Miss Parker replied:

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

"This reputation for homicidal humor," Miss Parker recalled in after years, "used to make me feel like a fool. At parties, fresh young gents would come up defiantly and demand I say something funny and nasty. I was prepared to do it with select groups, but with others I'd slink away."

An Admirer Disappointed

At one party a man followed her around all evening, waiting for a bright remark. He finally apologized, saying, "You're not at all the way I thought you'd be. I'm sorry."

"That's all right," Miss Parker rejoined. "But do me a favor. When you get home, throw your mother a bone."

Miss Parker herself understood the ephemerality of conversational humor. "Wit has truth in it," she said. "Wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words."

Nevertheless, it was the sort of gymnastics at which she could be very good indeed. At a party where she was seated with Somerset Maugham, the author asked if she would write a poem for him. "I will if you like," Miss Parker said, and scribbled out:

Higgledy Piggledy, my white hen;
She lays eggs for gentlemen.

"Yes, I've always liked those lines," Mr. Maugham commented.

Miss Parker bestowed a cool smile and without an instant's hesitation added:

You cannot persuade her with a gun or lariat;
To come across for the proletariat.

Miss Parker laced her wit with heady truth as a book reviewer, first for The New Yorker as Constant Reader and then for Esquire as book review editor for many years. Her notices were written with a chatty trenchancy, as though she were talking informally to the reader; but she could (and did) impale authors who displeased her, either by synopsizing a pompous plot in all its ludicrousness or by pulverizing the book with a phrase.

Book Briefly Dismissed

She reduced A.A. Milne's sugary "The House at Pooh Corner" to water by remarking that "Tonstant Weader Fwowed up" after reading one too many of the word "tummy."

Her verdict on Edith Wharton's autobiography was equally to the point: "Edie was a lady." Edward W. Bok, the prestigious editor of The Ladies Home Journal, was left in tatters with Miss Parker's summary of him as "the Eddie Guest of prose."

"Inseparable my nose and thumb," she once wrote, and she delighted in wiggling her fingers at folk gods. " 'In the Service of the King' has caused an upset in my long-established valuations," she wrote. "With the publication of this, her book, Aimee Semple McPherson has replaced Elsie Dinsmore as my favorite character in fiction."

Miss Parker was not entirely negative, however. She praised F. Scott Fitzgerald, the early Hemingway, some of Sinclair Lewis, James Baldwin and Edwin Albee.

Miss Parker's reputation for light poetry was based on four books of verse: "Enough Rope" (1926), "Sunset Gun" (1928), "Death and Taxes" (1931) and "Not So Deep as a Well" (1936). On the surface the poems were a blend of the cynical and the sentimental just right for the sweet-winning generation of the late nineteen-twenties and early nineteen-thirties.

If there was touch of Miss Millay in them, there was also an overtone from Housman, as in "Pictures in the Smoke:"

Oh, gallant was the first love, and glittering and fine;
  The second love was water, in a clear white cup;
The third love was his, and the fourth was mine;
  And after that, I get them all mixed up.

In Miss Parker's evocation of heartburn, there was, too, a bit of Donne and a hint of La Rochefoucauld, as in "Words of Comfort to be Scratched on a Mirror:"

Helen of Troy had a wandering glance;
Sappho's restriction was only the sky;
Ninon was ever the chatter of France;
But oh, what a good girl am I!

Miss Parker wrote her last published poem in 1944, and then gave up the craft. "Let's face it, honey," she explained, "my verse is terribly dated."

But her final poem, "War Song," was her favorite. It is quintessentially Miss Parker, and it reads:

Soldier, in a curious land
  All across a swaying sea,
Take her smile and lift her hand
  Have no guilt of me.

Solider, when were soldiers true?
  If she's kind and sweet and gay,
Use the wish I send to you
  Lie not lone til day!

Only, for the nights that were,
  Soldier, and the dawns that came,
When in my sleep you turn to her
  Call her by my name.

As a short-story writer, Miss Parker produced several that were more than merely excellent: "Big Blonde," which won the O Henry Memorial Award in 1929; "Telephone Call," "Soldiers of the Republic" and "Arrangement in Black and White."

The latter is a particularly mordant satire of a woman explaining her own and her husband's attitude toward Negroes. It's most memorable passage reads:

"But I must say for Burton, he's heaps broader-minded than lots of these Southerners. He's really fond of colored people. Why, he says himself he wouldn't have white servants."

In 1933, Miss Parker was married to Alan Campbell, an actor. They were divorced in 1947 and remarried three years later. The Campbells went to Hollywood and collaborated on a number of motion picture scenarios; between times Miss Parker wrote short stories and book notices. Mr. Campbell died in California in June 1963, and Miss Parker, already ill, moved back to New York.

Writing Always Careful

Miss Parker, for all her mercury-quick mind, was a careful, even painful, craftsman.

"To say that Miss Parker writes well," Ogden Nash once remarked, "is as fatuous as proclaiming that Cellini was clever with his hands."

She had her own definition of humor, and it demanded lonely, perfectionist writing to make the truly funny seem casual and uncontrived.

"Humor to me, Heaven help me, takes in many things," she said. "There must be courage; there must be no awe. There must be criticism, for humor, to my mind, is encapsulated in criticism. There must be a disciplined eye and wild mind. There must be a magnificent disregard for your reader, for if he cannot follow you, there is nothing you can do about it."

Toward the end of her life, Miss Parker was convinced that humor had fallen on evil days.

"There just aren't any humorists today," she said on her 70th birthday in 1963. "I don't know why. I don't suppose there is much demand for humor. S.J. Perelman is about the only one working at it, and he's rewriting himself."

In 1953 she and Arnaud d'Usseau collaborated on "Ladies of the Corridor," a Broadway play of middling success about the pointless lives of middle-aged women living without families. She also contributed some lyrics to Leonard Bernstein's musical "Candide."

From the nineteen-twenties, when Miss Parker was fined $5 for "sauntering" in a Boston demonstration against the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, she was active in liberal causes. In the Spanish Civil War and afterwards, she was the national chairman of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee and active in its behalf.

Faced House Committee

This had repercussions in 1951 when she was cited by the House Un-American Activities Committee, with 300 other writers, professors, actors and artists, for affiliation with what the committee designated as "Communist-front" organizations. One committee witness identified her as a member of the Communist party, an accusation she persistently denied.

In her final illness, Miss Parker was melancholy about her life's accomplishments. She wanted to write again, especially short stories, but she lacked the strength.

The summing up came from Edmund Wilson, the critic, who wrote:

"She is not Emily Bronte or Jane Austen, but she has been at some pains to write well, and she has put into what she has written a voice, a state of mind, an era, a few moments of human experience that nobody else has conveyed."

Miss Parker left no survivors.

A funeral service will be held tomorrow at 10:30 a.m. at Frank E. Campbell's, Madison Avenue and 81st Street. Lillian Hellman, the playwright, and Zero Mostel, the actor, will deliver eulogies.

[Note: The Times also included two columns of Parker material, under the headline "Examples of Saucy Wit" among them were "News Item," "A Very Short Song," "De Profundis," "The Flaw in Paganism," "Bohemia," "Conjecture" and "Resume."]

 
Copyright 1998-2013 Kevin C. Fitzpatrick/The Dorothy Parker Society. All Rights Reserved.