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Fans hope writer’s ashes won’t be left in the dust
The NAACP is pondering a move to D.C., and some wonder what will happen to Dorothy Parker’s remains
By Rob Hiaasen
May 28, 2006
Excuse her dust — again. The NAACP’s desire to move its headquarters from Baltimore to the nation’s capital not only surprised city officials earlier this month, but it also seized the attention of writer Dorothy Parker’s admirers. Through an unlikely set of circumstances, Parker’s ashes are buried in a memorial garden at the civil rights organization’s Northwest Baltimore headquarters.
Fans of Parker, the oft-quoted, quintessential New York writer, wondered if she would make the trip to D.C. with the civil rights group.
“I hope things turn out well for her,” says Kevin Fitzpatrick, president of the 3,000-member Dorothy Parker Society in New York.
How Parker’s ashes came to be buried in Baltimore — under a plaque that includes the epitaph she wrote for herself, “Excuse my dust” — is a something of a twisted tale. In life, the famed wit of the Algonquin Round Table was not particularly fond of the city.
In the early 1920s, Parker traveled here to see her play, Close Harmony, open and close in two weeks. She took the opportunity to visit another writer and social commentator of the day, H. L. Mencken, whose work she respected and who had published many of her short stories. But the social call did not go well, according to Marion Meade’s biography, Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell is This?
“On this particular evening, she was disappointed to find him coarse and insensitive,” Meade wrote. “When he began to tell jokes about blacks, Dorothy bristled and decided to leave. She refused to spend the night in Baltimore.”
It is unclear whether Parker visited the city again.
Parker bequeathed her estate to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Meade wrote that a “puzzled” King graciously accepted the $20,000 estate, but “he had no idea who Parker was.” King died 10 months after Parker’s death in 1967. Over executor Lillian Hellman’s protests, Parker’s estate then passed on to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (as Parker had requested in the event of King’s death), which inherited and still holds the copyrights to Parker’s collected works.
“This sounds crass,” Meade says, “but she is their property.”
In her will, Parker did not say where she wanted to be buried. While researching Parker’s life, Meade interviewed the writer’s attorney, Paul O’Dwyer. He nonchalantly opened a filing cabinet in his New York office to show her the box of Parker’s ashes, which remained there for 15 years because O’Dwyer had no idea what to do with them. Meade says suggestions for a final resting place included painting Parker’s ashes into a mural at New York’s Algonquin Hotel, where she and a band of New York literati held court in the 1920s.
The mural idea died, mercifully. In the meantime, the NAACP, which was based in New York, moved to Baltimore in 1986. Executive Director the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks heard about the unceremoniously filed ashes and thought Parker’s remains deserved a more distinguished resting place. A $10,000 memorial garden was created at the group’s headquarters on Mount Hope Drive in 1988.
“It was,” says Fitzpatrick, “one of the nicest things … that any group has done for an author.” Parker, beyond her reputation for acerbic book reviews and quotable one-liners, was also a champion of social justice who wrote about race relations in the 1920s, Fitzpatrick says.
He hopes Parker’s remains will have a suitable new home. “If the NAACP moves to a similar location with a campus setting, then they could move her garden there,” he says. “However, if they are just renting office space, it might be time to think of a different location.
“What are you going to do — keep her on a shelf?” (Parker had, of course, already spent 15 years in that file cabinet.)
If no memorial garden setting can be found, Fitzpatrick and Meade say a more appropriate location for Parker’s remains would be New York’s Woodlawn Cemetery, where Parker’s parents are buried. Parker, who was blacklisted by Hollywood studio bosses in the 1950s for allegedly being a Communist Party member, would probably have recoiled at the thought of relocating to the nation’s capital, says her biographer.
In a grove of pine trees on Mount Hope Drive, walkways lead to a small, circular brick memorial behind an office building. The bricks have bowed a bit at the Dorothy Parker Memorial Gardens, but the centerpiece urn and epitaph are unmoved.
“Here lie the ashes of Dorothy Parker. Humorist, Writer, Critic. Defender of Human and Civil Rights,” reads the NAACP’s 1988 inscription, which included the writer’s suggested epitaph. “Excuse my dust” is a quintessential Parkerism, ranking alongside such witticisms as: “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses,” “Brevity is the soul of lingerie” and “I don’t care what is written about me as long as it isn’t true.”
This, though, is true: Some still find their way to her out-of-the-way memorial.
“Ironically enough, we had two ladies come by the gravesite just last weekend,” says NAACP spokesman Richard McIntire.
McIntire referred the question of what might happen to Parker’s remains to NAACP Chairman Julian Bond. Bond said no specific plans have been made regarding the group’s move — or Parker’s ashes.
“Of course, we would no more think of abandoning these ashes than jumping off the top of the Empire State Building,” Bond says.
Marion Meade has her own advice to the NAACP about what to do with Dorothy Parker:
“Stick her in the moving van, so she comes along.”
Copyright © 2006, The Baltimore Sun.