By Kevin C. Fitzpatrick
April 25, 2008
The Ladies of the Corridor, a play that Dorothy Parker and Arnaud d’Usseau wrote in 1953, had a short life on Broadway. In 2005, Marion Meade was in the audience for an off-off Broadway production by the Peccadillo Theatre Company, a group that has a reputation for staging “lost” gems from yesteryear. Meade said she was knocked out by the play, which she had read years before while researching her landmark biography Dorothy Parker What Fresh Hell Is This? The show was a hit and the critics loved it. This gave her the idea to approach her editor about reissuing the book, which had been out of print for more than 50 years. She took time out from writing her next book, a joint biography of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney, to talk about The Ladies of the Corridor, its creative team, and why a flop in 1953 can be relevant in the 21st Century.
Where was Dorothy Parker in her life when she wrote the play?
Her life was pretty much over in Hollywood. She had just remarried Alan Campbell, her second husband. She’d gone out there, remarried him, the marriage lasted about a week (laughs). She stayed for a while, but there was no reason to stay. She came back to New York; this was about 1952. She didn’t know what she wanted to do. She was glad to be home again.
She had met Arnaud d’Usseau in California.
She had known Arnaud d’Usseau and his wife, Susan, out in L.A. They were all Communists. Susan d’Usseau owned a bookstore called Book of the Day, which was a radical left-wing bookstore. All these people moved in the same circle, they were all fellow travelers or party members. When she came back to New York, the d’Usseaus were living here, as were a lot of other people she knew. People who were already being blacklisted and feeling the heat in their professions. She started hanging out with them. She liked younger men… and d’Usseau was certainly one of them.
How do you think they hit on this subject matter?
He has one story that apparently they were both concerned about the problems of older women who lived in residence hotels. Now why a young man in his thirties would be so interested in that, I do not know. I believe he had a relative who had a depressing life as a widow. But I think it was more Parker, who lived in a bunch of these hotels. He said she lived in more than one hotel, but to me, it was The Volney. She got an apartment there shortly after she returned to New York… The Volney was not like Ladies of the Corridor, it was not a place filled with old ladies. It was a thriving hotel. It was where Quentin Reynolds was living, where Sara Murphy lived later, lots of theater people and journalists. The British critic Kenneth Tynan (was a resident). That was why she named one of the characters Mildred Tynan. He lived there even before she did. The people who lived there were not all old, either. They were all ages.
How much of the play was Parker and how much was by d’Usseau?
It is hard to tell. There is no way to know that. I can’t dispute what he says, but what he said was stated half a century after this happened. I have the feeling that he did the same thing that Alan Campbell did in their collaboration for the films. He kind of kept her on track; he may have come up with the structure of a scene. The funny lines and a lot of the dialogue that’s what she did well. Especially if there was any humor to be put into it. He was another Alan. He was very good at structure.
This was very similar to “I Live on Your Visits”, a story she sold to The New Yorker in 1955. Same kind of characters and setting.
Well we all know whom that was about. That story was about Beatrice Ames. She had been the wife of Donald Ogden Stewart and they had two sons. That was who she was talking about there, as well as her mother-in-law. Alan Campbell’s mother. The character in the wheelchair, the monster lady, Mrs. Nichols. Her ex-husband’s mother also had only one son and who really devoured him until he ran away.
What are some things in the play people might not pick up on?
There is a great deal of humor in the play, which if you read quickly, you miss because so many awful things happen. Including the suicide and people who have no lives, either because their children have abandoned them, or they are kind of cannibal women who eat their children.
One of the most pathetic parts is when Mrs. Nichols crushes her son’s dreams of going back to teaching. Where do you think that comes from?
It reminds me of the letters (Parker) wrote during the war to her friends about Alan’s mother. When they got a place in Bucks County they bought her a little house. So she came to live close by. And this was a horror show for Dorothy who hated the woman who was so awful. And then to have her living just a few miles down the road. After those years, she had good insights into that woman’s behavior and how she treated her son.
Another thing to me, as a younger reader, is the shabby way the children treat their mothers.
That does seem sad, although it doesn’t seem as sad to me because children do that all the time (laughs). It seemed sad to Parker because she didn’t have any children and actually neither did Arnaud d’Usseau. So to them that was terrible to be rejected by your children who wouldn’t even invite you to Thanksgiving dinner. In real life, if they would have had grown children, they would have known that this very often happens. Children have their own lives.
The few male characters in the play are not very significant to the story.
The men are all pathetic. Even Paul. Is there one man in there that isn’t pathetic? The women are definitely predators. Even Lulu is kind of a predator, in a way. She shocks her son by making all these remarks about his father. The women are definitely hockey type people who could eat you up. They’ve all chosen men who are waiting to be consumed (laughs).
Parker’s twin passions, dogs and younger men, are all over the play.
The thread about the dog is very much Mrs. Parker. There is hardly an element in that play that is not Mrs. Parker, that you could say belongs to a collaborator. The whole thing didn’t come out of her life, but every little piece did. It either came out of her life, or her feelings, or people she knew, or was related to. The story of Lulu and Paul in a way is the story of Dorothy Parker and Arnaud d’Usseau. Lulu could have become attracted to a man who was closer to her age. She didn’t. She went for an Arnaud type of man.
Just like she did with Alan Campbell, Ross Evans, and John McClain.
Yes. But McClain was a little closer to her age, but not really. Parker was very good at looking at herself, examining herself. Taking what she had seen and fashioning it into a fictional character. The Mildred Tynan part, that is a huge monologue. That is a giant behemoth of a monologue of a woman in despair. It kind of reminds of “Big Blonde,” it comes from the same place in Parker that “Big Blonde” came from.
For someone that only knows Parker from The Portable Dorothy Parker, what are they going to take away from reading this play?
They would see something of her own life that they perhaps weren’t prepared to see. They would see Parker as an older woman. And as a woman who was sad, but still sharp. Her insights into the subject of women her age were wonderful.
How do you rank this play in her canon?
It’s the best play she wrote, but most of plays she wrote were pretty bad. It was the last thing she wrote of any note. I think she was ahead of her time in addressing this subject at all. She always used to say, “Well, I’m a feminist, I’m a feminist,” but she didn’t act like a feminist, that’s for sure. But in this play she proved, in fact, she was a feminist.
Why do you think this play was not successful in 1953?
Because people looked at the sight of it as “What are these women whining about? Why are they all so depressed, and depressing?” And “They don’t have any problems. They have a nice place to stay. So they’re bored, so what?” And Brooks Atkinson really spoke for, not all of the critics, but some of them, when he said, “We all know that old ladies have boring lives. Do we have to go to the theater to watch it?”
The play is not light, nor fun. It can be looked at as a period piece.
How was Eisenhower’s New York different from Bush’s New York?
I don’t think it was Eisenhower’s New York, it was just the Fifties. It was New York at that time; the whole generation of the Fifties was just awful. This was right before the Sixties when the women’s movement changed things. Women were not supposed to get jobs and have sex lives at that age. You were supposed to be a retired housewife. She took women who weren’t written about very often. That’s what I think is remarkable. That this type of woman kind of fell through the cracks because people didn’t think she was important enough or interesting enough to write about. Women who were older – but not ancient – so they could be real character parts. Just ordinary women who weren’t that old and were still energetic, and nobody wanted them. Today, being in your fifties isn’t old.
In your introduction you say that today these women would be going to the gym.
First of all, these women today would not be calling themselves “Mrs. Whatever” and using their husband’s names, “Mrs. Joe Blow.” They would still be working, or out having a second career. They would be doing something with their lives, they wouldn’t consider themselves retired from life. They would be looking for a second husband, actually, or they would online on eHarmony.com (laughs) looking for another mate. Times are different.
What would someone today take from the play that they wouldn’t have gotten 55 years ago?
I think people who see it today, especially women, immediately connect with it. It’s either themselves, or it’s their mothers, or their sisters…. Or somebody they know. They think, “Oh, that’s right. That’s the way it is. And that’s they way it was… that’s really terrible. We survived that period. Who’d want to live then?”
The other thing it touches on is divorce. Although Lulu was not divorced, she was released from a bad marriage by death. But in effect she’s manless, and today is a person who would be divorced. She’s a person who is dating again. It is easier to recognize that. It’s like the difference in opportunities for women. Connie, the interior decorator, was presented in Parker and d’Usseau’s play as kind of an oddball, a woman who didn’t quietly accept her fate, or whatever, she fought against it and reinvents herself. She was regarded as someone admirable but not someone who was like you or me.
She was also the comic relief. She works in an interior design firm with these gay guys.
Right. She is the most humorous (character). She’s the comic relief. Another thing, it is ironic to think that the lead male, the person who Lulu was involved with, Paul the young bookstore owner, was (played by) Walter Matthau. When you think of him you think of how everyone knows him, as a great comic. Whereas he probably brought to that serious role probably more comedy than we know, just in reading the lines.
What would you say to a theater company that is thinking of putting on Ladies of the Corridor? Why should they?
I think it’s a very well-made play. It has a point that is easily accessible. On the other hand it’s like a historical artifact because it shows a picture of women as they were 50 years ago, and the picture is really ugly. Despite her humor and despite everything, it’s an ugly picture (laughs). It’s like a look back at Auschwitz and Dachau (laughs). It’s like saying, “Look, I got out, but look at what happened to all the rest of them.” It is unreal today to think that you could be one of these women. That you could have been a woman in your fifties in the 1950s and this was all that your life was going to be. It is so different from today that you think, “Well that was impossible.” It wasn’t. It was our mother’s generation.
It’s been out of print since the Fifties. What took it so long to come out again?
I think it was a forgotten play until the Peccadillo Theatre revived it and everyone saw it again. They thought it looked fresh, it looked meaningful. It was a wonderful production. And after seeing it that night I asked my editor, Michael Millman at Penguin, if he would want to reissue it. He said sure… I don’t know why he said OK, because I didn’t think it was significant enough. Despite the wonderful production I just didn’t think Penguin was going to spring for it to reissue a book Viking had published half a century ago. I have to give (publisher) Kathryn Court credit. It’s good to have this.
The critics in 1953 were not kind to Parker and d’Usseau’s efforts.
I think that Parker was shocked to see that the reviews were negative. They weren’t all negative, but there were enough that were negative. The most important reviewer then, and maybe still today, was the New York Times. Brooks Atkinson was really a fuddy duddy. He made subtle little digs at her, and d’Usseau too, saying, “With two such experienced playwrights like this, you’d think they could come up with something a little more inventive.” The Drama Critics Circle the next year voted it as one of the best plays of the season. So it wasn’t a play that was a turkey. The people that didn’t like it were the audiences. The audiences didn’t get it. Nobody wanted to see it.
Then why did an audience in 2005 want to see it? Why did they get it?
Because it’s a different time. We’ve already been through a revolution in women’s aspirations and what they do with their lives and how they want to be treated.
So the people in 2005 were looking at it as a period piece then.
Right. It’s not their lives today. It’s a life they might have had if they were their mothers.
You would not do this show in modern dress.
No. It could never take place today. It could not take place anytime after 1961 when the women’s movement began. Because everything the women’s movement was about was summed up in this play (laughs). As Robin Morgan said in her famous piece in The Rat, “Goodbye To All That.” And this is what they are saying goodbye to.
It is like a time capsule of what women were like, and not that long ago.
Right. The Twenties were somewhat different. Women really tried to break out. But then in the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties they slipped back into the early part of the century. Women’s lives were much more restricted.
People could read the book and think it is Dorothy Parker’s autobiography. It isn’t.
It is hard to say that this definitely was never Parker’s life. That’s the thing to remember, although the play is autobiographical in many respects, it is autobiographical in terms of her feelings, but not in what she did with her life. She took pieces of her life that were autobiographical, but in general, she’d been thumbing her nose at everyone for 50 years and doing exactly what she damned pleased. She had very good insight. She was like a squirrel. She picked up things all around her, especially the part about women with children. I don’t know if Beatrice Stewart (ex-wife of Round Table member Donald Ogden Stewart and longtime friend of Dottie’s) went back to being called Beatrice Ames and saw this play, she must have. They stayed friendly until the day (Parker) died. But Parker picked apart her life there.
Do you think the new book will bring the play back to stages and audiences?
I hope it will be done again. I hope someone will do it again.
Kevin C. Fitzpatrick is the president of the Dorothy Parker Society. He is the author of A Journey into Dorothy Parker’s New York (Roaring Forties Press, 2005). He leads walking tours devoted to Mrs. Parker and the Algonquin Round Table.
The Ladies of the Corridor is on sale now in bookstores everywhere, and online. [Buy via Amazon]
1989 Interview with playwright Arnaud d’Usseau about The Ladies of the Corridor.
2008 article about re-release of The Ladies of the Corridor by Penguin Classics.