In researching the 1950’s for my novel ‘Under the Bed’ , Dorothy Parker’s name came up as one of the Hollywood writers black-listed. It is also 45 years ago this week since her death.Dorothy Parker was renowned for her wit, being a keen critic, her poetry, short stories, plays and her left wing politics. When she died of a heart attack in 1967, her estate was left to the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. foundation. Following King’s death, her estate was passed on to the NAACP. In 1988 the NAACP dedicated a memorial garden to her in Baltimore and erected a plaque. She’d suggested her tombstone should read ‘Excuse my dust’. They didn’t argue.
But first, let’s have some fun and see if you can complete three of Parker’s famous quotes.
No.1 is my favorite and was the name of the lunchtime theatre play in London where the wit of Dorothy Parker finally came into my life, a decade after her death.
Answers are at the bottom of this post!
- Men seldom make passes,
2. Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smell awful;
3. You can lead a whore to culture,
The following is taken from a Paris Review interview she gave in 1956, on the Art of Fiction.* If you’re not already familiar with them, the archives of Paris Review have some incredible interviews of literary figures – thoroughly enjoyable and a fantastic writer’s resource.
On how she started writing:
“I fell into writing, I suppose, being one of those awful children who wrote verses. I went to a convent in New York—the Blessed Sacrament. Convents do the same things progressive schools do, only they don’t know it. They don’t teach you how to read; you have to find out for yourself. At my convent we did have a textbook, one that devoted a page and a half to Adelaide Ann Proctor; but we couldn’t read Dickens; he was vulgar, you know. … But as for helping me in the outside world, the convent taught me only that if you spit on a pencil eraser it will erase ink. And I remember the smell of oilcloth, the smell of nuns’ garb. I was fired from there, finally, for a lot of things, among them my insistence that the Immaculate Conception was spontaneous combustion.”
On whether her reputation as a wit interfered with her acceptance as a fiction writer:
“I don’t want to be classed as a humorist. It makes me feel guilty. I’ve never read a good tough quotable female humorist, and I never was one myself. I couldn’t do it. A “smartcracker” they called me, and that makes me sick and unhappy. There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words. I didn’t mind so much when they were good, but for a long time anything that was called a crack was attributed to me—and then they got the shaggy dogs.
On contemporary writers:
“…as for living novelists, I suppose E. M. Forster is the best, … at least he’s a semifinalist, wouldn’t you think? … He once wrote something I’ve always remembered: “It has never happened to me that I’ve had to choose between betraying a friend and betraying my country, but if it ever does so happen I hope I have the guts to betray my country.” Now doesn’t that make the Fifth Amendment look like a bum?
On her own writing practice:
“It takes me six months to do a story. I think it out and then write it sentence by sentence—no first draft. I can’t write five words but that I change seven.
On whether her political views made any difference to her professionally?
“Oh, certainly. Though I don’t think this “blacklist” business extends to the theater or certain of the magazines, in Hollywood it exists because several gentlemen felt it best to drop names like marbles which bounced back like rubber balls about people they’d seen in the company of what they charmingly called “commies.” You can’t go back thirty years to Sacco and Vanzetti. I won’t do it. Well, well, well, that’s the way it is. If all this means something to the good of the movies, I don’t know what it is. Sam Goldwyn said, “How’m I gonna do decent pictures when all my good writers are in jail?” Then he added, the infallible Goldwyn, “Don’t misunderstand me, they all ought to be hung.” Mr. Goldwyn didn’t know about “hanged.” That’s all there is to say. It’s not the tragedies that kill us, it’s the messes. I can’t stand messes. I’m not being a smartcracker. You know I’m not when you meet me—don’t you, honey?
If Dorothy Parker was alive today, what issues do you think she’d be writing about?
*From Dorothy Parker, The Art of fiction No 13,
Interviewed by Marion Campion
To read this interview in full, go to:
Endings of Dorothy Parker quotes above:
1.At girls who wear glasses. 2. You might as well live. 3. But you can’t make her think.
Time and Place: 1950?s USA (akandrew.com)