In 1963, Dorothy Parker’s husband, an actor and screenwriter whom she had married, divorced, and married again, took his own life by means of an overdose of drugs. A friend asked what she could to do help, and Parker replied, “Get me a new husband.” When the friend replied that that was about the most callous thing she had ever heard, Parker revised her request. “All right,” she said, “so sorry. Then run down to the corner and get me a ham and cheese on rye, and tell them to hold the mayo.”
It was a perfectly Marxian sort of reaction to a terrible situation, Marxian in the sense of not Karl but Groucho. Indeed, Groucho was her contemporary and peer, born just three years before Dorothy, nee Dorothy Rothschild, who shared his love of épater la bourgeoisie humor and anarchic sensibilities: when life serves up lemons, in that aesthetic, then make lemonade, and then make your audience snort it out their noses in a combination of shock and convulsive laughter.
Parker began her writing career as a poet, and a poet she would always remain. But she made her mark as a writer for magazines in what would emerge as the medium’s golden age: she wrote for early incarnations of Vogue and Vanity Fair, then joined the staff of the New Yorker, making her first appearance in its second issue. From 1925 to 1940 she poured out a river of words: poems to be sure but also short stories, articles, reviews. She won the O. Henry Award in 1929 for her story “Big Blonde,” the year after she notoriously reviewed, under the rubric Constant Reader, the second volume in A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh series with the dismissive, “Tonstant Weader fwowed up.”
Milne may not have deserved the caustic treatment, and certainly other of Parker’s targets didn’t, but it was that acid tongue that made her famous and paved the way for later humorists such as Nora Ephron and Fran Lebowitz. But by this time Parker was on a new tear: she moved to Hollywood and became a contract screenwriter for Paramount Pictures, contributing, sometimes without credit, to some of the most famous films of the day, including the 1937 iteration of A Star Is Born and Alfred Hitchcock’s wartime drama Saboteur.
In the end, Parker was blacklisted for her leftist sympathies, and, unlucky in domestic affairs (“A heart in half is chaste, archaic,” she wrote, “But mine resembles a mosaic”), she moved back East, spending most of her time in New York. She devoted time and money to the cause of civil rights, so much so that on her death 50 years ago, on June 7, 1967, she bequeathed her estate to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Her literary executor, the famously arch Lillian Hellman, wasn’t thrilled about that instruction, and it seems she responded by forgetting to dispose of Parker’s remains, which sat in a filing cabinet for a couple of decades. Finally, the NAACP claimed her ashes and buried them in a small garden in downtown Baltimore, Maryland, under a plaque containing the fittingly sardonic epitaph she had written for herself: “Excuse my dust.”
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.