At the center of New York’s intellectual life in the in the 1920’s and early 30’s, Dorothy Parker was regaled as the wittiest woman in America. She was not yet twenty-seven. An indisputable Dame of Dialogue, every bright saying of the day was attributed to her. Cracking wise on any and all subjects, as a theater critic her reviews could be biting. Underwhelmed with Katharine Hepburn’s run in a play, she quipped that Hepburn’s performance “ran the gamut of emotions, from A to B.” Always clever and often bawdy, when asked to use horticulture in a sentence she offered, “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.” She knew everyone who was anyone in New York, and everyone wanted to know her.
Her bright, sharp, and funny writing belied her early life. Her mother died when Parker was an infant and she was terrified of her father, exacting, aloof and demanding. He took a second wife whose idea of mothering consisted of having Dorothy walk around for hours with a book on her head to maintain good posture. Could that have been why she ended up so bookish? Petite, soft of voice, and with excellent manners drummed into her by her hated stepmother, whom she called “the housekeeper,” she was “fired” from Catholic school after she referred to the Immaculate Conception as “spontaneous combustion.”
She was the only female at the fabled Algonquin Round Table—a table at the hotel reserved for the literary gurus of New York—Robert Benchley and Harold Ross among the regulars, drawn together by their genuine admiration for each other and a passion for the English language. Taste makers all, their clever repartee around the table was followed by late night reveling at one or another’s apartments—not Parker’s, she hardly ever had anyone over, her place spare but unkempt (she had dogs but never trained them).
At first glance shy and retiring, she gave off an innocent and almost helpless aura, but Parker was anything but. She smoked, worked for a living and went to the theater unchaperoned, A New Woman of the 1920’s, she dominated every room she walked into. Enjoying her fame on the one hand, she disparaged and mocked it on the other. The seeming epitome of the carefree good-time twenties, her wit masked an underlying sadness about love and life in general. She attempted suicide twice. “Coda” typifies some of her melancholy, masked by wit.
There’s little in taking or giving,
There’s little in water or wine;
This living, this living, this living,
Was never a project of mine.
Oh, hard is the struggle, and sparse is
The gain of the one at the top.
For art is form of catharsis,
And love is a permanent flop,
And work is the province of cattle,
And rest’s for a clam in a shell,
So I’m thinking of throwing the battle—
Would you kindly direct me to hell?
Popular among men, having no female confidants—one friend said she had the mind of a man imprisoned in a woman’s body—she was perceived as different from other women. Her attitude toward children was one that most twentieth-century women could not imagine; she claimed she didn’t want a child. And yet, true to the contradictions in her life, she yearned for children, masking that yearning in sharp-tongued jibes against those who had them, and the little ones themselves, so people would not think of her as sentimental.
As an author—two volumes of short stories and three of poetry—Parker’s output was small but her influence on the literary world was enormous. In 1929 she won the prestigious
O. Henry prize for her short story “Big Blonde”, establishing her as a serious prose artist and spearheading a new kind of writing. Her language, spare and direct, her characters think and speak in the way real people of their time and class.
A party girl of the 1920’s, “Big Blonde’s” Hazel Morse presents a sad and biting view of a woman’s life in an era often considered both fun and liberating for women. But Morse doesn’t appear to be liberated or having fun. Rendered as both tragic and pathetic, she builds her life around her looks and being a “good sport,” to endear herself to men. Did Parker see herself as tragic and pathetic? Though their intellects and life-styles were worlds apart, there are strong parallels between them. Their public happy-go-lucky personae masked their private sadness, their brief, disillusioning marriages, a string of unsatisfying love affairs and their attempted suicides. We can only imagine what finally happened to Hazel Morse, but Dorothy Parker died when she was seventy-three, alone, in a hotel, of a heart attack.
Rather than imagining, I drew on my own life when I wrote the short story “Keria”* soon after my mother died, bringing back my family history and my father’s working life in the needle trades. And it occurs to me now, that though my life and Parker’s are also worlds apart, we too have something in common. Both our fathers worked in the garment industry, hers as a manufacturer, mine, as a pattern maker/dress designer. Like me, Parker drew from personal recollection when she wrote that Hazel worked in a “dress establishment,” as I did in “Keria,” having my father knowing “more about a dress than a dress knew,” coming alive after mourning for my mother by talking, dresses, on the phone with a colleague. Making me think further, that one way or another, we Dames all have something in common.
*Keria is a Hebrew word referring to the ancient rite of tearing one’s clothing in an expression of grief and anger at the loss of a loved one.
Alterations is a short story collection about little girls and adolescents, a teenager, a father, a son, grown women, characters from different types of families and mindsets, their loving and sometimes mysterious bonds, who are altered by their circumstances as they make their way through life.
Alterations is available in eBook and trade paperback from Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Alterations-Rita-Pl.ush/dp/1938758153/ref=tmm_pap_title_0
From Barnes & Noble in eBook: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/alterations-rita-plush/1115410411?ean=2940016704166
Visit www.ritaplush.com for more information about Rita.
For all the Dames out there who, besides reading Lily Steps Out, would like to listen to the novel, leave a comment, I’ll pick a winner and send you instructions for a free audio.