Dorothy Parker, near the end of her life, speaking of the Algonquin Round Table:
These were no giants. Think who was writing in those days — Lardner, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway. Those were the real giants. The Round Table was just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were. Just a bunch of loudmouths showing off, saving their gags for days, waiting for a chance to spring them. It was not legendary. I don’t mean that — but it wasn’t all that good. There was no truth in anything they said. It was the terrible day of the wisecrack, so there didn’t have to be any truth.
Dorothy Parker was famous for her wit, sharp tongue, and incisive (sometimes brutal) opinions. After seeing a young Katharine Hepburn in one of Hepburn’s first Broadway roles, Parker wrote, “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.”
She spoke and wrote the way her her mind worked: fast, caustic, competitive (she must win), and lethal. There are so many anecdotes about her, and who knows if they are all true, but I prefer to believe they are true, because somehow, strangely, it makes me believe in the possibility of WINNING. Of crushing an opponent, using just a few words. It may not be a lovable quality, but it is certainly a theatrical and literary quality. One of the most famous anecdotes is the story of Dorothy Parker and actress Clare Booth Luce approaching a narrow doorway. They both stopped, not being able to walk through it side by side. Clare Booth Luce, trying to be witty, said, gesturing for Parker to go first, “Age before beauty.” Parker swept through the door first, retorting, “Pearls before swine.”
I love her for her unladylike devastating meanness, but I also love that her wit was not empty, or facile. It was a true expression of her sensibility (one aspect of it anyway), and it was always funny, which is not an easy task.
Her short stories are devastating, beautiful miniature portraits of loneliness and urban life. There is a sadness in her later interviews, an awareness that she was perhaps pigeon-holed, or she had pigeon-holed herself.
Here she is, during an interview with The Paris Review in 1956:
Like everybody was then, I was following in the exquisite footsteps of Miss Millay, unhappily in my own horrible sneakers. My verses are no damn good. Let’s face it, honey, my verse is terribly dated – as anything once fashionable is dreadful now. I gave it up, knowing it wasn’t getting any better, but nobody seemed to notice my magnificent gesture.
Bitter. But making bitterness funny (“magnificent gesture”). A real survival skill, so so useful to writers.
Another quote from the same interview:
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.
This was her main struggle as a writer. I feel her “sick”-ness and “unhappiness” IN her writing, which gives it some of its oomph. She’s not a shallow person, as “wits” are often supposed to be. Quite the opposite. She’s devastated by phoniness, cruelty, bad writing. It hurts her.
She says in the Paris Review interview:
Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead is a great book. And I thought William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness an extraordinary thing. The start of it took your heart and flung it over there. He writes like a god. But for most of my reading I go back to the old ones – for comfort. As you get older you go much farther back. I read Vanity Fair about a dozen times a year. I was a woman of eleven when I first read it – the thrill of that line “George Osborne lay dead with a bullet through his heart.” Sometimes I read, as an elegant friend of mine calls them, “who-did-its”. I love Sherlock Holmes. My life is so untidy and he’s so neat. But as for living novelists, I suppose E.M. Forster is the best, not knowing that that is, but at least he’s a semifinalist, wouldn’t you think?
She said once that humor needed “a disciplined eye and a wild mind”. To me, that perfectly describes her verses, which are tight as a drum, the rhyme schemes and rhythms almost a throwback to Longfellow, who writes rhymes and rhythms so perfect, that they must be read out loud for the sheer joy of them. There are, perhaps, verses more famous than the one I’m excerpting here today (her poem about suicide – “razors pain you”, her poem about “one perfect rose”) – but her four-line stunner about Oscar Wilde is one of my favorites.
Obviously, Wilde was a huge influence on Dorothy Parker. He had the same brutal eye, the same caustic perfection of thought encapsulated in his epigrams – and I would say that Parker, here, is “disciplined” and yet also very “wild”. It takes a wild broad mind to write something like this, but she has reined it all in to something perfect and cool and self-contained. One of her biggest gifts.
If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.
I love that crazy mean dame.