“A ‘smartcracker’ they called me, and that makes me sick and unhappy.” — Dorothy Parker

“Oh, good Lord, what’s the matter with women, anyway?”
“Please don’t call me ‘women,'” she said.
“I’m sorry, darling,” he said. “I didn’t mean to use bad words.”
— Dorothy Parker, “Dusk Before Fireworks”

It’s her birthday today.

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. She spoke and wrote the way her her mind worked: fast, caustic, competitive, 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. Parker could crush an opponent using only language. It may not be a lovable quality, but it is certainly a theatrical and literary quality.

“Gertrude Stein did us the most harm when she said, ‘You’re all a lost generation.’ That got around to certain people and we all said, Whee! We’re lost. Perhaps it suddenly brought to us the sense of change. Or irresponsibility. But don’t forget that, although the people in the twenties seemed like flops, they weren’t. Fitzgerald, the rest of them, reckless as they were, drinkers as they were, they worked damn hard and all the time.” – Dorothy Parker

There is a sadness in Parker’s 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 survival skill.

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. She addresses it in a short piece called “I Don’t Feel Funny”, written in the annus horribilis of 1939.

I don’t think these are funny times, and I don’t think Franco is funny. I don’t think I can fight fascism by being comical, nor do I think that anybody else can… I know many silly people, because I have known them for years, and I cannot keep my face shut when they talk peculiar idiocy; when they say everybody should keep very quiet and do nothing about anything, or when they shake their heads and sigh that unions are all rackets, or when they murmur, “Oh, well, I’m content to stay in my ivory tower”– oh God, oh God, that dreary ivory tower, the only window of which looks out on the fascist side.

Her short stories are devastating, even when they are funny (and sometimes they are not funny at all): miniature portraits of loneliness and urban life. Single girls trying to survive, living in rooming houses, sometimes succumbing to the dark side, the Edward-Hopper-ian loneliness of the insomniacs, the poor. She’s excellent on the interrelationships of men and women, how we try to communicate, how we fail, how we come to things with different expectations. (Her story “The Sexes,” told only in dialogue – with no narration, no exposition, is quite brilliant.) I love “Arrangement in Black and White,” (a kind of “Radical Chic” story for the 1920s set), “Big Blonde” (probably her most famous short story), “Song of the Shirt, 1941” “Here We Are”. I love “The Banquet of Crow.” Some of her stories are first-person monologues, funny, frantic, stream-of-consciousness (the one about a woman waiting for a man to telephone comes to mind). And throughout are these zingers of lines – lines that blare from the middle of the page with a kind of clarity, announcing the VOICE behind it. A random sampling:

“The young woman was of those unfortunates who remember every word.”
“her bearing had always that calm that only the correctly attired may enjoy”
“her words fell like snow when there is no wind.”
“The men wore the garb they could by now easily call Black Tie. (The steps in social ascent may be gauged by the terms employed to describe a man’s informal evening dress: the progression goes Tuxedo, Tux, dinner jacket, Black Tie.”

“Nobody can write such ironic things unless he has a deep sense of injustice – injustice to those members of the race who are the victims of the stupid, the pretentious and the hypocritical.” – Franklin P. Adams on Dorothy Parker’s short stories

Other sequences I love: From “The Little Hours”:

Well. This way lies galloping melancholia. Maybe it’s because this is the zero hour. This is the time the swooning soul hangs pendant and vertiginous between the new day and the old, nor dates confront the one and summon back the other. This is the time when all things, known and hidden, are iron to weight the spirit; when all ways, traveled or virgin, fall away from the stumbling feet, when all before the straining eyes to black. Blackness now, everywhere is blackness. This is the time of abomination, the dreadful hour of the victorious dark. For it is always darkest – Was it not that lovable old cynic, La Rouchefoucauld, who said it is always darkest before the deluge?

From “Sentiment”:

I wonder why it’s wrong to be sentimental. People are so contemptuous of feeling. ‘You wouldn’t catch me sitting alone and mooning,’ they say. “Moon” is what they say when they mean remember, and they are so proud of not remembering. It’s strange, how they pride themselves upon their lacks. ‘I never take anything seriously,’ they say. ‘I simply couldn’t imagine,’ they say, ‘letting myself care so much that I could be hurt.’ They say, ‘No one person could be that important to me.’ And why, why do they think they’re right?

Also from “Sentiment”:

“Go out and see your friends and have a good time,” they say. “Don’t sit alone and dramatize yourself.” Dramatize yourself! If it be drama to feel a steady – no, a ceaseless rain beating upon my heart, then I do dramatize myself. The shallow people, the little people, how can they know what suffering is, how could their thick hearts be torn? Don’t they know, the empty fools, that I could not see again the friends we saw together, could not go back to the places where he and I have been? For he’s gone, and it’s ended. It’s ended, it’s ended. And when it ends, only those places where you have known sorrow are kindly to you. If you revisit the scenes of your happiness, your heart must burst of its agony. And that’s sentimental, I suppose.

People who only think of her as a wisecracker haven’t read enough of her work.

“Ah, satire. That’s another matter. They’re the big boys. If I’d been called a satirist, there’d be no living with me. But by satirist I mean those boys in the other centuries. The people we call satirists now are those who make cracks at topical topics and consider themselves satirists – creatures like George S. Kaufman and such who don’t even know what satire is. Lord knows, a writer should show his times, but not show them in wisecracks. Their stuff is not satire; it’s as dull as yesterday’s newspaper. Successful satire has got to be pretty good the day after tomorrow.” – Dorothy Parker

The opening paragraph of “The Banquet of Crow”:

It was a crazy year, a year when things that should have run on schedule went all which ways. It was a year when snow fell thick and lasting in April, and young ladies clad in shorts were photographed for the tabloids sunbathing in Central Park in January. It was a year when, in the greatest prosperity of the richest nation, you could not walk five city blocks without being besought by beggars; when expensively dressed women loud and lurching in public places were no uncommon sight; when drugstore counters were stacked with tablets to make you tranquil and other tablets to set you leaping. It was a year when wives whose position was only an inch or two below that of the saints – arbiters of etiquette, venerated hostesses, architects of memorable menus – suddenly caught up a travelling bag and a jewel case and flew off to Mexico with ambiguous young men allied with the arts; when husbands who had come home every evening not only at the same hour but at the same minute of the same hour came home one evening more, spoke a few words, and then went out their doors and did not come in by them again.

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 so perfect, that they must be read out loud for the sheer joy of them. You can also hear the influence of Edna St. Vincent Millay, particularly in the love lyrics, but Parker’s verses are bitter, angry, funny. There’s so much good stuff to discover in her poetry, not just the usual suspects (the one about suicide is probably her most famous). Also, the TITLES of her poems are unexpected, often driving the point home once you finish reading the poem. A sampling:

A Very Short Song
Once, when I was young and true,
Someone left me sad-
Broke my brittle heart in two;
And that is very bad.

Love is for unlucky folk,
Love is but a curse.
Once there was a heart I broke;
And that, I think, is worse.

Anecdote
So silent I when Love was by
He yawned, and turned away;
But Sorrow clings to my apron-strings,
I have so much to say.

Unfortunate Coincidence
By the time you swear you’re his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying –
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.

Comment
Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Roumania.

Men
They hail you as their morning star
Because you are the way you are.
If you return the sentiment,
They’ll try to make you different;
And once they have you, safe and sound,
They want to change you all around.
Your moods and ways they put a curse on;
They’d make of you another person.
They cannot let you go your gait;
They influence and educate.
They’d alter all that they admired.
They make me sick, they make me tired.

Bric-a-Brac
Little things that no one needs —
Little things to joke about —
Little landscapes, done in beads.
Little morals, woven out,
Little wreaths of gilded grass,
Little brigs of whittled oak
Bottled painfully in glass;
These are made by lonely folk.

Lonely folk have lines of days
Long and faltering and thin;
Therefore — little wax bouquets,
Prayers cut upon a pin,
Little maps of pinkish lands,
Little charts of curly seas,
Little plats of linen strands,
Little verses, such as these.

Harriet Beecher Stowe
The pure and worthy Mrs. Stowe
Is one we all are proud to know
As mother, wife, and authoress-
Thank God, I am content with less!

Fulfillment
For this my mother wrapped me warm,
And called me home against the storm,
And coaxed my infant nights to quiet,
And gave me roughage in my diet,
And tucked me in my bed at eight,
And clipped my hair, and marked my weight,
And watched me as I sat and stood:
That I might grow to womanhood
To hear a whistle and drop my wits
And break my heart to clattering bits.

Two-Volume Novel
The sun’s gone dim, and
The moon’s turned black;
For I loved him, and
He didn’t love back.

The Lady’s Reward
Lady, lady, never start
Conversation toward your heart;
Keep your pretty words serene;
Never murmur what you mean.
Show yourself, by word and look,
Swift and shallow as a brook.
Be as cool and quick to go
As a drop of April snow;
Be as delicate and gay
As a cherry flower in May.
Lady, lady, never speak
Of the tears that burn your cheek-
She will never win him, whose
Words had shown she feared to lose.
Be you wise and never sad,
You will get your lovely lad.
Never serious be, nor true,
And your wish will come to you-
And if that makes you happy, kid,
You’ll be the first it ever did.

And finally:

Oscar Wilde

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 hate almost all rich people, but I think I’d be darling at it.” – Dorothy Parker

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11 Responses to “A ‘smartcracker’ they called me, and that makes me sick and unhappy.” — Dorothy Parker

  1. Doc Horton says:

    Her short story about newlyweds on a train, HERE WE ARE, is one of the laugh out loud funniest things I have ever read. I own a 1928 edition of SUNSET GUN, a collection of her poems.

  2. Alessandra says:

    I really like her poetry, but I think her best work is in her short stories. Some of them are so funny, and heartbreaking at the same time. No person of ordinary sensibility could have writen the stuff she wrote. Her characters are often so damaged, it makes me wonder what it was like to be her.

  3. george says:

    “I was a woman of eleven when I first read it (Vanity Fair)”

    I can believe that more easily than had she reported I was a girl of eleven playing with my dolls

    Fascinating woman, clique (the Roundtable, and times.

  4. jennchez says:

    Many years ago I read a bio on D.P. called What Fresh Hell is This. I had always been intrigued by her wit and what lay beneath it. About four years ago I was commissioned to do a 9ft x 7ft painting, the largest I had done to date. About halfway through I was stuck. Nothing was coming out of me and the deadline was quickly approaching. I like to put words, stories, quotes into my pieces not literally but as I see them in my head (I know that doesn’t make sense, but its the only way I can explain it). This client wanted an abstract/surrealist “vibe” to it, saying it to me with jazz hands. “Oh F*#k”, I’m thinking. Anyway I was sitting on the floor of my studio and thought “What would Dorothy Parker do”? Aside from telling Mister Jazz hands to go F himself. That night I finally found my old copy of the bio and started reading parts of it again. Walked into my studio said to myself my fav D.P. quote “”I’m not a millionare but I’d be darling at it”, and attacked the piece. 7 hours later I was done. Client loved it, I was happy with it and all thanks to Dorothy Parker.

  5. bybee says:

    I first became aware of Dorothy Parker when I was almost 16 and have loved her and her work ever since.

  6. Rinaldo says:

    In one of her early articles (I think it’s in Crazy Salad), Nora Ephron wrote an article about Dorothy Parker, whom her family had known when she was growing up (her parents being screenwriters). It’s affectionate about her, and admiring of her short fiction particularly, but also regretful about some aspects of her life and work. Worth reading, whether one agrees or not.

  7. Patty says:

    “This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly; it should be thrown with great force.” -DP
    Love, love her work and the force of nature she was. I was took a modernist lit seminar in grad school and her work took center stage. Every notice the similarity between some of her poetry and that of Emily D?

    • sheila says:

      Patty – I do notice that similarity! There’s a brutality, a kind of “These are the only words I need to say to say this big huge scary thing” – you kind of can’t argue with either of them.

      I need to re-read her short stories. I love them.

  8. Bill Wolfe says:

    I can’t remember how, but I stumbled across the Algonquin group during my sophomore year in college and read biographies of several of them. My favorites were Robert Benchley (I own all of his books) and Dorothy Parker. I was obsessed with The Portable Dorothy Parker for several years. (I’ve always thought she would have thought that title was a good semi-dirty joke.) I liked the poems, but thought the stories were…well, I think they were the first things I’d read that felt truly grown-up, in the sense that they insisted upon speaking truly, with no half-measures, about the tragic aspects of life. That was bracing to me, and still is. I spent years tracking down the short story, not included in Portable, called “Such a Pretty Little Picture,” which was her fictionalized look at her friend Robert Benchley’s melancholy domestic life. (It was worth the search.) To this day, when I’m trying to write something serious, she is one of my imaginary auditors of whether it’s good or not.

    I’d make a note of her work as a screenwriter. Although the tendency of producers and others to meddle with the writer’s work must have been against her every instinct as a writer, she produced some notable work. Most significant were her scripts for Hitchcock’s Saboteur (Hitch seemed to be on Parker’s wavelength, so much more of her personality shone through in this movie than in others) and the original A Star Is Born.

    Lastly, I cherish this from her: “I hate writing; I love having written.” Any creative person understands that one.

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