Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Birthday Author: The Fresh Hell Girl

Miss Dorothy Parker was born 124 years ago today.

As I've gotten older, I've started to realize that for each era of one's life, there's a different Dorothy Parker. In one's 20s, she's the darling of the Algonquin set, the fixture at Tony's speakeasy, the self-dramatizing wit whose wild swings between merriment and bathos resonate with one's own, less cleverly expressed emotional arcs.

For the 30s, there's the Dorothy who accompanies her pals the Murphys to Europe, who becomes a woman not just of the West 40s, but the world. She goes to Hollywood, albeit with mixed results; she gets political - the Parker who's the champion of the underdog, the leftist, the battler who uses her barbs now not just to needle friends at lunchtime but to illustrate the world's injustices.

Sad Dorothy next, the anxious 40s recognizing in her the fear that it's all been more or less for naught, that what it boils down to is long unhappy nights and too few bright spots in a changing world. She's the woman whose marriages fail, who gets too fond of that extra drink or ten, whose screenplays are butchered, plays unproduced. Mid-life crisis Dorothy isn't much fun, but you still check in on her now and then.

As I move through later-middle life and onward toward old age, I think I'm finding myself a new Dorothy, perhaps the one, so far, I like best of all: the survivor. Her life was sad, in many ways, and by the time she reached her fifties, she was tired and battle-scarred. Still, she went on, writing (as she was able), observing (constantly), and somehow making it through another night, week, month, year.

When you're young, her later days seem almost pathetically sad, a string of furnished rooms, half-trained lap dogs, and empty bottles left outside the door. Now, though, I think there may be many fates worse than independence (however slightly straitened the circumstance), a room (as an admittedly greater writer once put it) of one's own, and the knowledge one has written at least a few things that will survive. Her later works, mostly reviews and appreciations of various sorts, are mordant and incisive, and while, dying at 75, she didn't it make past the lower slopes of senescence, she had the pleasure of outliving many of her enemies and of being discovered by younger generations of eager readers.

She would have despised, I think, the world we live in even more than she did her own - technology I'm quite sure she would have found impossible, the politics loathsome, the general tone of what passes for our culture impenetrable and low. But she would, I'm quite sure, have had something to say about it all, and it's amusing and enlightening to read her now, through the prism of today, but keeping in mind all the other Dorothys one has known.

Survivor Dorothy outlived the writing about razors and faithless lads alike. She's the Dorothy who thumbs her nose at convention and the world. On this her birthday, I'm thinking of this particular one of her verses, with relish and affection. God know at least she was there, and in her works, she's still here:

Indian Summer

In youth, it was a way I had
To do my best to please,
And change, with every passing lad, 
To suit his theories.

But now I know the things I know,
And do the things I do;
And if you do not like me so,
To hell, my love, with you!


  1. Words to live by, indeed. I would have loved to have met the great lady - can you imagine what a hoot that would have been..? Jx

  2. ...and I am Marie of Romania. Apropos of nothing except my slipping grasp on what passes for reality these fays. And it is still a line that makes me laugh.

  3. Sugar - it is perhaps now a saw, but "You can lead a horticulture, but cannot make her think" is still awe inspiring for the humble likes of meself. Wasn't she wonderful?!