I’m not a great writer, mediocre at best. But, I think that might be a good thing, as many of the great writers I hold in high esteem were suicidal alcoholics.
Take Dorothy Parker for instance. She was a poet, writer, critic and satirist and best known for her witty observations and her civil rights work in the 1920s and 1930s – a time when campaigning for minorities and the downtrodden while spouting wisecracks about the rich and powerful would have been downright dangerous. And to add insult to the injuries of many – it was a woman uttering the unutterable.
“Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words,” Parker liked to say. She had the ability to see through the thin veneer of rich and powerful hypocrites and bigots, and thought nothing of publicly commenting on those foibles.
Parker was well-known as a writer for The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, the first female drama critic on Broadway and as a founding member of the famous Algonquin Round Table in New York City in 1920. In 1929, when Parker’s caustic wit offended one too many people in high places, she was fired by Vanity Fair. When the Round Table broke up, Parker moved to Hollywood to pursue screenwriting. She was twice nominated for an Academy award, but was soon blacklisted in Hollywood after speaking out and becoming an activist for left-wing politics.
The marker at Parker’s birthplace in West End, a village in Long Branch, some sixty miles south of New York City, notes that Parker was a tireless fighter for social justice, civil rights and left-wing causes.
In 1988, the NAACP claimed Parker’s remains and designed a memorial garden for them outside their Baltimore headquarters. The plaque reads: Here lie the ashes of Dorothy Parker (1893–1967) humorist, writer, critic. Defender of human and civil rights. For her epitaph she suggested, ‘Excuse my dust’. This memorial garden is dedicated to her noble spirit which celebrated the oneness of humankind and to the bonds of everlasting friendship between black and Jewish people.
Despite her successes, Parker — who was married three times, twice to the same man — was never convinced of her worth. She grew increasingly dependent on alcohol and attempted suicide more than once. Parker died in 1967 in New York.
Twice, while visiting NYC, I just had to have a drink in the Algonquin Hotel, made famous for the Algonquin Round Table.
I sat in the dark, smoky wood-paneled bar and — as an ardent fan of both Parker and her close friend, Robert Benchley — ordered a martini and raised a silent toast to the duo.
And, then — in true Parker style — I ordered another cocktail, and another … then slid under the table and later, my host.
Dorothy Parker on alcohol:
I wish I could drink like a lady.
I can take one or two at the most.
Three and I’m under the table.
Four and I’m under the host.
I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.
A hangover is the wrath of grapes.
Three be the things I shall never attain:
Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.
Heterosexuality is not normal, it’s just common.
By the time you swear you’re his,
Shivering and sighing.
And he vows his passion is,
Lady make note of this —
One of you is lying.
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 a 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?
I’m never going to accomplish anything; that’s perfectly clear to me. I’m never going to be famous. My name will never be writ large on the roster of Those Who Do Things. I don’t do anything. Not one single thing. I used to bite my nails, but I don’t even do that any more.
“I know this will come as a shock to you, Mr. Goldwyn, but in all history, which has held billions and billions of human beings, not a single one ever had a happy ending.” (Dorothy Parker to Samuel Goldwyn while working as a screenwriter in Hollywood.)
If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.
If wild my breast and sore my pride,
I bask in dreams of suicide,
If cool my heart and high my head
I think ‘How lucky are the dead.’
If all the girls at Vassar were laid end to end, I shouldn’t be at all surprised.
Women and elephants never forget.
Woman wants monogamy;
Man delights in novelty.
Love is woman’s moon and sun;
Man has other forms of fun.
Woman lives but in her lord;
Count to ten, and man is bored.
With this the gist and sum of it,
What earthly good can come of it?
It turns out that, at social gatherings, as a source of entertainment, conviviality, and good fun, I rank somewhere between a sprig of parsley and a single ice-skate.
All I need is room enough to lay a hat and a few friends.
A little bad taste is like a nice dash of paprika.
It serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard.
“So, you’re the man who can’t spell ‘fuck.'”
(Dorothy Parker to Norman Mailer after publishers had convinced Mailer to replace the word with a euphemism, ‘fug,’ in his 1948 book, “The Naked and the Dead.”)
If you wear a short enough skirt, the party will come to you.
I am not sick, I am not well.
My quondam dreams are shot to hell.
My soul is crushed, my spirit sore;
I do not like me any more.
I cavil, quarrel, grumble, grouse.
I ponder on the narrow house.
I shudder at the thought of men …
I’m due to fall in love again.
Time doth flit; oh shit.
Ducking for apples — change one letter and it’s the story of my life.
That woman speaks eighteen languages, and she can’t say ‘No’ in any of them.
You can lead a whore to water, but you can’t make her drink.
About the Algonquin Round Table
The Algonquin Round Table – dubbed the “Vicious Circle” of 1919-1929 — was a celebrated group of NYC writers, critics, actors and wits who met for lunch each day at the Algonquin Hotel in NYC from 1919 until roughly 1929. At these luncheons they engaged in wisecracks, wordplay and witticisms that, through the newspaper columns of Round Table members, were disseminated across the country.
While their individual creativity was stimulated by their daily get-togethers, both at the well-lubricated luncheons and outside of them, the entire group worked together rarely on group projects. The only collaborative effort resulted in the production of No Sirree! which helped launch a Hollywood career for Round Tabler, Robert Benchley, who was best friends with Dorothy Parker.
Some thought the Round Tablers not to be taken seriously.
Groucho Marx, brother of Round Table associate Harpo, was never comfortable amidst the viciousness of the Vicious Circle. “The price of admission is a serpent’s tongue and a half-concealed stiletto,” he said.
Some members of the Round Table criticized it later in life, including Dorothy Parker, who said, “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. A bunch of loudmouths, showing off, saving their gags for days, waiting for a chance to spring them; 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.”
In addition to Parker and Benchley, other members of the Round Table included Heywood Braun, columnist and sportswriter (married to Ruth Hale); Marc Connelly, playwright; Ruth Hale, freelance writer who worked for women’s rights; George S. Kaufman, playwright and director; Harold Ross, editor of the New Yorker and his wife, Jane Grant, journalist and feminist; Alexander Woollcott, critic and journalist; Tallulah Bankhead, actress; Edna Ferber, author and playright; Harpo Marx, Robert E. Sherwood, author and playwright and John Peter Toohey, publicist.
“The first thing I do in the morning is sharpen my teeth and brush my tongue.” –D. Parker