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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 340

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This is the grave of Dorothy Parker.

Born Dorothy Rothschild in 1893, she had an unhappy childhood. Her mother died when she was a toddler, her father abused her, and she despised her stepmother. Although her father was Jewish and her mother a Protestant, she went to Catholic school in New York. As a young woman, she earned a living as a pianist for a dancing school while working on what she really cared about–her writing. She sold her first poem to Vanity Fair in 1914 and then was hired on as an editorial assistant by Vogue, leaving that for the former magazine in 1916 as a staff writer. In 1918, P.G. Wodehouse, who was then the theater critic for Vanity Fair, went on vacation. Parker filled in and her reviews received immediate attention. She became popular with the national writer and intellectual set both because of her writing and because of her acid wit. Probably her most famous comment came when someone told her that Calvin Coolidge had died and she responded, “How could they tell?” Although she was fired from Vanity Fair in 1920 because her reviews offended so many powerful producers (although other accounts say it is because she took a shot at the actress Billie Burke, the wife of the one of the magazine’s biggest advertisers), she was already one of the nation’s most famous writers. Over the next 15 years, she published hundreds of pieces, both poetry and prose, in the nation’s largest literary magazines. Her first book of poetry was published in 1926 and she followed with more, as well as several collections of short-stories. She co-founded the famed Algonquin Round Table, the salon of intellectuals and artists hat included Harpo Marx, Edna Ferber, Harold Ross, Robert Benchley, Robert Sherwood, and others, making it one of the most famous intellectual movements in American history. She later expressed bitterness that the generation’s leading lights such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald were not involved and later said that most of the work that came out of the group was bad. She was also involved in the founding of The New Yorker and remained heavily involved in the magazine for many years, publishing frequently there.

Parker’s fame was joined by a tumultuous personal life. She married a stockbroker named Edwin Parker in 1917, but there’s little evidence it was a happy marriage, at least that I have seen. He was addicted to morphine, which likely didn’t help. Although they remained married until 1928, Parker had many affairs, getting pregnant by the playwright Charles MacArthur and having an abortion. She also attempted suicide about this time. Yet she also turned heavily into political activism at the same time, getting arrested during a protest against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. She also remarried in 1934 to an actor named Alan Campbell. This on-again, off-again relationship that included a divorce and a second marriage was framed by his bisexuality, her alcoholism, and both of their affairs. Parker also expanded her writing into songs and screenplays, co-writing the original version of A Star is Born, writing Hitchcock’s 1942 film Saboteur, and receiving an Oscar nomination in 1947 for her work on Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman. She began reporting for New Masses on the forces fighting Franco in the Spanish Civil War and helped found the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League in 1936, which was an organization with heavy Communist Party activity. Of course, the FBI followed her around and compiled a dossier reaching over 1,000 pages.

The end of Parker’s life was less productive. She was placed on the blacklist for her connections to the Communist Party so didn’t write a screenplay after 1949. She was hitting the bottle pretty hard in these years. She was however still deeply committed to activism and was a major supporter of the civil rights movement. So when she died in 1967, she left her estate to Martin Luther King. This was pretty weird. After all, they had never met. There’s not much evidence he did much to follow through on this by the time he was assassinated the next year. So when he died, the estate went to the NAACP. They didn’t know what to do with it either. She had no real connection to the group. Lillian Hellman, who was the executor of the estate, tried to stop this, but to no avail. Meanwhile, Parker’s ashes remained in the file cabinet of her attorney for the next 17 years.

Finally, in 1988, the NAACP gathered her ashes and buried them at their headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, where they remain today. You just drive up to the building and walk behind it. There’s a tiny little garden there. I was there on a weekend so I’m not sure what the response would be if you did this on a weekday, although I suppose it happens reasonably frequently.

In writing this post, I realized that I’ve never read any of Parker’s work, which I guess isn’t surprising as I don’t really read poetry at all and I’ve never been exposed to any of her short story collections. I guess I should fix this.

This grave visit was covered by LGM reader donations. I hope this is the type of the person you wanted me to visit. If you would like this series to visit more women writers of this era, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Lillian Hellman is buried in Chilmark, Massachusetts, which is on Martha’s Vineyard, while Mary McCarthy is in Castine, Maine. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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