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Pain In The Sass

On Leslie Frewin's biography of Dorothy Parker

No list of native American wits is ever likely to exclude Dorothy Parker. But does anyone remember exactly what she wrote? There were seven slender books of stories and light verse—for that matter, does anyone remember light verse?—and there were plays and screenplays. But aside from her most sustained story, “Big Blonde,” and her only enduring Hollywood and Broadway collaborations (as a co-scenarist of the first A Star Is Born and an additional lyricist of the 1956 Leonard Bernstein Candide), the Parker legend rests on epigrams and punch lines. A one-couplet poem titled “News Item”—Men seldom make passes / At girls who wear glasses”—remains the No. 1 work in the canon. It is followed by the still-funny wisecracks that have been regurgitated for much of the century by the chroniclers of the Algonquin's Round Table: “One more drink and I'd have been under the host,” and “I'll say of Verlaine, too, he was always chasing Rimbauds,” and “That woman is so highly educated that she speaks 18 different languages. And she can't say no in any of them.”

The rest of the Parker output, if “output” can accurately characterize an oeuvre that would make J. D. Salinger's publishing career seem promiscuous, is musty. The technically adept verses consciously emulate Edna St. Vincent Millay, yet they rarely match the hard-boiled romanticism of the similarly piquant Lorenz Hart song lyrics of Parker's era. The stories, however much they may attempt to bring off Ring Lardner's disturbing deadpan, too often defeat themselves by hammering in their ironies, or by sentimentalizing the suicidal despair of women who are treated like doormats by men. (To see how Lardner effortlessly achieves what Parker pants after, one need only compare his story of an elderly couple's marriage, “The Golden Honeymoon,” with hers of young honeymooners, “Here We Are.”) Although an exercise in liberal consciousness-raising such as “Arrangement in Black and White” was daring for its time, it is no more rewarding to read now than Laura Z. Hobson's Gentleman's Agreement. Parker's book reviews offer slight insight into the few worthy authors (from Hemingway to Updike) whom she elected to discuss as the “Constant Reader” of the New Yorker and, toward the end of her life, as an irregular Esquire columnist. Marred by vigorous logrolling on behalf of friends, and by easy hits at large targets (Fannie Hurst, Aimee Semple McPherson), her criticism must now be sifted mainly for its one-liners at the expense of the forgotten. Though many recall the zinger “The House Beautiful is the play lousy,” the line has long since outlived any memory of the work (by Channing Pol-ock) that stimulated its creation. That the joke gets a laugh anyway speaks well of Parker's verbal facility and timing. But doesn't it also reveal how empty this sort of cleverness is? Yet Leslie Frewin's new Parker biography believes in its subject's importance, even if it has trouble articulating why. In his conclusion Frewin tries at first to strike a feminist note: “She had spelled it out to American women that it really was all right to be audacious, self-assured, bright and witty; she had given them the right to use the wisecracks, ripostes, and caustic quip.” In an epilogue he adds that Parker “was more than just a wit. She was a walking enigma ...” But Frewin clearly isn't satisfied with his own vague judgments, and so he mixes them up with a frantic litany of opinions from an incongruous pantheon that encompasses Conor Cruise O'Brien, Oscar Hammerstein, Arnold Gingrich, and Ruth Gordon. The most sympathetic comments come from Edmund Wilson, who said of Parker that she was “not Emily Bronte, or Jane Austen, but she has been at some pains to write well, and she has put into what she has written a voice, a state of mind, an era, a few moments of human experience that nobody else has conveyed.” Wilson's carefully formulated consideration of his friend is more or less seconded by Lillian Hellman, Parker's literary executor (and the guardian of her secrets from all biographers, Frewin included): “She was part of nothing and nobody except herself: it was this independence of mind and spirit that was her true distinction.”

Some of this is true. Parker, the only woman of the original Round Table, paved a way for other women writers, if not for all American women: perhaps such present-day cultural commentators as Fran Lebowitz, Nora Ephron, and Pauline Kael, among many others, are second- or third-generation beneficiaries of Parker's insistence on her right to be a vinegary literary wise guy. (What she didn't want to be was a “woman writer.” “It's a terrible thing to say,” Parker once remarked, “but I can't think of any good women writers. Of course, calling them women writers is their ruin: they begin to think of themselves that way.”) Nor can it be doubted that Parker's fiction, as Wilson and Hellman suggest, provides wry, independent-minded documentation of an era. 

It's the era in question, however, that tells the tale—both of the real meaning of Parker's career and of its failure to sustain itself. Coming of creative age during the boom after the First World War, she was among the earliest American writers to profit from the explosion in slick magazines and the burgeoning new mass-publicity apparatus that helped fuel them. Parker found her voice in the pages of such then-novel publications as Vogue, Vanity Fair, and the New Yorker. She was transformed into a celebrity not so much by her early writing as by press agents and a newspaper columnist (Franklin Pierce Adams, who reprinted her most marketable sallies in his “Conning Tower” in the New York Tribune).

In her frivolity and her confused aspirations, Parker could hold her own with the men of the Round Table, all right. But her equality proved an empty victory. She eventually discovered just how lowly that status was in the true scheme of literary history. Let Frewin think, as he writes, that the Algonquin crowd constitutes “a Who's Who of past American writers and entertainers, with outstanding exclusions like Faulkner, Dreiser, Hemingway and others.” Parker understood that those exclusions counted more than the inclusions. “People romanticize [the Round Table],” she said in an inter-view in her final years. “This was no Mermaid Tavern. These were no giants. Think of 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.”

And, indeed, like Parker, other pioneer Round Table wits—notably Alexander Woollcott and Robert Benchley—preferred to remain miniaturists or archetypal multimedia celebrities, whether in New York or in Hollywood, in print or on stage or on screen. Their contribution to literature is even less than Parker's; like her, they were much too busy landing in the columns or attending opening-night parties or writing public jests or screenplays to turn their attention to real work. Being famous is a full-time job. Frewin briefly touches on the conflict between literary ambition and instant gratification in Parker, even if he can't resolve it:

Many of her writings display a dismissive loathing of show business with all its traditional razzmatazz. But throughout her life she was ambivalently drawn to the glitter of the footlights of the theater and the klieg lights of the movies, the stars and the hangers-on. . . . Most people who knew her believed that her attempts to impress through her work were directed unfaltering toward a shrewdly calculated ambition to become a celebrity.

If the Round Table had only persisted, its members would doubtless have become panelists on What's My Line?—and perennial talk-show guests. (It isn't hard to imagine them being “brilliant” with show business's current reductio ad absurdum of Parker, Joan Rivers.) The literary heirs of Parker, Benchley, and Company—talented writers who now appear in party columns and film credits but rarely between book covers—are legion today. What Frewin calls Parker's “enigmatic" aspects don't end with her divided loyalties to art and commerce. A liberal who was hounded by HUAC and who left her estate to Martin Luther King and the NAACP, she hung out with moneyed snobs, favored the most Aryan-appearing (and pedigreed) men, and sometimes was condescending toward Jews (including her despised father, a prosperous cloak-and-suit manufacturer named J. Henry Rothschild). Although constantly on the search for avid bedroom partners, she twice married the bisexual actor and writer Alan Campbell.

But these matters—like Parker's unhappy childhood, her suicide attempts, and the two decades of alcoholic oblivion preceding her death, at age 73, in 1967—are only perfunctorily examined in Frewin's biography. This is a hack cut-and-paste job that often either recapitulates or quotes profusely from secondary sources, including the previous journalistic biography of Parker (You Might As Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker by John Keats, which appeared in 1970), the relevant Hellman memoirs, and the various Round Table round-ups (by James R. Gaines, Scott Meredith, and others). Frewin's idea of journalistic enterprise includes having “dined a deux on numerous occasions with Merle Oberon on the balcony of her suite at Monte Carlo's Hotel de Paris.” He uses the words “mordant” and “acerbic” at every opportunity, never resists a cliché or an alliterative phrase (“living legend,” “epicene epigrams,” “rapier ripostes”), and among other psychological banalities speculates that “happiness is rarely the lot of the searching, contemplative mind.”

Frewin's mind is something else. His non sequiturs are a hoot: “But if her self-deprecation was limitless, her concern for the peasants of Spain seemed genuine.” His Frederick Lewis Allen-esque attempt to encapsulate the cultural march of time sounds like a Woody Allen, if not a Parker, parody: “And there was Faulkner making literary history with his sometimes overlong books, and the 'fearsome talent' of Don Marquis with his enchanting archy and mehitabel books, and a man named John Steinbeck of whom approving noises were beginning to be heard . . .” The book is further padded with irrelevant lists (of the a la carte dishes the Round Tablers spurned on the Algonquin's menu, of closing stock prices after the 1929 crash), gratuitous news bulletins (“The Cote d'Azur hardly reacted to the news that Valentino had died in the Polyclinic Hospital back in Manhattan . . . .”), and bizarrely interpolated historical texts (FDR's declaration of war, the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution).

Frewin is best off when he lets “the lady,” as he's inclined to call her, speak for herself, since Parker was her own shrewdest critic. Refusing to accept the label “humorist,” she said, “There's a helluva distance between wisecracking and wit,” and on one occasion she explained the difference: “Wit has truth in it. Wisecracking is simply calisthenics . . . with words.” But while Dorothy Parker was more wisecracker than wit, wisecracking is not without its own eternal, if small, uses. One can hardly discuss this biography, after all, without recycling its subject's memorable verdict on another new book of long ago: “It was written without fear and without research.”

Such jests are hard to find in the genteel pages of the latter-day New Yorker, where Harvard Lampoon whimsy has long since won out over Parker urbanity. The Algonquin itself survives, of course—fittingly, as a place for self-display rather than a bastion of wit. It was there that William Shawn and Robert Gottlieb inevitably held the summit that marked the changing of the New Yorker guard. Were there any quotable epigrams exchanged over their “Round Table”? What does it matter, as long as the paparazzi were there?