As a girl who got her first pair of glasses at the tender age of 7, I've been a fan of Dorothy Parker since my early teens. So it's a crime that I've only just now gotten around to reading Marion Meade's 1989 biography of the Twenties' pithiest critic, playwright, short story writer and poet. I've already written about my tendency to get caught up in biographies, and Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? is utterly gripping.
Any reader of Parker's work would assume she was no ordinary woman, but the reader of Dorothy Parker discovers a true larger-than-life personality. She brought her dachshund Robinson with her to the speakeasies in the 1930s. A hopeless housekeeper, she preferred to live in hotels but seldom paid the bill (and you could forget about her picking up the tab in restaurants). Her cynical writings about romance hid a heart that weathered many bitter disappointments. Despite her success, Parker never felt that she had accomplished anything particularly notable in the literary world (composing "News Item," the two-line piece about girls who wear glasses that she is perhaps most remembered for today, was among her biggest regrets). She suffered terribly from writers' block.
Since Parker's circle of friends included most of the period's most illustrious wits and authors, the reader is also treated to mini-sketches of figures like F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald; Ernest Hemingway and various wives/girlfriends; Robert Benchley; and Norman Mailer (blacklisted by Parker after his dog attacked one of hers in the 1960s).
Rereading her work along with the biography—Parker was notorious for using events from her life and the lives of her friends as fodder for her writing—is pretty much compulsory. The black humor of poems like "Resumé" has more depth once you read about Parker's suicide attempts. And it's nice to have confirmation that the smart, wry, inner monologues in stories like "The Little Hours" and "The Waltz" are basically Dorothy Parker's brain processes transcribed.
Meade is sympathetic to Parker, but she doesn't shy away from showing the less attractive aspects of the author's personality. Like many geniuses, Parker was complicated and difficult. Ever the entertainer, she lost friendships because she spared few from her scathing wit; her codependency and alcoholism were both legendary. As a professional, she wasn't much better: She was fired from Vanity Fair; her contract to write a novel for Viking Press was the longest unfulfilled contract on the company's books (she never wrote a novel) and her days as a screenwriter were turbulent to say the least.
The current literary climate is quite different from Parker's time, and it's interesting to think about how she might have fared were she alive today. Though she is considered the epitome of the Roaring '20s—her spot-on dialogue in particular brought the period to life—the ideas and subjects explored in her work also read as extremely modern. One thing is for certain: She'd be killing it on Twitter.
Read any good biographies lately?
"Angry Young Women of the Jazz Age" from our June 2004 issue, featuring books about Parker and her time.