The Caustic Witticisms of Dorothy Parker.

Dorothy Parker
Dorothy Parker


How would you describe Dorothy Parker? Or are you too young to remember Dorothy Parker? I have been fascinated with her words since those college days when I ran across an old Broadway review she had published about Katherine Hepburn. Dorothy wrote: “Her performance ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.”

That’s tough.

That’s caustic.

That stings.

That was Dorothy Parker.

She was a Jewish short story writer, a poet, a critic, and a satirist who wandered from New York to Hollywood long enough to write, with her husband Alan Campbell, the 1937 adaption of A Star Is Born, which received an Academy Award nomination, and the 1942 Alfred Hitchcock film, Saboteur.

dorothy+parkerBut Dorothy Parker is remembered most for her cutting reviews and rapier wit. By her own confession, she said she woke up every morning and promptly brushed her teeth and sharpened her tongue.

No one dodged her wrath, especially during the days when she wrote theater and book criticism for Vanity Fair. In one review, she said, “This not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”

She was a charter member of the Algonquin Round Table, meeting regularly at the famous old New York Algonquin Hotel for drinks, too many of them, with Robert Benchley, Robert E. Sherwood, comedian Harpo Marx, playwright Edna Ferber, newspaper columnists Franklin Pierce Adams and Alexander Woollcott, and Harold Ross, who founded The New Yorker.

They were regarded as the Vicious Circle among literary circles in New York.  In fact, Vanity Fair fired Dorothy Parker because her reviews were considered offensive by too many of those high-dollar producers and publishers who had the money, the politics, the prestige, and the power in New York.

It didn’t bother Dorothy. She walked out of one magazine and into another. Harold Ross couldn’t wait to start printing her cutting remarks and sharp-tongued banter in The New Yorker.

She even threw a barb or two at those noted writers who made up the Algonquin Round Table. She wrote: 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. Just 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.

She later wrote about her own work, saying: “There’s a hell of a distance between wise-cracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wise-cracking is simply calisthenics with words.”

Her writing performed a lot of calisthenics. Consider these wisecracks:

  • I require three things in a man: he must be handsome, ruthless, and stupid.
  • You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.
  • That woman speaks eighteen languages and can’t say ‘No’ in any of them.
  • Brevity is the soul of lingerie.
  • If you wear a short enough skirt, the party will come to you.
  • I had been fed, in my youth, a lot of old wives tales about the way men would instantly forsake a beautiful woman to flock around a brilliant one. It is but fair to say that, after getting out in the world, I had never seen this happen.
  • It serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard.
  • Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.
  • A hangover is the wrath of grapes.
  • If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.
  • Money cannot buy health, but I’d settle for a diamond-studded wheelchair.
  • I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.

She could be sensitive, once writing: “Love is like quicksilver in the hand. Leave the fingers open and it stays. Clutch it and it darts away.”

Then her acid wit would abruptly shove sense and sensibilities aside, and she would write: “Ducking for apples – change one letter and it’s the story of my life.”

Her calisthenics with words even moved into her poetry: “I like to have a martini. Two at the most. After three I’m under the table. After four I’m under my host.”

In another, she wrote to anyone contemplating suicide, as she had done: “Razors pain you. Rivers are damp. Acids stain you, and drugs cause cramp. Guns aren’t lawful, nooses give. Gas smells awful. You might as well live.”

On the art of writing, Dorothy Parker had two great pieces of advice.

The first: “I hate writing. I love having writ.”

And the second: “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do for 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.”

Dorothy Parker might have stayed in Hollywood and written successful screenplays for the rest of her life. But, alas, she had the misfortune of becoming a loud and vocal advocate of civil liberties and civil rights. In 1936, she even helped found the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. The FBI called it a Communist Party front. Did anyone check in 1936? Be they good or bad, the communists in Russia were our allies, and the bad guys, the evil ones, were wearing Nazi uniforms.

It didn’t matter. During the McCarthy era, Dorothy Parker was blacklisted. Her final screenplay had been The Fan, a 1949 adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, directed by Otto Preminger.

So how would you describe Dorothy Parker. She was a writer and poet, to be sure. She was a critic. But mostly she had a heart no one ever glimpsed. When she died in 1967, she left her sizable estate to the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. foundation.

Her ashes had been scattered in an assortment of odd places and mostly went unclaimed. Some were even tucked away in her attorney’s filing cabinet for seventeen years.

Finally, the NAACP claimed as many of her ashes as the organization could find and designed a memorial garden for them outside its Baltimore headquarters.

The plaque reads: Here lie the ashes of Dorothy Parker (18-93 – 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.

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