Dorothy Parker loved to bite the hand that fed her. Somehow, this was part of her charm—a charm that has kept her literary reputation from descending into obscurity, the unfortunate fate of most humorists who thrive on comedy of a particular time and place. Only the most talented jokers remain funny beyond their generation, and Parker has certainly earned her place in that pantheon.
In 1918 Parker started as a theatre critic at Vanity Fair, where she quickly became known for her biting commentary. In one memorable review, the show was so bad that Parker instead reviewed the performance of a woman in the audience who was searching for a lost glove.
In the 1920s Parker joined the Algonquin Round Table, a group of writers, critics, and wits who met at the Algonquin Hotel every day for lunch and drinks. (Parker, known as “rarely sober,” called red wine the “Red Badge of Courage.”) Many of the members would go on to considerable fame and success, but initially they were just a group of poor writers trying to make it in New York City. While watching the group disperse one friend commented, “There goes the greatest collection of unsalable wit in America.”
He would soon be proved wrong, though Parker’s success surprised her as much as it did anyone else. In 1926 she published a group of poems she had written over the years for various publications under the title Enough Rope. She was almost embarrassed by many of them, not deeming them “great literature” by any means. But they nailed the wit and atmosphere of their birthplace, The Algonquin Group, and struck a chord with the public as a whole:
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.
Parker did not consider herself much of a poet, but according to her biographer Marion Meade, one of her greatest innovations lay in a rejection of more traditional forms of “female” writing and thinking. She tackled female issues, certainly. But she handled them with an unflinching aggression that more resembled the style of some male contemporaries than the style of her female contemporaries. She had the talent of being simultaneously flippant and clever:
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acid stains you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
Even with the breakout success of her poetry, Parker’s criticism continued to be popular. Edmund Wilson said she “wrote poetry like an angel and criticism like a fiend.” For a time she wrote short book reviews for The New Yorker under the name “Constant Reader.” One of her most beloved takedowns was also the beginning of my own love for her: a blip of a review about A.A. Milne’s House at Pooh Corner. Here’s the last bit, which begins with Pooh talking:
“‘…this is how it begins. The more it snows, tiddely-pom— ’”
“‘Tiddely what? ’ said Piglet.” (He took, as you might say, the very words out of your correspondent’s mouth.)
“‘Pom,’ said Pooh. ‘I put that in to make it more hummy.’”
And that is the word “hummy,” my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader Fwowed up.
Another treasure is Dorothy Parker’s mini-review of The Ideal System for Acquiring a Practical Knowledge of French, subtitled Just the French One Wants to Know. Parker cites real examples from this book of practical phrases, such as:
“I admire the large black eyes of this orphan.”
“It was to punish your foster-brother.”
“Obey, or I will not show you the beautiful gold chain.”
“I am afraid he will not arrive in time to accompany me on the harp.”
Friends, that will never cease to be funny to me.
Yet apparently we don’t have the best of Parker. She was most famous for her conversational wit, particularly in the surprising use of four-letter words. Often these gems weren’t recorded because they were “unprintable.” (Trying to make light of a horrific experience getting an abortion, she apparently said the experience served her right for putting all her eggs in one bastard.)
You rather wish someone would have been bold enough to write more of them down.