"The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue."
Dorothy Parker is best remembered today for her witty remarks and her membership of the famed Algonquin Circle. From the 1920s onwards she became well-known through her contributions to Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, writing often-scathing reviews of books ("this is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be flung with great force") and theatre (of Katharine Hepburn: "she ran the gamut of emotions from A to B"). However, she was also a prolific writer of short stories and verse (she declined to call them poems), and received Academy Award nominations for two of her Hollywood screenplays (noting that "The only “ism” Hollywood believes in is plagiarism").
Parker's childhood was unhappy, as were her numerous relationships and marriages ("it serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard"). She suffered from depression, made several suicide attempts, and drank heavily throughout her life ("a hangover is the wrath of grapes", she noted.) Not surprisingly, these experiences inform her short stories and verse, providing a cocktail of sadness, bitterness, humour, defiance and self-deprecation.
In youth, it was a way I had,
To do my best to please.
And change, with every passing lad
To suit his theories.
But now I know the things I know
And do the things I do,
And if you do not like me so,
To hell, my love, with you.
Less well-known today is her work as a social and political activist. She helped to found the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and spoke out on many civil rights and civil liberties causes. Her outspoken left-wing views had her blacklisted in Hollywood, although she reputedly said to the FBI "Listen, I can't even get my dog to stay down. Do I look like someone who could overthrow the government?"
On her death she bequeathed her estate to Martin Luther King Jr. Her tombstone includes the epitaph that she herself had suggested: Excuse my dust.
Of all of Dorothy Parker's work, the piece I like best is Transition, a verse that sums up the grief process as well as any I have ever read.
TransitionToo long and quickly have I lived to vow
The woe that stretches me shall never wane,
Too often seen the end of endless pain
To swear that peace no more shall cool my brow.
I know, I know- again the shriveled bough
Will burgeon sweetly in the gentle rain,
And these hard lands be quivering with grain-
I tell you only: it is Winter now.
What if I know, before the Summer goes
Where dwelt this bitter frenzy shall be rest?
What is it now, that June shall surely bring
New promise, with the swallow and the rose?
My heart is water, that I first must breast
The terrible, slow loveliness of Spring.