It is often said that what makes a particular work of art a classic is its propensity to withstand the test of time – the ability to resonate between the ages. For those who use the pen as their sword, it is to achieve literary immortality. Dorothy Parker is a classic.
Though she was born two months early on August 22, 1893 to a Jewish father and Scottish mother in the seaside town of Long Branch along the Jersey Shore, little Dorothy Rothschild was a New Yorker tried and true. Her first home was located near Amsterdam Avenue and West 73rd Street, according to Kevin C. Fitzpatrick, President of the Dorothy Parker Society. Little Dottie officially arrived there a couple weeks after her birth, and would later say that she was home by Labor Day so she could be considered a true New Yorker.
For the first forty years of her life, she lived almost exclusively on the Upper West Side. Parker’s mother Eliza died shortly before young Dottie turned five years old, at which point the rest of the family moved to 214 West 72nd Street (now the Parker West, a 22-story luxury condominium that bears her name).
Around the turn of the century, Parker lived at 57 West 68th Street – on the same block as the 1950s home of James Dean and today’s Joanne Trattoria. The family moved out in 1903 when Parker’s stepmother died. With her siblings mostly grown and on their own, she and her father then lived all over the UWS, including The Majestic at 115 Central Park West and the now landmarked Red House at 310 West 80th Street.
Parker attended Convent of the Blessed Sacrament (formerly on West 79th Street) while in elementary school, but quit school at age 15 to help care for her father. After losing her mother and then her stepmother before the age of 9, Dottie also lost her paternal uncle in 1912, who was a doomed passenger on the Titanic. Her father then passed away two days after Christmas in 1913.
In 1914, Dottie sold her first poem, “Any Porch,” to Vanity Fair. Soon thereafter, she was hired by the magazine to write captions and editorials and was able to afford a room at a boarding house at 230 West 103rd Street around 1917. She married stockbroker Edwin Parker that year. The couple later moved to West 71st between Broadway and West End before later settling at 252 West 76th Street in the 1920s (albeit on different floors, according to census records).
Parker was an original constituent of the Algonquin Round Table in 1919 and lived at the hotel briefly in 1924. She was a founding member of the New Yorker’s editorial board in 1925 and wrote for the periodical “for the next thirty years, contributing fiction, poetry, and criticism.”
She sold her first book, Enough Rope, in 1926, and gained national attention in doing so. The book was a hit with the public and critics alike. She started to make real money, wrote a collection of poems and spent time in France and Hollywood. In 1932, she met future husband Alan Campbell, at which point she would leave the neighborhood.
Before Campbell entered the picture, it is generally believed that Parker tried to take her own life at least three times. The specifics are unknown except that on one occasion she slit her wrists following her return from France and divorce from Edwin Parker in the late 1920s. Another attempt occurred at the Algonquin in 1932 when she swallowed a bunch of sleeping pills and then called for room service.
Parker headed over to the East Side after this last suicide attempt. She took a place at 28 East 63rd Street and “produced some of the best short stories of her career” including “Lady With a Lamp” (April ’32, Harper’s Bazaar), “Dusk Before Fireworks” (Sept. ’32, Harper’s Bazaar), “Horsie” (Dec. ’32, Harper’s Bazaar), and “The Waltz” (Sept. ’33, The New Yorker).
Campbell and Parker lived together before and during their marriage at 444 East 52nd Street. The couple headed to Hollywood in the mid 1930s, and the successful poet became a very successful screenwriter – with credits including The Little Foxes, Three Married Men, Smash-Up: the Story of a Woman, and A Star is Born. She earned Oscar nominations for A Star is Born and Smash-Up: the Story of a Woman.
During the late 1930s and 1940s while writing in Los Angeles, Parker did not have a permanent New York address, but she did come back in the 1950s to work on her Broadway show The Ladies of the Corridor. During her time in the city, she stayed at the Plaza Hotel (where she was fired from Vanity Fair over lunch decades earlier) and at the Volney at 23 East 74th Street, a residential hotel where all of her domestic needs were met.
After Campbell’s 1963 death in California, Parker moved back to New York to live at the Volney full-time. She wrote her will at the hotel in February, shortly after her return, and died there of a heart attack on June 7, 1967. In her last will and testament, Dottie left all of her cash and negotiable securities to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and on his death, to the NAACP.
This included future royalties and licensing fees for her body of literary work, according to the New Yorker. As the publication mentioned in 2020, Parker “is less well known for the activism she engaged in before and during the civil-rights era. As a critic, she was outspoken about racist portrayals on the stage … helped raise funds for the Scottsboro Boys, nine Black men in Alabama who were falsely accused of raping two white women. Her activism got her put on the F.B.I. watch list, and, in 1951, at the height of the McCarthy era, she was blacklisted from working in Hollywood.” She pled the 5th when she was called before the House on “Un-American Activities” in 1955.
Dr. King never met Parker personally but said he was deeply touched and gratified by her contribution. “I am not referring to the monetary aspect at all,” he said. “What impresses and inspires me is that one of America’s most respected and warmly loved women of letters felt so committed to the civil rights movement, that whatever she had she offered to it.”
Playwright and author Lillian Hellman, one of Parker’s closest friends for over 30 years and her will executrix, was neither impressed nor inspired, neither touched nor gratified. She felt slighted by Parker for leaving her nothing and she thought little of King, Jr. So she ignored her friend’s final wishes and held a public memorial for Dottie at Frank Campbell Funeral Home on Madison Avenue and East 81ST Street, where funerals for Judy Garland, Biggie Smalls, Walter Cronkite, and John Lennon have also been held.
Worst of all, Hellman deprived the world of any part of Parker that was not already in print. She threw away virtually everything Parker owned. Everything. There are no papers, no photos, no mementos, no belongings. Nothing. Because of Hellman, who then had the audacity to give a eulogy at the public memorial that her friend specifically said she did not want, nothing is left of Parker but her ashes.
Perhaps, in some dark humor way that Parker is famous for, that is why the “improbable” story of her ashes exists. In short, her ashes sat on a crematory shelf for years before being shipped to her former lawyer in 1973. He retired, so they remained in a cabinet at a law office until 1988, according to the New Yorker. Meetings were then held at the Algonquin to discuss what to do with her ashes. Various suggestions were made including sprinkling them along the Hudson, painting with them, encasing them into a bar, and even snorting them.
Parker’s ashes eventually were interred at the NAACP’s headquarters in Baltimore. When the organization planned to move to Washington, D.C., Upper West Sider Kevin Fitzpatrick stepped in and, with the support of Parker’s grandnieces, won a 15-year battle to move Parker home to New York.
Fitzpatrick personally brought Parker’s ashes back from Baltimore on a train, where she then “got her first Uber ride” from Penn Station through her old haunts on the Upper West Side and finally to her permanent resting place at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. The interment occurred on Parker’s birthday during the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The pandemic’s restrictions did not allow for Parker’s remaining family to attend the ceremony, but they will be part of one when Dottie’s permanent gravestone is set in place.
Parker once joked that she wanted her gravestone to read, “Excuse My Dust.” Fitzpatrick would not confirm or deny if this signature line will be part of the permanent marker. But he did note the irony of the rain when he arrived at Woodlawn last summer.
The playwright once said that she was certain it would rain when she passed away. Parker died on a sunny day. But it rained throughout the day she returned to New York. That is to say it rained until the instant Fitzpatrick finished reading Dottie’s most famous ode to New York, “My Home Town.” “As soon as the last line was read, the sun came out,” Fitzpatrick recalled. “A blazing sun.”
The legacy of Dorothy Parker is undoubtedly too storied, unique, and voluminous to fully memorialize here. But these are some of her stories worthy of a mention, so that a fuller picture of her can be appreciated along with her literary achievements.
She avidly attended Broadway shows when she was a young girl. She was an NYC straphanger and spoke of getting lost in the Subway system and transferring trains at the Times Square station. She was a huge animal lover and was almost never without her beloved dogs, mostly smaller breeds that she took with her everywhere (while sometimes giving them a bit of sleeping powder when she took advantage of the city’s nightlife).
Parker was quintessential New York. Strong, acerbic, and tenacious; both contemporaneous and ahead of her time. Enduring. That is today’s New York. And this continuity is one of the great things about this city – you can look around in the current era to see and experience what the greats before you saw and experienced. “Dorothy Parker’s New York is still Dorothy Parker’s New York,” Fitzpatrick said.
Her early life saw the construction of the Ansonia and the early days of the Dakota. The street design and much of the architecture remains the same, particularly on the UWS. She used the West 72nd Street and West 103rd Street train stations, both relatively new additions to New York City when she was a young girl. She shared the neighborhood with Babe Ruth and Ira Gershwin on the West Side and lived a few blocks away from Eleanor Roosevelt on the East Side. Her neighbors and friends were those Broadway and entertainment notables who continue to infiltrate much of today’s arts, just as she continues to.
“Search #DorothyParker on Instagram,” Fitzpatrick said. “Click ‘most recent’ and you’ll see memes and photos in virtually every language quoting her.” It’s this universality of her work and words that still strike a chord with people. She wrote about the human condition and experiences that have always resonated and will continue to. “That’s why she will be remembered.”
Gloria Steinem once described Parker as “a writer with the voice of her generation, but enough insight and style to make much of her work–as Edmund Wilson and Somerset Maugham predicted 20 years ago–last beyond it.” She has lasted and she will continue to. But the greatest and most surprising aspect of the classic nature of her work is that, to Parker, it was only a job. She did not particularly like writing.
It wasn’t just that she disavowed her earlier poetry when she was in her 40s or had no particular affection for her screenwriting life in Los Angeles, a place she considered a company town except for the bigger homes and nicer weather it offered. But she did not enjoy writing in general. For Parker, it was a means to an end. It was a living, an easy way to get paid. To her, it was not an art form.
“I hate writing, I love having written,” Parker once said. As usual, she was on point.