“I don’t care what is written about me so long as it isn’t true.” – Dorothy Parker.

A couple weeks ago a student reached out to me to talk about Dorothy Parker, one of the wonderfully witty writers of the Algonquin Round Table in New York City. Looking back, I discovered that I had done a couple pieces about the entire group, but had written nothing about Parker herself. This column will rectify that oversight.

Dorothy Rothschild was born prematurely in New Jersey in 1893, about which she remarked, “It was the last time I was early for anything.”

A precocious child, she was once asked to leave a Catholic school after referring to the Immaculate Conception as “spontaneous combustion.”

Early in her career she wrote theater reviews for Vanity Fair, not all of which were favorable. “Their pooled emotions wouldn’t fill a teaspoon,” she wrote about the cast of one play, also singling out an actress, saying, “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.”

After being fired from Vanity Fair for upsetting one too many producers, she reviewed books for The New Yorker. Of Benito Mussolini’s book “The Cardinal’s Mistress,” she wrote, “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”

Advertisement

When writer Alexander Woollcott, who was a member of the Algonquin Round Table along with Parker, asked, “What is so rare as a Woollcott first edition?” she quickly responded with, “A second edition.”

Woollcott responded with “She is so odd a blend between Little Nell and Lady Macbeth.” He noted that hers “is not so much the familiar hand of steel in a velvet glove as a lacey sleeve with a bottle of vitriol concealed in its folds.”

As her time with the members of the Algonquin Round Table was winding down, Parker had come to realize that they were hardly literary giants when compared to the likes of their contemporaries such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. “The Round Table was just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were,” she observed after the gathering had run its course around 1929. “Just a bunch of loudmouths showing off.”

“There’s a hell of a difference between wisecracking and wit,” she clarified. “Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is just calisthenics with words.”

Even though it was her livelihood, Parker had mixed emotions about her craft. “I hate writing,” she opined, “I love having written.” She added that self-discipline helped her begin the process. “Writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat,” she explained.

Another step in the process was to prepare herself for her day’s work. “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue,” she reported.

Advertisement

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers,” she once advised, “the second greatest favor you can do 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.”

But in the end, she found the writing process to have been worth the effort. “The two most beautiful words in the English language are ‘check enclosed.’”

“I’m not a writer with a drinking problem,” she once half joked, “I’m a drinker with a writing problem,” she said, noting, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”

At one point she even set her drinking problem to rhyme:

“I wish I could drink like a lady,

I can take one or two at the most,

Advertisement

Three and I’m under the table,

Four and I’m under the host.”

And in the morning? “A hangover is the wrath of grapes.”

Next week, more wit and wisdom from the writings of Dorothy Parker.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at [email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: