Dorothy Rothschild Parker
Dorothy Rothschild Parker was a Jewish American poet, short story writer, critic and satirist.
Brilliant, unrelenting, and fiercely witty, she came to
signify the urbane and irreverent sensibility of New York City in the 1920s.
As an adult, Parker rarely spoke of her family and Upper West Side
upbringing, although she often hinted that her past had been tragic. The
youngest of three siblings by many years, Dorothy was born on August 22, 1893 to a Jewish father, J. Henry Rothschild, and a Scottish mother, Eliza
(Marston) Rothschild. Eliza Rothschild died when Parker was five years old,
an event that devastated the child. Soon thereafter, her father, who had made
a small fortune in the garment industry, married a strict Roman Catholic,
whom Dorothy bitterly disliked.
As a young girl, she attended, and despised, a Catholic school in Manhattan,
later transferring to Miss Dana's, a boarding school. Henry Rothschild told
the school authorities that his daughter was Episcopalian, but her dark
Jewishness marked her as an outsider. She would always maintain this image
of herself, and in the face of early alienation and many disappointments, she
developed a biting and irreverent sense of humor. Late in life, she described
herself as "one of those awful children who wrote verses," but despite her
writerly inclinations, she left school abruptly at age fourteen, never to return,
to take care of her ill father, who was once again a widower. When he died in
1913, the twenty-year-old Dorothy made a living by playing piano at a
Manhattan dance school.
In 1917, she married Edwin Pond Parker II; it was a marriage doomed to
years of alcohol-soaked pain and eventual dissolution. A stockbroker from a
prestigious Hartford, Connecticut, family, the handsome Edwin Parker
shared Dorothy's love of excitement and had the advantage of what she later
termed "a nice, clean name." Shortly after their wedding, Edwin went off to
war, leaving Dorothy alone in New York. That same year, she became a staff
writer at Vanity Fair magazine, and quickly distinguished herself there with
her cutting and well-turned humor. In 1918, at age twenty-five and with little
tolerance for the popular theater (although she would later write four plays
herself), she succeeded P.G. Wodehouse as Vanity Fairs drama critic. It was
an unprecedented position for a woman of any age at that time. Parker was an
immediate success: notoriously vicious, and notoriously funny. "If you don't
knit, bring a book," she moaned in one review. When she lost her job in
1920, after her famously tart reviews offended the sensibilities of the theater
elite, Robert Benchley, her close friend and fellow Vanity Fair writer, resigned
in protest. It was, Parker said, "the greatest act of friendship I'd known."
Parker, Benchley, and Robert Sherwood (also of Vanity Fair) lunched regularly at
the Algonquin Hotel with a small group of self-publicizing writers eager to create a
legend out of their own banter, bons mots, insults, and decrees. In addition to the Vanity Fair trio, the "Algonquin Round Table" included newspapermen Alexander
Woollcott and Harold Ross (who would found the New Yorker magazine in 192 5)
and, in subsequent years, Edna Ferber, Harpo Marx, Tallulah Bankhead, and other
notable figures in literary and theatrical circles. The Round Table was the
perfectforum for Parker's incomparably quick tongue, and soon her quietly dropped
words became those most listened for. Asked during this period to use the word
"horticulture" in a sentence, she famously responded, "You can lead a horticulture,
but you can't make her think." She rarely failed to surprise and delight her eager
audience, and her droll asides were circulated throughout sophisticated New York
But despite her growing fame and the endless parties where she always took center
stage, Parker was miserable. Lurking behind her quest for fun was a growing sense of
desperation, as her short poem "The Flaw in Paganism" indicates:
Drink and dance and laugh and lie,
Love, the reeling midnight through,
For tomorrow we shall die!
(But, alas, we never do.)
Her insistent hopefulness always seemed to be sideswiped by catastrophe or
disappointment-as she put it, "laughter, hope and a sock in the eye." She was deeply
dissatisfied with the free-lance magazine writing she did in the 1920s, had serious
money problems, and was involved in a succession of painfully brief love affairs with
men who cared little for her. All these troubles led to two failed suicide attempts, in
1923 (following an abortion) and 1925. Her marriage to the morphine-and alcohol-addicted Edwin Parker finally ended in 1928. Through her worst years, Parker
maintained a tough-talking and hard-drinking public exterior, scoffing at her own
misery with blasé humor.
At the suggestion of a friend, she collected a volume of her poetry in 1926 to pay for
an overseas trip, although she herself felt her verse was not good enough for a book.
To her great surprise, Enough Rope became an instant best-seller, rare for a book of
poems. In this and subsequent successful volumes of poetrySunset Gun (1928),
Death and Taxes (1931), and Not So Deep as a Well (1936)Parker poked fun at her
own heartbreak, masochism, and hopefulness. Her most effective verse captures the
breadth of her dreams and disappointments with bitter irony and perfect turns of
phrase, but only hints at their depths.
Parker's stories, like her poetry, resonate with heartache and disenchantment, and
reflect her obsessions: incessant alcohol consumption, spoiled romance, social
injustice, and the follies of the rich. Her most acclaimed story, "Big Blond," won the
O. Henry Prize in 1929. It depicts the drunken loneliness, male dependence, and
increasing desperation of an aging "kept woman." Like many of Parker's stories, it
highlights, with intense and desolate intimacy, the lack of possibilities faced by many women. Other stories have been collected in Laments for the Living (1930), After Such Pleasures (1933), and Here Lies (1939). Parker also produced a
great deal of literary criticism, published over many decades in the New Yorker (under
the title "Constant Reader") and, from 1958 to 1963, in Esquire. These reviews were
often penned with the same unblinking brutality as her earlier drama reviews (of A.A.
Milne's The House at Pooh Corner, she said, "Tonstant Weader Fwowed Up"),
although as often they were generously sensitive and enthusiastic.
Despite her cynicism, Parker was deeply earnest about politics and maintained a
lifelong, if intermittent, commitment to activism. She surprised her New York friends
in the 1920s when she was arrested while marching for the release of the anarchists
Sacco and Vanzetti. In later years, she went to Spain to work against Franco in the
Spanish Civil War ("the proudest thing" she ever did), organized Hollywood
screenwriters, and was blacklisted in the 1950s for her pro-Left views. While she still
spent many weekends at the homes of rich friends, the pleasures she took in wealth
were always mingled with fierce disdain.
In 1934, at age forty, Parker married the writer Alan Campbell, who was eleven years
her junior. The couple became a Hollywood screenwriting team whose credits
included the original A Star Is Born (1937). Although she found it hard to
refuse the huge paychecks, Parker was not proud of her work in Hollywood
and felt (as she did about reviewing) that screenwriting kept her from serious
literary engagement. She was able to produce stories and poems only
sporadically in the 1930s and later years, and never reached the level of
productivity to which she aspired nor wrote the novel she had always
dreamed of writing. Campbell, who was also half-Jewish, adored her, but
was often eclipsed by her powerful talent and personality. Their relationship
was complicated by economic woes as well as their ongoing alcoholism and
his homosexuality. The couple divorced in 1947, remarried in 1950,
separated in 1953, and reconciled again in 1956, staying together until
Campbell's death in 1963.
Before her lonely death in New York on June 7, 1967, Parker disparaged the
life that she and other Round Tablers had lived. She also judged her own
writing harshly as derivative and not living up to her promise. "I was
following in the exquisite footsteps of Miss Edna St. Vincent Millay," she once
claimed, "unhappily in my own horrible sneakers." Elsewhere she said that she had
been "just a little Jewish girl trying to be cute." However, her work uniquely
catalogued society's random pretensions and her own tough, intimate longings. She
remains one of the most shrewdly sensitive and elegant satirists of the twentieth
Her works include After Such Pleasures (1933); Death and Taxes (1931); Enough Rope (1926); Here Lies (1939); Laments for the Living (1930); Not So Deep as a Well (1936); The Portable Dorothy Parker (1976); Sunset Gun (1928); A Star Is Born, with Alan Campbell (screenplay) (1939).
Sources: Paula Hyman and Deborah Dash Moore eds. Jewish Women in America. NY: Routledge, 1997. Reprinted with permission of the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS). AJHS photo.
BEOAJ; Cooper, Wyatt. "Remembering Dorothy Parker." Esquire (July 1968); DAB 8; EJ; Gaines, James R. Wits End: Days and Nights of the Algonquin Round Table (1977); Harriman, Margaret Case. The Vicious Circle: The Story of the Algonquin Round Table (1951); Hellman, Lillian. An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir (1969); Keats, John. You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker (1970); Meade, Marion. Dorothy Parker. What Fresh Hell Is This? (1989); NAW modern; Obituary. New York Times, June 8, 1967,1:2; Parker, Dorothy. Interview, June 1959. Oral History Collection, Columbia University, NYC, and Interview In Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, edited by Malcolm Cowley (1958); UJE; Woollcott, Alexander. "Our Mrs. Parker." In The Portable Woollcott (1946); WWWIA 4.