Carrie: Why did you worship Louise Brooks?
Madonna: Because she was hyperactive, she didn’t mince words, and she was a rebel, at least from what I’ve read. I thought she was a fab girl.
Carrie: Who else do you like who doesn’t mince words?
Madonna: Bette Davis. Oh, everybody I like is dead. The next name, while I was on tour for six months, was Kit Moresby from [the book] The Sheltering Sky. She’s fairly high-strung but not exactly my personality.
Carrie: She was a lesbian and insane. Kit was based on the writer Jane Bowles.
Madonna: So they say. Anyways, I loved the book, but after I saw the movie, I didn’t want to be Kit Moresby anymore, because it was so disappointing. I didn’t want people to think that I was Debra Winger.
Carrie: So we’re staying with Dita until further notice.
Madonna: Until I find somebody else to be enamored of.
Carrie: Someone from the past who’s dead. Dorothy Parker?
Madonna: She’s good, but I don’t like the name Dorothy.
Carrie: Dotty. She wore those little puffy dresses and was apparently a really mean drunk.
– from Carrie Fisher’s interview of Madonna in Rolling Stone Magazine, June 13th, 1991
Welcome to my blog, where over the course of weeks (months?) we will dissect a really mean drunk.
Well, not literally. I do resolve to keep things as literary as possible. The purpose of The Dorothy Parker Project is to provide an in-depth look at the writing of an influential writer from the early 20th century.
If you don’t know Dorothy Parker, you may have heard the quote Men never make passes at girls who wear glasses. She wrote that. Not really, she actually wrote Men *seldom* make passes… It’s arguably her most famous saying, and maybe the most misquoted. I think people tend to use never in this case by virtue of the prominent themes in Mrs. Parker’s poetry: heartbreak, loss, cynicism. Using seldom in the above passage implies there’s hope that somewhere out there a man is hitting up a bespectacled lady. I wish Mrs. Parker lived today, so she could see the odds would be in that lady’s favor. Girls make passes at girls who wear glasses, too. But we’re getting off topic.
Dorothy Parker wrote poetry, reviews, screenplays and short stories and was a member of the Algonquin Round Table – a gathering of writers, wits, and critics who met regularly at the Algonquin Hotel for lunch and traded barbs. Any given week you might have seen Mrs. Parker side-eye and zing the likes of Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, Harpo Marx, and/or Tallulah Bankhead.
I included the excerpt from the Madonna interview mainly to hat-tip Carrie Fisher, for without her I may not have found Mrs. Parker until later in life. In 1991 I was a sophomore in college and had devoured Carrie’s first two novels, Postcards From the Edge and Surrender the Pink, and hoped for more writing from her. Delusions of Grandma was a few years out yet, but I had a subscription to Rolling Stone when that interview was published. So an innocuous drop of a name from one who influenced me led to my discovery of the second woman who did the same and more. Thanks, Carrie. I owe you dinner.
I hoped to write an extensive paper on Mrs. Parker’s work as part of my English studies. Unfortunately, resources on her work were lacking. I found Marion Meade’s wonderful biography and…that was pretty much it for 1991 in a sub-par university library. Trips to the state university at the beach yielded less. I’d find an encyclopedia snippit here and there, but nothing with meat. Some books did exist, mind you, but you’d come to find out they were inaccurate and lacking in analysis. The Dorothy Parker Society wouldn’t be established until 1999, and many of the books I would have used wouldn’t come out until later than that.
Since my professors required me to have several resources on which to base my research, I abandoned any hope of writing that thesis. It sucked. At that point in time I could find more criticism on Stephen King than Dorothy Parker. Using the Internet now, I’ll wager I could write a thesis on E.L. James for all that’s available. So little available on a woman who won the O. Henry Prize, but if you want 500 pages on the use of tampons in sex scenes you’ll strike gold.
Why the dearth of criticism on Mrs. Parker’s work? We could ask Lillian Hellman…wait, we can’t. She’s dead. Next best thing would be to read Marion Meade’s The Last Days of Dorothy Parker (ARe/AMZ/BN/KOBO), which recounts how Hellman arguably attempted to quash any desire to perpetuate Mrs. Parker’s legacy. See, when Mrs. Parker died she named Hellman the executor of her estate which suited the playwright just fine…until she discovered all the money and copyrights were going to Martin Luther King, Jr., then to the NAACP upon his death. This meant Hellman could control certain aspects of Mrs. Parker’s work but she wouldn’t get a plugged nickel for her efforts. To make matters worse for her, Mrs. Parker’s will stipulated for the NAACP to assume executor duties after King’s death, and I doubt anybody expected his assassination to happen less than a year after he inherited.
So, every time somebody came to Hellman wanting to write a book on Mrs. Parker, or to adapt a story for stage and screen, she told them to take a hike and kept doing so long after her tenure as executor expired. Call it a final “eff you” to a frenemy, but it strikes me that she felt if she wouldn’t benefit from these projects why should anybody else?
I’m not afraid of mean drunk ghosts, and Hellman can’t touch me either. Like Ellen Meister, whose Mrs. Parker novels reignited my interest in pursuing a dormant goal, I’d like to contribute more to the lexicon. While there may be more criticism of Mrs. Parker’s work available now than when I needed it, I want to help out the next generation so they aren’t disappointed and forced to settle on writing a thesis called Holy Crap! Exaggeration and Hyperbole in Fifty Shades of Grey for Contemporary English Lit 301.
Here, you will read review and criticism of Mrs. Parker’s work by me. If anybody else wants to chime in, cool. What are my qualifications, besides an English degree, twenty years of professional writing and editing, ten years experience in publishing, and ten published books? Well, it’s my blog and nobody’s sent a cease and desist.
I do take this work seriously, so if you are an English major reading this twenty years in the future, I hope you find what you need for your work and cite me correctly. If I’m still alive and on Twitter, drop me a note.
~ Kathryn Lively, March 2015