This Day in History: April 11th

Today in History: April 11, 1931

dorothy-parkerDorothy Parker was a writer, poet and satirist whose quick turns of phrase made her a favorite among many prominent Jazz Age newspaper columnists. Along with Robert Benchley and Robert E. Sherwood, she was a founder of the legendary Algonquin Round Table, named in homage to the hotel where they met daily for lunch and witty repartee.

Before long, they were joined by columnists Alexander Woollcott and Franklin Pierce Adams. Parker quickly became known as the quickest of the bunch for snappy comebacks. She came to personify the sophisticated/bordering-on-jaded New York City flapper of the 1920s.

Adams printed many of Parker’s off-the-cuff quips in his column “The Conning Tower,” which helped build Dorothy’s reputation across the country as a great wit served up with a heaping helping of venom. One of Parker’s best known one-liners originated when she was informed at the Algonquin that the notoriously taciturn ex-president Calvin Coolidge had just died; Dorothy immediately asked:

How could they tell?

Parker started writing as a theater critic for Vanity Fair in 1918, and her scathing yet hilarious reviews proved popular initially. But by 1920, Vanity Fair gave her the boot after too many powerful theater owners and producers complained about her caustic write-ups. A review she did of Tolstoy’s “Redemption” read in part:

I went into the Plymouth Theater a comparatively young woman, and I staggered out of it, three hours later, twenty years older…

But the last straw was when she gave her brutal, yet honest, assessment of popular actress Billie Burke’s talents, who happened to be the main squeeze of one of the publishers. As a show of solidarity, Benchley and Sherwood also resigned from Vanity Fair when Parker was terminated.

When the New Yorker was founded in 1925, Parker started writing for the magazine almost from its inception. Incredibly, she was writing theater reviews for the magazine, including one proclaiming that a certain Katharine Hepburn performance:

Ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.

Burn.

By 1925 Parker was no longer reviewing plays, and on April 11, 1931, she resigned from the New Yorker completely, choosing to work on her own writing projects instead. Dorothy’s humorously depressing poems based on her mostly unsuccessful romantic escapades and the allure of suicide are her greatest legacy. “Enough Rope,” Parker’s first collection of poetry, was published in 1926. Over the next 15 years, Dorothy experienced her highest level of productivity and acclaim.

During the 1930s, Parker went to Hollywood and became a screenwriter, working on the scripts for 39 movies, including the classic “A Star is Born,” which won an Oscar for best original story. Always left-leaning, it was during this time that Dorothy became involved in political causes and declared herself a communist, for which she was blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

A staunch champion of the Civil Rights movement, she left her entire estate to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Foundation upon her death on June 7, 1967. Her ashes remained unclaimed in a filing cabinet for over 15 years, until the NAACP designed a memorial garden in Parker’s memory outside their Baltimore headquarters in 1988. They erected a plaque that reads:

Here lie the ashes of Dorothy Parker (1893–1967) humorist, writer, critic, defender of human and civil rights. For her epitaph she suggested, ‘Excuse my dust’. This memorial garden is dedicated to her noble spirit which celebrated the oneness of humankind and to the bonds of everlasting friendship between black and Jewish people. Dedicated by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. October 28, 1988.

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