Interviews

Dorothy Parker, The Art of Fiction No. 13

Interviewed by Marion Capron

At the time of this interview, Mrs. Parker was living in a midtown New York hotel. She shared her small apartment with a youthful poodle that had the run of the place and had caused it to look, as Mrs. Parker said apologetically, somewhat “Hogarthian”: newspapers spread about the floor, picked lamb chops here and there, and a rubber doll—its throat torn from ear to ear—which Mrs. Parker lobbed left-handed from her chair into corners of the room for the poodle to retrieve—as it did, never tiring of the opportunity. The room was sparsely decorated, its one overpowering fixture being a large dog portrait, not of the poodle, but of a sheepdog owned by the author Philip Wylie, and painted by his wife. The portrait indicated a dog of such size that if it were real, would have dwarfed Mrs. Parker, who was a small woman, her voice gentle, her tone often apologetic, but occasionally, given the opportunity to comment on matters she felt strongly about, she spoke almost harshly, and her sentences were punctuated with observations phrased with lethal force. Hers was still the wit that made her a legend as a member of the Round Table of the Algonquin—a humor whose particular quality seemed a coupling of brilliant social commentary with a mind of devastating inventiveness. She seemed able to produce the well-turned phrase for any occasion. A friend remembered sitting next to her at the theater when the news was announced of the death of the stolid Calvin Coolidge. “How can they tell?” whispered Mrs. Parker.

Readers of this interview, however, will find that Mrs. Parker had only contempt for the eager reception accorded her wit. “Why, it got so bad,” she had said bitterly, “that they began to laugh before I opened my mouth.” And she had a similar attitude toward her value as a serious writer. But Mrs. Parker was her own worst critic. Her three books of poetry may have established her reputation as a master of light verse, but her short stories were essentially serious in tone—serious in that they reflected her own life, which was in many ways an unhappy one—and also serious in their intention. Franklin P. Adams described them in an introduction to her work: “Nobody can write such ironic things unless he has a deep sense of injustice—injustice to those members of the race who are the victims of the stupid, the pretentious and the hypocritical.”

 

INTERVIEWER

Your first job was on Vogue, wasn’t it? How did you go about getting hired, and why Vogue?

DOROTHY PARKER

After my father died there wasn’t any money. I had to work, you see, and Mr. Crowninshield, God rest his soul, paid twelve dollars for a small verse of mine and gave me a job at ten dollars a week. Well, I thought I was Edith Sitwell. I lived in a boarding house at 103rd and Broadway, paying eight dollars a week for my room and two meals, breakfast and dinner. Thorne Smith was there, and another man. We used to sit around in the evening and talk. There was no money, but, Jesus, we had fun.

INTERVIEWER

What kind of work did you do at Vogue?

PARKER

I wrote captions. “This little pink dress will win you a beau,” that sort of thing. Funny, they were plain women working at Vogue, not chic. They were decent, nice women—the nicest women I ever met—but they had no business on such a magazine. They wore funny little bonnets and in the pages of their magazine they virginized the models from tough babes into exquisite little loves. Now the editors are what they should be: all chic and worldly; most of the models are out of the mind of a Bram Stoker, and as for the caption writers—my old job—they’re recommending mink covers at seventy-five dollars apiece for the wooden ends of golf clubs “—for the friend who has everything.” Civilization is coming to an end, you understand.

INTERVIEWER

Why did you change to Vanity Fair?

PARKER

Mr. Crowninshield wanted me to. Mr. Sherwood and Mr. Benchley—we always called each other by our last names—were there. Our office was across from the Hippodrome. The midgets would come out and frighten Mr. Sherwood. He was about seven feet tall and they were always sneaking up behind him and asking him how the weather was up there. “Walk down the street with me,” he’d ask, and Mr. Benchley and I would leave our jobs and guide him down the street. I can’t tell you, we had more fun. Both Mr. Benchley and I subscribed to two undertaking magazines: The Casket and Sunnyside. Steel yourself: Sunnyside had a joke column called “From Grave to Gay.” I cut a picture out of one of them, in color, of how and where to inject embalming fluid, and had it hung over my desk until Mr. Crowninshield asked me if I could possibly take it down. Mr. Crowninshield was a lovely man, but puzzled. I must say we behaved extremely badly. Albert Lee, one of the editors, had a map over his desk with little flags on it to show where our troops were fighting during the First World War. Every day he would get the news and move the flags around. I was married, my husband was overseas, and since I didn’t have anything better to do I’d get up half an hour early and go down and change his flags. Later on, Lee would come in, look at his map, and he’d get very serious about spies—shout, and spend his morning moving his little pins back into position.

INTERVIEWER

How long did you stay at Vanity Fair?

PARKER

Four years. I’d taken over the drama criticism from P. G. Wodehouse. Then I fixed three plays—one of them Caesar’s Wife, with Billie Burke in it—and as a result I was fired.

INTERVIEWER

You fixed three plays?

PARKER

Well, panned. The plays closed and the producers, who were the big boys—Dillingham, Ziegfeld, and Belasco—didn’t like it, you know. Vanity Fair was a magazine of no opinion, but I had opinions. So I was fired. And Mr. Sherwood and Mr. Benchley resigned their jobs. It was all right for Mr. Sherwood, but Mr. Benchley had a family—two children. It was the greatest act of friendship I’d known. Mr. Benchley did a sign, “Contributions for Miss Billie Burke,” and on our way out we left it in the hall of Vanity Fair. We behaved very badly. We made ourselves discharge chevrons and wore them.

INTERVIEWER

Where did you all go after Vanity Fair?

PARKER

Mr. Sherwood became the motion-picture critic for the old Life. Mr. Benchley did the drama reviews. He and I had an office so tiny that an inch smaller and it would have been adultery. We had Parkbench for a cable address, but no one ever sent us one. It was so long ago—before you were a gleam in someone’s eyes—that I doubt there was a cable.

INTERVIEWER

It’s a popular supposition that there was much more communication between writers in the twenties. The Round Table discussions in the Algonquin, for example.

PARKER

I wasn’t there very often—it cost too much. Others went. Kaufman was there. I guess he was sort of funny. Mr. Benchley and Mr. Sherwood went when they had a nickel. Franklin P. Adams, whose column was widely read by people who wanted to write, would sit in occasionally. And Harold Ross, the New Yorker editor. He was a professional lunatic, but I don’t know if he was a great man. He had a profound ignorance. On one of Mr. Benchley’s manuscripts he wrote in the margin opposite “Andromache,” “Who he?” Mr. Benchley wrote back, “You keep out of this.” The only one with stature who came to the Round Table was Heywood Broun.

INTERVIEWER

What was it about the twenties that inspired people like yourself and Broun?

PARKER

Gertrude Stein did us the most harm when she said, “You’re all a lost generation.” That got around to certain people and we all said, Whee! We’re lost. Perhaps it suddenly brought to us the sense of change. Or irresponsibility. But don’t forget that, though the people in the twenties seemed like flops, they weren’t. Fitzgerald, the rest of them, reckless as they were, drinkers as they were, they worked damn hard and all the time.

INTERVIEWER

Did the “lost generation” attitude you speak of have a detrimental effect on your own work?

PARKER

Silly of me to blame it on dates, but so it happened to be. Dammit, it was the twenties and we had to be smarty. I wanted to be cute. That’s the terrible thing. I should have had more sense.

INTERVIEWER

And during this time you were writing poems?

PARKER

My verses. I cannot say poems. Like everybody was then, I was following in the exquisite footsteps of Miss Millay, unhappily in my own horrible sneakers. My verses are no damn good. Let’s face it, honey, my verse is terribly dated—as anything once fashionable is dreadful now. I gave it up, knowing it wasn’t getting any better, but nobody seemed to notice my magnificent gesture.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think your verse writing has been of any benefit to your prose?

PARKER

Franklin P. Adams once gave me a book of French verse forms and told me to copy their design, that by copying them I would get precision in prose. The men you imitate in verse influence your prose, and what I got out of it was precision, all I realize I’ve ever had in prose writing.

INTERVIEWER

How did you get started in writing?

PARKER

I fell into writing, I suppose, being one of those awful children who wrote verses. I went to a convent in New York—the Blessed Sacrament. Convents do the same things progressive schools do, only they don’t know it. They don’t teach you how to read; you have to find out for yourself. At my convent we did have a textbook, one that devoted a page and a half to Adelaide Ann Proctor; but we couldn’t read Dickens; he was vulgar, you know. But I read him and Thackeray, and I’m the one woman you’ll ever know who’s read every word of Charles Reade, the author of The Cloister and the Hearth. But as for helping me in the outside world, the convent taught me only that if you spit on a pencil eraser it will erase ink. And I remember the smell of oilcloth, the smell of nuns’ garb. I was fired from there, finally, for a lot of things, among them my insistence that the Immaculate Conception was spontaneous combustion.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever drawn from those years for story material?

PARKER

All those writers who write about their childhood! Gentle God, if I wrote about mine you wouldn’t sit in the same room with me.

INTERVIEWER

What, then, would you say is the source of most of your work?

PARKER

Need of money, dear.

INTERVIEWER

And besides that?

PARKER

It’s easier to write about those you hate—just as it’s easier to criticize a bad play or a bad book.

INTERVIEWER

What about “Big Blonde”? Where did the idea for that come from?

PARKER

I knew a lady—a friend of mine who went through holy hell. Just say I knew a woman once. The purpose of the writer is to say what he feels and sees. To those who write fantasies—the Misses Baldwin, Ferber, Norris—I am not at home.

INTERVIEWER

That’s not showing much respect for your fellow women, at least not the writers.

PARKER

As artists they’re not, but as providers they’re oil wells; they gush. Norris said she never wrote a story unless it was fun to do. I understand Ferber whistles at her typewriter. And there was that poor sucker Flaubert rolling around on his floor for three days looking for the right word. I’m a feminist, and God knows I’m loyal to my sex, and you must remember that from my very early days, when this city was scarcely safe from buffaloes, I was in the struggle for equal rights for women. But when we paraded through the catcalls of men and when we chained ourselves to lampposts to try to get our equality—dear child, we didn’t foresee those female writers. Or Clare Boothe Luce, or Perle Mesta, or Oveta Culp Hobby.

INTERVIEWER

You have an extensive reputation as a wit. Has this interfered, do you think, with your acceptance as a serious writer?

PARKER

I don’t want to be classed as a humorist. It makes me feel guilty. I’ve never read a good tough quotable female humorist, and I never was one myself. I couldn’t do it. A “smartcracker” they called me, and that makes me sick and unhappy. There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words. I didn’t mind so much when they were good, but for a long time anything that was called a crack was attributed to me—and then they got the shaggy dogs.

INTERVIEWER

How about satire?

PARKER

Ah, satire. That’s another matter. They’re the big boys. If I’d been called a satirist there’d be no living with me. But by satirist I mean those boys in the other centuries. The people we call satirists now are those who make cracks at topical topics and consider themselves satirists—creatures like George S. Kaufman and such who don’t even know what satire is. Lord knows, a writer should show his times, but not show them in wisecracks. Their stuff is not satire; it’s as dull as yesterday’s newspaper. Successful satire has got to be pretty good the day after tomorrow.

INTERVIEWER

And how about contemporary humorists? Do you feel about them as you do about satirists?

PARKER

You get to a certain age and only the tired writers are funny. I read my verses now and I ain’t funny. I haven’t been funny for twenty years. But anyway there aren’t any humorists anymore, except for Perelman. There’s no need for them. Perelman must be very lonely.

INTERVIEWER

Why is there no need for the humorist?

PARKER

It’s a question of supply and demand. If we needed them, we’d have them. The new crop of would-be humorists doesn’t count. They’re like the would-be satirists. They write about topical topics. Not like Thurber and Mr. Benchley. Those two were damn well-read and, though I hate the word, they were cultured. What sets them apart is that they both had a point of view to express. That is important to all good writing. It’s the difference between Paddy Chayefsky, who just puts down lines, and Clifford Odets, who in his early plays not only sees but has a point of view. The writer must be aware of life around him. Carson McCullers is good, or she used to be, but now she’s withdrawn from life and writes about freaks. Her characters are grotesques.

INTERVIEWER

Speaking of Chayefsky and McCullers, do you read much of your own or the present generation of writers?

PARKER

I will say of the writers of today that some of them, thank God, have the sense to adapt to their times. Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead is a great book. And I thought William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness an extraordinary thing. The start of it took your heart and flung it over there. He writes like a god. But for most of my reading I go back to the old ones—for comfort. As you get older you go much farther back. I read Vanity Fair about a dozen times a year. I was a woman of eleven when I first read it—the thrill of that line “George Osborne lay dead with a bullet through his head.” Sometimes I read, as an elegant friend of mine calls them, “who-did-its.” I love Sherlock Holmes. My life is so untidy and he’s so neat. But as for living novelists, I suppose E. M. Forster is the best, not knowing what that is, but at least he’s a semifinalist, wouldn’t you think? Somerset Maugham once said to me, “We have a novelist over here, E. M. Forster, though I don’t suppose he’s familiar to you.” Well, I could have kicked him. Did he think I carried a papoose on my back? Why, I’d go on my hands and knees to get to Forster. He once wrote something I’ve always remembered: “It has never happened to me that I’ve had to choose between betraying a friend and betraying my country, but if it ever does so happen I hope I have the guts to betray my country.” Now doesn’t that make the Fifth Amendment look like a bum?

INTERVIEWER

Could I ask you some technical questions? How do you actually write out a story? Do you write out a draft and then go over it or what?

PARKER

It takes me six months to do a story. I think it out and then write it sentence by sentence—no first draft. I can’t write five words but that I change seven.

INTERVIEWER

How do you name your characters?

PARKER

The telephone book and from the obituary columns.

INTERVIEWER

Do you keep a notebook?

PARKER

I tried to keep one, but I never could remember where I put the damn thing. I always say I’m going to keep one tomorrow.

INTERVIEWER

How do you get the story down on paper?

PARKER

I wrote in longhand at first, but I’ve lost it. I use two fingers on the typewriter. I think it’s unkind of you to ask. I know so little about the typewriter that once I bought a new one because I couldn’t change the ribbon on the one I had.

INTERVIEWER

You’re working on a play now, aren’t you?

PARKER

Yes, collaborating with Arnaud d’Usseau. I’d like to do a play more than anything. First night is the most exciting thing in the world. It’s wonderful to hear your words spoken. Unhappily, our first play, The Ladies of the Corridor, was not a success, but writing that play was the best time I ever had, both for the privilege and the stimulation of working with Mr. d’Usseau and because that play was the only thing I have ever done in which I had great pride.

INTERVIEWER

How about the novel? Have you ever tried that form?

PARKER

I wish to God I could do one, but I haven’t got the nerve.

INTERVIEWER

And short stories? Are you still doing them?

PARKER

I’m trying now to do a story that’s purely narrative. I think narrative stories are the best, though my past stories make themselves stories by telling themselves through what people say. I haven’t got a visual mind. I hear things. But I’m not going to do those he-said, she-said things anymore, they’re over, honey, they’re over. I want to do the story that can only be told in the narrative form, and though they’re going to scream about the rent, I’m going to do it.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think economic security an advantage to the writer?

PARKER

Yes. Being in a garret doesn’t do you any good unless you’re some sort of a Keats. The people who lived and wrote well in the twenties were comfortable and easy living. They were able to find stories and novels, and good ones, in conflicts that came out of two million dollars a year, not a garret. As for me, I’d like to have money. And I’d like to be a good writer. These two can come together, and I hope they will, but if that’s too adorable, I’d rather have money. I hate almost all rich people, but I think I’d be darling at it. At the moment, however, I like to think of Maurice Baring’s remark: “If you would know what the Lord God thinks of money, you have only to look at those to whom he gives it.” I realize that’s not much help when the wolf comes scratching at the door, but it’s a comfort.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think about the artist being supported by the state?

PARKER

Naturally, when penniless, I think it’s superb. I think that the art of the country so immeasurably adds to its prestige that if you want the country to have writers and artists—persons who live precariously in our country—the state must help. I do not think that any kind of artist thrives under charity, by which I mean one person or organization giving him money. Here and there, this and that—that’s no good. The difference between the state giving and the individual patron is that one is charity and the other isn’t. Charity is murder and you know it. But I do think that if the government supports its artists, they need have no feeling of gratitude—the meanest and most sniveling attribute in the world—or baskets being brought to them, or apple polishing. Working for the state—for Christ’s sake, are you grateful to your employers? Let the state see what its artists are trying to do—like France with the Académie Française. The artists are a part of their country and their country should recognize this, so both it and the artists can take pride in their efforts. Now I mean that, my dear.

INTERVIEWER

How about Hollywood as provider for the artist?

PARKER

Hollywood money isn’t money. It’s congealed snow, melts in your hand, and there you are. I can’t talk about Hollywood. It was a horror to me when I was there and it’s a horror to look back on. I can’t imagine how I did it. When I got away from it I couldn’t even refer to the place by name. “Out there,” I called it. You want to know what “out there” means to me? Once I was coming down a street in Beverly Hills and I saw a Cadillac about a block long, and out of the side window was a wonderfully slinky mink, and an arm, and at the end of the arm a hand in a white suede glove wrinkled around the wrist, and in the hand was a bagel with a bite out of it.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think Hollywood destroys the artist’s talent?

PARKER

No, no, no. I think nobody on earth writes down. Garbage though they turn out, Hollywood writers aren’t writing down. That is their best. If you’re going to write, don’t pretend to write down. It’s going to be the best you can do, and it’s the fact that it’s the best you can do that kills you. I want so much to write well, though I know I don’t, and that I didn’t make it. But during and at the end of my life, I will adore those who have.

INTERVIEWER

Then what is it that’s the evil in Hollywood?

PARKER

It’s the people. Like the director who put his finger in Scott Fitzgerald’s face and complained, “Pay you. Why, you ought to pay us.” It was terrible about Scott; if you’d seen him you’d have been sick. When he died no one went to the funeral, not a single soul came, or even sent a flower. I said, “Poor son of a bitch,” a quote right out of The Great Gatsby, and everyone thought it was another wisecrack. But it was said in dead seriousness. Sickening about Scott. And it wasn’t only the people, but also the indignity to which your ability was put. There was a picture in which Mr. Benchley had a part. In it Monty Woolley had a scene in which he had to enter a room through a door on which was balanced a bucket of water. He came into the room covered with water and muttered to Mr. Benchley, who had a part in the scene, “Benchley? Benchley of Harvard?” “Yes,” mumbled Mr. Benchley and he asked, “Woolley? Woolley of Yale?”

INTERVIEWER

How about your political views? Have they made any difference to you professionally?

PARKER

Oh, certainly. Though I don’t think this “blacklist” business extends to the theater or certain of the magazines, in Hollywood it exists because several gentlemen felt it best to drop names like marbles which bounced back like rubber balls about people they’d seen in the company of what they charmingly called “commies.” You can’t go back thirty years to Sacco and Vanzetti. I won’t do it. Well, well, well, that’s the way it is. If all this means something to the good of the movies, I don’t know what it is. Sam Goldwyn said, “How’m I gonna do decent pictures when all my good writers are in jail?” Then he added, the infallible Goldwyn, “Don’t misunderstand me, they all ought to be hung.” Mr. Goldwyn didn’t know about “hanged.” That’s all there is to say. It’s not the tragedies that kill us, it’s the messes. I can’t stand messes. I’m not being a smartcracker. You know I’m not when you meet me—don’t you, honey?