undefinedDorothy Parker, 1956.

 

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.