Dorothy Parker, Hopeful Cynic
“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.”
If you had to guess who this epitaph belonged to, who would you choose? Lillian Wald? Dorothy Height?
Certainly not Dorothy Parker. Dorothy Parker’s legacy is one of acerbic wit and light verse; the endlessly quotable, coolly cynical writer crafted lines like “You can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think,” “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses,” and “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”
Yet these words do lie above Dorothy Parker’s ashes, in a memorial garden at the national headquarters of the NAACP in Baltimore, no less.
Most casual admirers know a fair amount of Parker’s dramatic story, from her heyday as a leader of the Algonquin Round Table, to her celebrated tenure at Vanity Fair, to her tabloid-worthy string of husbands, doomed affairs, alcoholism, and suicide attempts. In person and in print, she was certainly a formidable woman, but historians and popular writers have paid less attention to her work in social justice and civil rights than to the more sensational aspects of her story.
Parker was a passionate advocate for civil rights and she took great pride in being arrested in 1927 for protesting the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants convicted of murder in a tragically biased trial. Parker (née Rothschild) shrugged off her Jewish heritage and often joked that she married James Parker for his “clean surname,” yet she was a founder of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. Parker also served as chair of the Joint Anti-Fascist Rescue Committee, organizing the transport of refugees from the Spanish Civil War. Like so many other artists and intellectuals of her day, she was investigated by the FBI for her suspected involvement in Communism and placed on the Hollywood blacklist.
The year of her arrest, Parker wrote a short story entitled “Arrangement in Black and White.” It stars a vapid woman at a party who is eager to meet the “colored” singer Walter Williams, in whose name the soiree is being thrown. The woman embarrasses herself at every turn: condescending to the singer, worrying what her husband might think of their interaction, and clearly proud of her own graciousness toward Walter Williams. It’s a sharp little story that would foreshadow the subtle strain between “progressive” yet misguided white Americans and African Americans for decades. By skewering this backward, patronizing mindset, Parker used her famous cynicism to continue her fight for social justice and equality.
Dorothy Parker was by all accounts shocked to outlive her friends and family. With no heirs, she chose to leave her entire estate to Martin Luther King, Jr. This final act provides a window into how she saw herself and what she felt mattered most at the end of her life. Leaving her money to Dr. King suggests faith in him, hope for the civil rights movement, and a desire to be remembered for her work as an activist.
Within a year of Parker’s death, Dr. King was assassinated, and the Parker estate rolled over to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. To this day, the NAACP benefits from the royalties from all of Parker’s publications.
How to cite this page
Metal, Tara. "Dorothy Parker, Hopeful Cynic." 22 August 2014. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 26, 2016) <http://jwa.org/blog/dorothy-parker-hopeful-cynic>.