Putting “All Her Eggs in One Bastard” –– Happy Birthday, Dorothy Parker!
On August 22, 1893, a child was born who would make the world a decidedly wittier place.
Insisting she was “just a little Jewish girl trying to be cute,” Dorothy Rothchild Parker had a keen eye for the foibles of both her times and human nature, and many of the pieces she wrote became classics.
Some 45 years after her death, Dorothy Parker’s words remain as fresh, brilliant, biting, and wickedly edgy as when she first set them down.
Parker was born on New York City’s Upper West Side, the third child of a Jewish father and Scottish mother. By the time Parker was five, her mother had died and her father had remarried. He enrolled her in an Episcopalian school where her “Jewish looks” made her fell like an outsider, as she would for the rest of her life.
When she was 14, her father became seriously ill. Her stepmother had died so Parker left school to nurse him. Six years later, he died; she began supporting herself playing the piano at a Manhattan dance school.
But it was her second job that determined the direction of Parker's life and career. She married in 1917. Within a year, her stockbroker husband was in the army, and 25-year-old Parker got a job at Vanity Fair magazine. Soon she was promoted to be one of the nation’s few female drama critics. It was only a matter of time before Parker’s acidic reviews proved too much for the magazine, and in 1920 she lost her job. She went through a bad time--too much drinking, divorce, and attempted suicide.
Parker found help and a home among the urbane elite of New York artists, writers, and actors known as the Algonquin Round Table. Over the next four decades, she would publish short stories, poetry collections, and screenplays, including the original A Star Is Born written in 1929 with then-husband Alan Campbell.
Over the years Parker also wrote reams of literary criticism that was published in the New Yorker (under the title “Constant Reader”) and, from 1958 to 1963, in Esquire. She constantly struggled with finances. The big bucks she earned in Hollywood rescued her time and again, although she resented the distraction from work she cared more about.
Her stories, like her poetry and her humor, mirrored Parker’s state-of-mind. In them we see her darkest disappointments. Her story, “Big Blond,” which won the O. Henry Prize in 1929, reflects on the alcoholism, isolation, sexual addiction, and all-around misery of a no-longer-young “kept woman.” Like many of Parker’s writings, it reflects her frustrations with the limitations imposed on women, particularly intelligent and aspiring women.
“I had been fed, in my youth, a lot of old wives' tales about the way men would instantly forsake a beautiful woman to flock around a brilliant one,” she famously wrote. “It is but fair to say that, after getting out in the world, I had never seen this happen.”
But “the proudest thing” she ever did, Parker insists, had nothing to do with her writing. It was traveling to Spain to protest the dictator Francisco Franco’s role in the Spanish Civil War. Her activism included organizing her fellow screenwriters. She was in her 60s when she was blacklisted for her liberal politics in the McCarthy-era witch-hunt of the early 1950s.
But 45 years after her death, it’s Parker’s bon mots that continue to remind us of her raw genius.
“You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”
“Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.”
“If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”
“I hate writing, I love having written.”
“Don't look at me in that tone of voice.”
“There's a hell of a distance between wise-cracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wise-cracking is simply calisthenics with words.”
And a personal favorite: “It serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard.”
For all her fame, Dorothy Parker died what’s been called “a lonely death” in 1967, just shy of her 74th birthday. By then, however, in classic Parker form, she had already written her own exit line.
“That would be a good thing for them to cut on my tombstone: Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.”