Everyone remembers Dorothy Parker for her wit. If you write about Parker, you are mandated to employ acerbic, caustic, or acrimonious. You might drop in sulfurous, bitter, or vitriolic. You have to because that’s what’s emblematic of her. That’s the popular logos of her memory but I think of her differently. I think of her as being possessed, almost haunted, by impostor syndrome. For many writers, it is their most enduring affliction with dipsomania close on its heels.
So, yeah, Dorothy Parker’s wit was acerbic
But she wasn’t. Not really. Look at Wyatt’s description of her. He wasn’t alone, this was often the portrait of Parker painted by the people who spent time with her. That she was small, elegantly feminine, and slightly breakable. She carried with her, apparently, a lingering sense of tragedy. As if something terrible had happened and she was bravely carrying on. This was, perhaps, an artifact of being part Scottish, part Prussian. It may also have been—I mean, it was certainly—an artifact of losing her mother when she was an infant, and being raised by a stepmother whom she never really recognized as anyone other than Ms. Rothschild (Parker’s surname). Mr. Rothschild was a Jewish intellectual and as Parker was born in 1893, he was certainly of the oldest of the old school. Meaning he did not participate much in Parker’s childhood, was fond of the rod, and a cold father. Or maybe not. Parker’s biographer, Marion Meade, described Parker’s childhood home life as affectionate, indulgent, and generous. One could dismiss Meade and rely on Parker’s rendition of her early days if Meade wasn’t so damn good at her job—allegedly.
Cause not everyone liked Meade’s work
One critic called her prose ‘grating,’ saying “To hear her tell this story is like listening to someone play Aaron Copland on a kazoo…” Another critic thought her methods were crude. However, What Fresh Hell is This, remains the persistent zenith of Parker biographies and is considered authoritative, and also I’m telling you she’s full of shit. The only authority worth believing is Dorothy Parker as it is her childhood we’re talking about so she should know.
But also, look at Dorthy Parker’s adulthood
Which was cloudy. She was brilliantly talented, blessed with a rare wit that was so accurate when it cut that some celebrities were wary of her. Groucho Marx loved the circle of writers, the Algonquin Table, of which Parker was a founding member. But the Algonguin was not the kids’ table. Parker sat with Art Samuels, Harpo Marx, Charles MacArthur, and Alexander Woollcott. All of them were titans of wit and criticism (yes, even Harpo). Over its ten-year life, the table attracted the famously vicious, spawned careers, and turned out withering reviews by the truckload. These columns were the early 20th-century version of influencer culture when everyone read the daily paper and entertaining columnists like Parker could launch and sink careers with a single sentence.
And so you’d think Dorothy Parker, recognized, feared, quoted, would be happy
But you’d be wrong. I mean, of course, there were days of sunshine. But Parker’s overall demeanor was like the skies of Seattle. She was a late November kind of woman with storm clouds in her voice. This is the sick backstory of so many writers, that they are just fucked up. That their wit and self-deprecating rants are based on actual self-loathing. Worse, is the imp of the perverse, the impostor, the dark passenger who rides along in our head whispering to us all day long: how long can you keep this up? People are gonna find out you’re a big fake, that you don’t belong here. Your work is written on flammable paper.
Almost all writers feel like Dorothy Parker did: Ee are immigrants from nowhere
I think Parker felt this way, that there was an underlying feeling that she had arrived in New York, at the Algonquin, on the pages of notable magazines from a second-class nation. From an outlying town. She hadn’t; she was born in New York to a well-to-do Jewish family who employed servants and owned plenty of books and did just fine. But that goddam troublesome spirit; it just never went away. To read about Parker’s habits and her moods and her daily life; to read the words of her interviewers describing the way she looked around when answering a question, is to recognize a distant cousin deeply afflicted with self-doubt.
Which is why she drank. It’s why we all drink.
Dorothy Parker was fond of various cocktails but her go-to was a Whiskey Sour. It’s elegant, boozy, and tart. Just like her.