A tart-tongued wit and prolific writer of reviews, poetry, short stories, plays and screenplays, founding member of the famed Algonquin Hotel Round Table Dorothy Parker parlayed her caustic barbs into a successful career as a writer in numerous mediums. Troubled and obsessive, Parker was unpredictable and self-destructive, attempting suicide several times in her life, while growing increasingly dependent on alcohol. Still, she remained a prolific writer throughout her career for magazines like Vogue, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Smart Set and LIFE while becoming more politically active in leftist causes. She married actor and writer Alan Campbell, which led to a Hollywood career writing screenplays for "Nothing Sacred" (1937), "A Star Is Born" (1938) and "Saboteur" (1942), while helping to form the Screenwriters Guild, only to find herself blacklisted by 1950 because of her Communist affiliations. She left Hollywood for New York to write plays and a regular book review column for Esquire, though her growing alcoholism hampered her coherence. Though she died quietly in 1967, Parker remained a vital nerve in the cultural zeitgeist whose contributions to literature, film and non-fiction were unparalleled.
Born Dorothy Rothschild on Aug. 22, 1891 in Long Branch, NJ, Parker was raised by her Jewish-American father, Jacob, and her British mother, Eliza. Just shy of Parker's fifth birthday, her mother died and her father remarried a woman she refused to acknowledge as her stepmother, let alone her mother. In fact, Parker claimed to have grown up in an unhappy and even abusive environment, which many historians believed could explain her later descents into self-destructive behavior. While attending Catholic school at the Blessed Sacrament Academy, Parker was asked to leave after displaying her caustic wit in taking a jab at the Immaculate Conception. In 1903, her stepmother died and Parker finished her education at Miss Dana's School, a finishing school in Morristown, NJ. When she was 19, her father died, which led her to eke out a living playing piano for a dance school while she developed her writing. Parker sold her first poem to Vanity Fair in 1914 and soon became an editorial assistant at Vogue. After two years, Parker joined Vanity Fair as a staff writer.
In 1917, Parker met and married her first of three husbands, Edwin Pond Parker II, a Wall Street broker who went off to fight World War I while she stayed behind to make her name on the New York literary scene. Her first rise to acclaim came when she began writing theater criticism for a vacationing P.G. Wodehouse, which led to meeting and eventually befriending humorist Robert Benchley and writer Robert E. Sherwood. The trio began lunching almost daily at the Algonquin Hotel in midtown Manhattan, where other writers like Franklin Pierce Adams, Alexander Woollcott, Ruth Hale and George S. Kaufman would trade witticisms and wordplay. Initially formed as a practical joke, The Algonquin Round Table, as they were soon called, came into national prominence when their witty barbs were disseminated in newspapers across the country. Other notable celebrities began attending the sessions, including Tallulah Bankhead, Harpo Marx, Margalo Gillmore, Donald Ogden Stewart and historian Margaret Leech. The Round Table lasted a good 10 years until as its members moved out of New York and on to other ventures. In later years, Parker openly disparaged the group, calling it "a bunch of loudmouths showing off."
Despite such admonitions from Parker and other members, the Round Table had a lasting reputation. In fact, Parker's most fruitful years as a writer were during her time with Algonquin and she wrote for some of the most important periodicals of her day including Smart Set, Ainslee's, The Saturday Evening Post and LIFE. Her success depended largely on her caustic wit, which landed Parker in trouble at Vogue in 1920 and led to her dismissal due to her routine upsetting of Broadway producers. But her sharp, often pointed critiques made her a force to be reckoned with on the national stage, while her poetry was published in countless magazines, including McCall's and The New Republic. In 1926, Parker published her first volume of poetry, Enough Rope, a rather dubious title given her suicide attempts in 1923 and 1926. Besides her own collections of poetry and short stories - one of which, "Big Blonde," won the O. Henry Award in 1929 - Parker collaborated on theater pieces with some of the medium's giants including Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman, and Elmer Rice. She was on the advisory committee that helped Harold Ross create the legendary magazine, The New Yorker, later becoming that periodical's chief book reviewer. Meanwhile, her first marriage to Wall Street broker Edwin Parker ended in divorce, though she held on to his name.
Parker's second marriage to writer and actor Alan Campbell in 1934 turned into a professional collaboration as well, with both spending several years in Hollywood writing and doctoring screenplays. Although she worked on a number of scenarios for which she did not receive screen credit, Parker's few credits were on several noteworthy films including William Wellman's screwball comedy classic "Nothing Sacred" (1937) starring Carole Lombard and Fredric March, and the tragic tale of fame and excess, "A Star Is Born" (1937), which earned her and Campbell an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay. Of course, Parker continued writing journalistically and traveled to Spain in order to report on their civil war for New Masses magazine, a highly influential socialist magazine that rose to prominence during the Great Depression. Having already shown her left-leaning tendencies by showing support for a pair of convicted anarchists in 1927, Parker became more politically active by co-founding the Anti-Nazi League and helping to organize the Screenwriters Guild in 1937. While under contract with MGM and Columbia Studios, Parker added some welcome spice to the sugary Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy musical "Sweethearts" (1938) and wrote "Saboteur" (1942) for Alfred Hitchcock, in which she had a brief cameo in the film as a woman in a car.
As she became increasingly involved in a wide array of leftist causes, Parker sank deeper into depression and a growing dependence on alcohol. Despite her successful foray into Hollywood screenwriting, her career failed to last very long and she ultimately wrote her last script with "The Fan" (1949), an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's play "Lady Windermere's Fan." Meanwhile, Parker divorced Campbell, only to reconcile and remarry him in 1950, while that same year she was listed in the anti-Communist pamphlet, Red Channels, as a leftist sympathizer and was effectively blacklisted. In 1952, Parker moved back to New York and wrote the Harold Clurman-directed play, "Ladies of the Corridor" (1953) with Arnaud d'Usseau and again collaborated on the unproduced play, "The Ice Age." From 1957-1962, Parker wrote book reviews for Esquire magazine, but saw her writing become more uncertain due to her worsening alcoholism. After returning to California in 1961, Parker taught English at California State College, only to see Campbell commit suicide via drug overdose in 1963. Four years later, on June 7, 1967, Parker died of a heart attack at 73 years old and willed her entire estate to civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Her reputation dimmed with time, though director Alan Rudolph resurrected her memory with the feature "Mrs. Parker and Her Vicious Circle" (1994), which starred Jennifer Jason Leigh in the title role.
By Shawn Dwyer