Friendship Poems

Dorothy Parker Biography

Young_Dorothy_ParkerThe American writer, Dorothy Parker, was born Dorothy Rothschild to Jacob Henry and Eliza Annie Rothschild at 732 Ocean Avenue in the West End village of Long Branch, New Jersey, where her parents had a summer beach cottage, on August 22, 1893. Dorothy’s mother was of Scottish descent, and her father was of German-Jewish descent.

Parker, with her trademark humor, wrote in her essay “My Hometown”, that her parents got her back to their Manhattan apartment shortly after Labor Day so she could be called a true New Yorker. Her mother died in West End in July 1898, when Parker was only a month shy of turning five. Her father remarried, to Eleanor Francis Lewis, in 1900. It was reported that Parker detested her father and stepmother, accusing her father of being physically abusive and refusing to call Eleanor either “mother” or “stepmother,” instead referring to her as “the housekeeper.”

Of note, while she grew up on the Upper West Side, Dorothy attended a Roman Catholic elementary school, the Convent of the Blessed Sacrament, which she was abruptly asked to leave following her characterization of the Immaculate Conception as “spontaneous combustion”, despite having a Jewish father and Protestant stepmother.

Her stepmother died in 1903, when Parker was nine. Parker later went to Miss Dana’s School, a finishing school in Morristown, New Jersey but her formal education ended when she was 13. Her father died in 1913. Following his death, she played piano at a dance school to earn a living while she worked on her verse.

She sold her first poem to Vanity Fair magazine in 1914 and some months later, she was hired as an editorial assistant for Vogue. She moved to Vanity Fair as a staff writer following her two years at Vogue.

In 1917, at the age of 24 she met and married a Wall Street stock broker, Edwin Pond Parker II but they were separated by his army service in World War I. She had always had ambiguous feelings about her Jewish heritage given the strong anti-Semitism of that era and joked that she married to escape her name.

In 1919, her career took off while writing theatre criticism for Vanity Fair, when she began in 1918 as a stand-in for the vacationing P. G. Wodehouse. Parker’s caustic wit as a critic initially proved highly popular, but she was eventually fired by Vanity Fair in 1920 after her criticism of their shows began to offend powerful producers too often.

It was at this time that Parker became famous for her short, viciously humorous poems, many about the perceived ludicrousness of her many, largely unsuccessful, romantic affairs and others wistfully considering the appeal of suicide. Her greatest period of productivity and success came in the next 15 years. In the 1920s alone, she published approximately 300 poems and free verses in outlets including the aforementioned Vanity Fair, Vogue, The Conning Tower and The New Yorker along with Life, McCall’s and The New Republic.

She eventually separated from her husband and had a number of affairs, including one with reporter-turned-playwright Charles MacArthur and the publisher Seward Collins. Her relationship with MacArthur resulted in a pregnancy. This resulted in Parker having an abortion and a depression that culminated in her first attempt at suicide. She and Edwin finally divorced in 1928.

In 1934, she married Alan Campbell, a reputedly bisexual actor who had aspirations of being a screenwriter. Like Parker, he was half-Jewish and half-Scottish. The pair moved to Hollywood and signed ten-week contracts with Paramount Pictures, with Campbell, who was also expected to act, earning $250 per week and Parker earning $1,000 per week. They would eventually earn $2,000 dollars and in some instances upwards of $5,000 per week as freelancers for various studios. Her marriage with Campbell was highly tempestuous, with tensions exacerbated by Parker’s increasing alcohol consumption and Alan’s long-term affair with a married woman while he was in Europe during World War II. They divorced in 1947, remarried in 1950 and remained married, although they lived apart from 1952-1961, until his death in 1963 in West Hollywood.

In 1967, Parker died of a heart attack at the age of 73. In her will, she bequeathed her entire estate to the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Foundation. Following King’s death, her estate was then passed on to the NAACP. Her executor, Lillian Hellman, bitterly but unsuccessfully contested this disposition. Ironically the woman who was always looking for a place in life had her ashes remain unclaimed in various places, including her attorney Paul O’Dwyer’s filing cabinet, for approximately 17 years.

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