Biography of Dorothy Parker, American Poet and Humorist

A sharp-tongued purveyor of wit

Dorothy Parker proofreading a draft
Dorothy Parker proofreading a draft, circa 1948.

 New York Times Co. / Getty Images

Dorothy Parker (born Dorothy Rothschild; August 22, 1893 – June 7, 1967) was an American poet and satirist. Despite a roller coaster of a career that included a stint on a Hollywood blacklist, Parker produced a large volume of witty, successful work that has endured.

Fast Facts: Dorothy Parker

  • Known For: American humorist, poet, and civil activist
  • Born: August 22, 1893 in Long Branch, New Jersey
  • Parents: Jacob Henry Rothschild and Eliza Annie Rothschild
  • Died: June 7, 1967 in New York City
  • Education: Convent of the Blessed Sacrament; Miss Dana's School (until age 18)
  • Selected Works: Enough Rope (1926), Sunset Gun (1928), Death and Taxes (1931), After Such Pleasures (1933), Not So Deep as a Well (1936)
  • Spouses: Edwin Pond Parker II (m. 1917-1928); Alan Campbell (m. 1934-1947; 1950-1963)
  • Notable Quote: “There's a hell of a distance between wise-cracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wise-cracking is simply calisthenics with words."

Early Life

Dorothy Parker was born to Jacob Henry Rothschild and his wife Eliza (née Marston) in Long Beach, New Jersey, where her parents had a summer beach cottage. Her father was descended from German Jewish merchants whose family had settled in Alabama half a century earlier, and her mother had Scottish heritage. One of her father’s siblings, his youngest brother Martin, died in the sinking of the Titanic when Parker was 19 years old.

Shortly after her birth, the Rothschild family returned to the Upper West Side in Manhattan. Her mother died in 1898, just weeks before Parker’s fifth birthday. Two years later, Jacob Rothschild married Eleanor Frances Lewis. By some accounts, Parker despised both her father and her stepmother, accusing her father of abuse and refusing to address her stepmother as anything other than “the housekeeper.” However, other accounts dispute this characterization of her childhood and suggest instead that she actually had a warm, affectionate family life. She and her sister Helen attended a Catholic school, although their upbringing was not Catholic, and their stepmother Eleanor died only a few years later, when Parker was 9 years old.

Parker eventually attended Miss Dana's School, a finishing school in Morristown, New Jersey, but accounts differ as to whether or not she actually graduated from the school. When Parker was 20, her father died, leaving her to support herself. She met her living expenses by working as a pianist at a dance school. At the same time, she worked on writing poetry in her spare time.

In 1917, Parker met Edwin Pond Parker II, a stockbroker on Wall Street who, like her, was 24 years old. They were married fairly quickly, before Edwin left to serve in the army during World War I. He returned from the war, and the couple were married for 11 years before she filed for divorce in 1928. Dorothy Parker went on to marry screenwriter and actor Alan Campbell in 1934, but kept her first married name. She and Campbell divorced in 1947 but remarried in 1950; although they had other brief separations, they remained married until his death.

Magazine Writer (1914-1925)

Parker's work appeared in the following publications:

  • Vanity Fair
  • Ainslee's Magazine
  • Ladies' Home Journal
  • LIFE
  • Saturday Evening Post
  • The New Yorker

Parker’s first publication came in 1914, when she sold her first poem to Vanity Fair magazine. This publication put her on the radar of the Condé Nast magazine company, and she was soon hired as an editorial assistant at Vogue. She remained there for about two years before moving over to Vanity Fair, where she had her first full-time writing job as a staff writer.

In 1918, Parker’s writing truly took off when she became the temporary theater critic for Vanity Fair, filling in while her colleague P.G. Wodehouse was on vacation. Her particular brand of biting wit made her a hit with readers, but offended powerful producers, so her tenure only lasted until 1920. However, during her time at Vanity Fair, she met several fellow writers, including humorist Robert Benchley and Robert E. Sherwood. The three of them began a tradition of lunches at the Algonquin Hotel, founding what came to be called the Algonquin Round Table, a circle of New York writers who met almost daily for lunches where they exchanged witty comments and playful debates. Since many of the writers in the group had their own newspaper columns, the witty remarks were often transcribed and shared with the public, helping garner Parker and her colleagues a reputation for sharp wit and clever wordplay.

Eight of the members of the Algonquin Round Table gathered together
Members of the Algonquin Round Table, including Parker, in 1938.  Bettmann / Getty Images

Parker was dismissed from Vanity Fair for her controversial criticisms in 1920 (and her friends Benchley and Sherwood then resigned from the magazine in solidarity and in protest), but that wasn’t even close to the end of her magazine writing career. In fact, she continued to publish pieces in Vanity Fair, just not as a staff writer. She worked for Ainslee’s Magazine and also published pieces in popular magazines such as Ladies’ Home Journal, Life, and the Saturday Evening Post.

In 1925, Harold Ross founded The New Yorker and invited Parker (and Benchley) to join the editorial board. She began writing content for the magazine in its second issue, and she soon became noted for her short, sharp-tongued poems. Parker largely mined her own life for darkly humorous content, frequently writing about her failed romances and even describing thoughts of suicide. Over the course of the 1920s, she published over 300 poems among many magazines.

Poet and Playwright (1925 – 1932)

  • Enough Rope (1926)
  • Sunset Gun (1928)
  • Close Harmony (1929)
  • Laments for the Living (1930)
  • Death and Taxes (1931)

Parker turned her attention to the theater briefly in 1924, collaborating with playwright Elmer Rice to write Close Harmony. Despite positive reviews, it closed after only running 24 performances on Broadway, but it did enjoy a successful second life as a touring production renamed The Lady Next Door.

Parker published her first full volume of poetry, titled Enough Rope, in 1926. It sold around 47,000 copies and was well-reviewed by most critics, although some dismissed it as being shallow “flapper” poetry. Over the next few years, she released several more collections of short work, including both poetry and short stories. Her poetry collections were Sunset Gun (1928) and Death and Taxes (1931), interspersed with her short story collections Laments for the Living (1930) and After Such Pleasures (1933). During this time, she also wrote regular material for The New Yorker under the byline “Constant Reader.” Her most well-known short story, "Big Blonde," was published in The Bookman magazine and was awarded the O. Henry Award for the best short story of 1929.

Black and white portrait of Dorothy Parker
Portrait of Dorothy Parker, circa 1920.  Bettmann / Getty Images

Although her writing career was stronger than ever, Parker’s personal life was somewhat less successful (which, of course, only provided more fodder for her material–Parker didn’t shy away from poking fun at herself). She divorced her husband in 1928 and subsequently embarked on several romances, including ones with publisher Seward Collins and reporter and playwright Charles MacArthur. Her relationship with MacArthur resulted in a pregnancy, which she terminated. Although she wrote about this period with her trademark biting humor, she also privately struggled with depression and even attempted suicide at one point.

Parker’s interest in social and political activism began in earnest during the late 1920s. She was arrested on loitering charges in Boston when she traveled there to protest the controversial death sentences of Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian anarchists who had been convicted of murder despite the evidence against them falling apart; their conviction was largely suspected to be the result of anti-Italian and anti-immigrant sentiments.

Writer in Hollywood and Beyond (1932-1963)

  • After Such Pleasures (1933)
  • Suzy (1936)
  • A Star Is Born (1937)
  • Sweethearts (1938)
  • Trade Winds (1938)
  • Saboteur (1942)
  • Here Lies: The Collected Stories of Dorothy Parker (1939)
  • Collected Stories (1942)
  • The Portable Dorothy Parker (1944)
  • Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman (1947)
  • The Fan (1949)

In 1932, Parker met Alan Campbell, an actor/screenwriter and former Army intelligence officer, and they married in 1934. They moved together to Hollywood, where they signed contracts with Paramount Pictures and eventually began doing freelance work for multiple studios. Within the first five years of her Hollywood career, she received her first Oscar nomination: she, Campbell, and Robert Carson wrote the script for the 1937 film A Star Is Born and were nominated for best original screenplay. She later received another nomination in 1947 for co-writing Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman.

Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell at a restaurant
Dorothy Parker and husband Alan Campbell, circa 1937. Evening Standard / Getty Images 

During the Great Depression, Parker was among many artists and intellectuals who became more vocal in social and civil rights issues and more critical of government authority figures. Although she may not have been a card-carrying communist herself, she certainly sympathized with some of their causes; during the Spanish Civil War, she reported on the Republican (left-leaning, also known as Loyalist) cause for the communist magazine The New Masses. She also helped found the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League (with the support of European communists), which the FBI suspected was a communist front. It’s unclear how many of the group’s members realized that a good portion of their donations were funding Communist Party activities.

In the early 1940s, Parker’s work was selected to be part of an anthology series compiled for servicemen stationed overseas. The book included more than 20 of Parker’s short stories, as well as several poems, and it was eventually published in the U.S. under the title The Portable Dorothy Parker. Among all of the “Portable” sets from Viking Press, only Parker’s, Shakespeare’s, and the volume dedicated to the Bible have never been out of print.

Parker’s personal relationships continued to be fraught, both in her platonic relationships and in her marriage. As she turned her attention more and more to left-wing political causes (such as supporting Loyalist refugees from Spain, where the far-right Nationalists emerged victorious), she became more distant from her old friends. Her marriage also hit the rocks, with her drinking and Campbell’s affair leading to a divorce in 1947. They then remarried in 1950, then separated again in 1952. Parker moved back to New York, remaining there until 1961, when she and Campbell reconciled and she returned to Hollywood to work with him on several projects, all of which went unproduced.

Because of her involvement with the Communist Party, Parker’s career prospects became more precarious. She was named in an anti-Communist publication in 1950 and was the subject of a large FBI dossier during the McCarthy era. As a result, Parker was placed on the Hollywood blacklist and saw her screenwriting career come to an abrupt end. Her last screenwriting credit was The Fan, a 1949 adaptation of the Oscar Wilde play Lady Windemere’s Fan. She fared somewhat better after returning to New York, writing book reviews for Esquire.

Literary Styles and Themes

Parker’s themes and style of writing evolved considerably over time. In her early career, her focus was very much on pithy, witty poems and short stories, often dealing with darkly humorous, bittersweet subjects such as the disillusionment of the 1920s and her own personal life. Failed romances and suicidal ideation were among the running themes in Parker’s early work, appearing in many of her hundreds of poems and short works early in her writing career.

During her Hollywood years, it’s difficult to pinpoint Parker’s specific voice at times, since she was never the sole screenwriter on any of her films. Elements of ambition and ill-fated romance show up frequently, as in A Star Is Born, The Fan, and Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman. Her specific voice can be heard in individual lines of dialogue, but due to the nature of her collaborations and of the Hollywood studio system at the time, it’s harder to discuss these films in the context of Parker’s overall literary output.

As time went on, Parker began writing with more of a political slant. Her sharp-edged wit didn’t disappear, but it simply had new and different targets. Parker’s involvement with left-wing political causes and civil rights took precedence over her more “witty” works, and in later years, she came to resent her earlier reputation as a satirist and wise-cracking writer.

Portrait of Dorothy Parker in a hat and fur coat
Dorothy Parker in 1937.  Hansel Mieth / Getty Images

Death

After her husband’s death from a drug overdose in 1963, Parker returned once more to New York. She remained there for the next four years, working in radio as a writer for the show Columbia Workshop and occasionally appearing on the shows Information Please and Author, Author. In her later years, she spoke derisively about the Algonquin Round Table and its participants, comparing them unfavorably to the literary “greats” of the era.

Parker suffered a fatal heart attack on June 7, 1967. Her will had left her estate to Martin Luther King, Jr., but he only outlived her for a year. Following his death, the King family bequeathed Parker’s estate to the NAACP, which, in 1988, claimed Parker’s ashes and created a memorial garden for her at their Baltimore headquarters.

Legacy

In many ways, Parker’s legacy is divided into two parts. On the one hand, her wit and humor has endured even in the decades after her death, making her an oft-quoted and well-remembered humorist and observer of humanity. On the other hand, her outspokenness in defense of civil liberties earned her plenty of enemies and damaged her career, but it is also a key part of her positive legacy in the modern day.

Parker’s very presence is something of a 20th-century American touchstone. She’s been fictionalized numerous times in works by other writers—both in her own time and up through the modern day. Her influence is not, perhaps, as obvious as some of her contemporaries, but she’s unforgettable nonetheless.

Sources

  • Herrmann, Dorothy. With Malice Toward All: The Quips, Lives and Loves of Some Celebrated 20th-Century American Wits. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1982.
  • Kinney, Authur F. Dorothy Parker. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.
  • Meade, Marion. Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This?. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.