Dorothy Parker: An American Centenary

Article excerpt

TRANSATLANTIC centenaries are not much observed, or even noticed on this side, and it comes as something of a jolt to find that two American entertainers whose products have earned an honoured place in the consciousness of most British intellectuals have already reached this venerable condition -- Cole Porter last year, and Dorothy Parker this one. Dorothy Parker, Dotty to her friends and the journalists, died in 1967 but is still popularly referred to as ~the immortal D.P.'. She had a lamentably disordered life-three times married (twice to the same man), abortion, attempted suicide, and progressive reliance on the Scotch bottle, which, as we all know, is apt to take away quite quickly whatever pleasures it gives. Her health can hardly have been improved by having to drink bootleg through the whole period of Prohibition in America, 1920-33, the years of her peak creativity.

Since her death there have been at least four full-length biographies chronicling her unhappy career in the pejorative manner now fashionable; so that now is the time to recall Ernest Hemingway's remark (in Death in the Afternoon) that ~a major art cannot ever be judged until the unimportant physical rotten-ness of whoever made it is well buried', and turn to her work instead. This is conveniently available as The Collected Dorothy Parker in the Penguin Modem Classics Series.

None of her prose stories exceeds ten thousand words (the length of the average Sherlock Holmes stort story), none of her poems forty lines (and some of the best are less than ten); but somehow her forlorn, querulous little voice is still to be heard when those of her robuster more chest-thumping contemporaries are silent for ever. She was a kind of female Housman, her speciality unrequited or misdirected love, her tone generally despondent, her vehicle verse of unfailing neatness, crying out to be read aloud and making an instant effect in that form. In addition to her original work, which is even more exiguous in extent than it sounds, a full third of her Penguin collection being taken up with her ephemeral book and theatre reviews, a hard core of her spoken remarks has been handed down in biographies and elsewhere, and in these the black diamonds of her wit coruscate as intensely as ever. Such collections of these sayings as have appeared here so far have not always been wisely edited; so that it is possible to offer below, in no particular order, some supplementary, less familiar, gleanings of merit from the harvest:

"Scratch an actor and find an actress."

"I like to think of my shining tombstone. It gives me, as you might

say, something to live for."

To a New York cabby who said he was engaged: "Then be happy!"

"As far as I am concerned, the most beautiful word in the English

language is ~cellar-door'. …