"Excuse my dust."
(By American Zen's Mike Flannigan, on loan from Ari)
I'm sure that Dorothy Parker would be mortified to still be alive today and more mortified still to learn today would've been her 123rd birthday.
As many great writers are, Dorothy Parker was what people charitably refer to as "complicated." She was self-effacing (unlike many writers) but she was just as merciless toward those in positions of power, especially right wingers and bigots. She was sitting at the Algonquin Round Table she helped found when news came of Republican Calvin Coolidge's death. It inspired Parker's most famous quip: "How could they tell?" In person, Parker was soft-spoken, which only enhanced and amplified the acidity of her barbs. It was even rumored that when Dorothy Parker was holding court at the Algonquin Table (that decades later she'd come to repudiate), people were reluctant to leave before her for fear of what she'd say about them in their absence.
Yet Parker's brilliance as a writer and master of the vitriolic aphorism has overshadowed her career as a left wing activist. The overshadowing of her more serious avocation as a liberal muckraker is understandable: Of Viking's famous Portable series, The Portable Dorothy Parker is one of only three still in print (along with Shakespeare and the Bible). Her talent was widely spread out in short stories, verse, poetry and song lyrics, journalism, plays, radio scripts, screenplays, book reviews and virtually every other genre and medium. The winner of two Oscar nominations and an O. Henry Award in 1930, she is generally regarded as one of America's greatest authors of either gender.
However, Parker's political activism began while she was in her early 30's, specifically during the Sacco and Vanzetti trial of 1927. From that point until her death just nine days before the Monterey Festival in the famous Summer of Love, Parker was increasingly devoted to progressive causes and Civil Rights. In fact, she was so notorious that her co-founding of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League (actually a thinly disguised front for Communist causes- Parker was a card-carrying member of that party) was more than enough to earn the attention of J. Edgar Hoover's infamously Learesque FBI: His Bureau had compiled a 1000 page dossier on the writer.
But it didn't stop with Hoover. Parker had also appeared on the radar screen of Joe McCarthy, the notorious Communist-hunting senator from Wisconsin who, through his hearings, had ended the careers of many Hollywood luminaries. Parker, despite her two Academy Award nominations, was not exempt from McCarthy's baleful ken.
And lest one think that Parker's concern stopped at American borders, you'd be wrong there. She'd formed an organization called Project Rescue Ship that transported Spanish Loyalists to Mexico and headed the Spanish Children's Relief and even chaired the Joint Anti-Fascist Rescue Committee. While they may have been fronts for Communist causes, no one could doubt Ms. Parker's loathing for and opposition to fascism and right wingers on either side of the Atlantic.
When Parker died of a sudden heart attack in New York City at the age of 73, the childless author's will bequeathed her entire estate to Dr. Martin Luther King and, when he was tragically assassinated less than a year later, it was transferred to the NAACP. On the 95th anniversary of her birth, that civil rights organization erected a cenotaph at the site of Parker's birthplace in New Jersey. During that 21 year interregnum, it would've amused Parker to know that, since no one claimed her ashes, they sat, fittingly, in her attorney's file cabinet for 17 years. (Her proposed epitaph was, "Excuse my dust.")
While Parker had friends and more lovers than posterity will likely ever get to count, it can be said her love for humanity was exercised at a more abstract level through her political and social activism. She was often a sad, lonely woman who, like Billie Holliday, was a brilliant and gifted lady who nonetheless made an unbroken string of bad choices in men. And it was that brilliance that answers the occasional question of why she has never fallen into disfavor or neglect in the nearly half a century after her death.
That is because, like Sylvia Plath and several others, Parker showed us how dangerous and devastating a lady of intelligence and a sharp wit can be in a male-dominated society. Yet let us not forget Parker's lifelong commitment to progressive causes that she'd effortlessly juggled with and folded into her immortal literary canon.