Dorothy Parker

1893 –

On August 22, 1893, Dorothy Parker was born to J. Henry and Elizabeth Rothschild, at their summer home in West End, New Jersey. Growing up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, her childhood was an unhappy one. Both her mother and stepmother died when she was young; her uncle, Martin Rothschild, went down on the Titanic in 1912; and her father died the following year. Young Dorothy attended a Catholic grammar school, then a finishing school in Morristown, NJ. Her formal education abruptly ended when she was fourteen.

In 1914, Dorothy sold her first poem to Vanity Fair. At age twenty-two, she took an editorial job at Vogue. She continued to write poems for newspapers and magazines, and in 1917 she joined Vanity Fair, taking over for P.G. Wodehouse as drama critic. That same year she married a stockbroker, Edwin P. Parker. But the marriage was tempestuous, and the couple divorced in 1928.

In 1919, Parker became a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, an informal gathering of writers who lunched at the Algonquin Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. The “Vicious Circle” included Robert Benchley, Harpo Marx, George S. Kaufman, and Edna Ferber, and was known for its scathing wit and intellectual commentary. In 1922, Parker published her first short story, “Such a Pretty Little Picture,” for Smart Set.

When the New Yorker debuted in 1925, Parker was listed on the editorial board. Over the years, she contributed poetry, fiction, and book reviews as the “Constant Reader.”

Parker’s first collection of poetry, Enough Rope (Boni & Liveright), was published in 1926 and was a bestseller. Her two subsequent collections were Sunset Gun (Boni & Liveright, 1928) and Death and Taxes (The Stratford Press, 1931). She published a work of collected fiction, Laments for the Living (The Viking Press), in 1930. 

During the 1920s, Parker traveled to Europe several times. She befriended Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, socialites Gerald and Sara Murphy, and contributed articles to the New Yorker and Life. While her work was successful, and she was well-regarded for her wit and conversational abilities, she suffered from depression and alcoholism. She also attempted suicide.

In 1929, she won the O. Henry Award for her autobiographical short story “Big Blonde.” She produced short fiction in the early 1930s, and also began writing drama reviews for the New Yorker. In 1934, Parker married actor-writer Alan Campbell in New Mexico; the couple relocated to Los Angeles and became a highly-paid screenwriting team. They labored for MGM and Paramount on mostly forgettable features, the highlight being an Academy Award nomination for A Star Is Born in 1937. They divorced in 1947, and remarried in 1950.

Parker, who became a socialist in 1927 when she became involved in the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, was called before the House on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1955. She pleaded the Fifth Amendment.

Parker was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1959 and was a visiting professor at California State College in Los Angeles in 1963. That same year, her husband died of an overdose. On June 6, 1967, Parker was found dead of a heart attack in a New York City hotel at age seventy-three. A firm believer in civil rights, she bequeathed her literary estate to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Upon his assassination the following year, the estate was turned over to the NAACP. 

In 2006, Penguin Classics published The Portable Dorothy Parker, revised and edited by Marion Meade, who also penned the landmark biography Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This (Penguin Books, 1989). Meade’s revision updates Brendan Gill’s first portable edition with new material, including a 1956 interview with the Paris Review.