Monday, May 6, 2013

"As Dorothy Parker once said...."

One of the few contemporary women to be immortalized in a lyric by Cole Porter (one good wit deserve another), Dorothy Parker left her royalties to the NAACP in her will.
Dorothy Parker wrote verse, stories, book reviews, screenplays—all exceedingly well. In the excerpt below from Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book, J. Courtney Sullivan ruminates on Parker's genre-hopping brilliance, as reflected in the pages of The Portable Dorothy Parker. 

The word "portable" in the title was fitting. Fourteen years have passed since I received it, and the paperback has traveled with me everywhere I've been. Books are like family members, like friends. They go with you, and more than a couch or a quilt, they represent home, the familiar. At least they do for me. Others in my collection are more pristine, more beautiful. There are several dozen hardcovers on my bookshelves now and even a few antiques. But this book bears the marks of love: a cover that's fraying slightly at the edges, pages with a sun-stained border, underlinings in pink and blue and purple ink, some straight as an arrow, which I'm sure were drawn in bed. Others wobbly and disjointed, hastily written on the subway. There are the margin markings in my own sort of shorthand: exclamation points meaning, roughly translated: HA. A single check mark meaning I wish I'd written that.
Looking it over, I can tell you at exactly which stage of my life each of these markings was made. I didn't read the book straight through, beginning to end. Instead, I discovered it part by part, according, I think, to what I could handle at any given point. (Not unlike those designer Swedish high chairs that everyone in Brooklyn seems to have now: Your baby can sit in this booster seat before he's even able to hold his head up and then later he can convert it into a futon to use in his college dorm!)
First, of course, came the parts about love and angst, not necessarily in that order. In high school, I adored Parker's witty little poems, her tart and cynical musings on romance, which are interspersed with essays and stories throughout the book. (Perhaps speaking to my adolescent attention span, I hardly noticed most of these longer pieces then.) My friends and I developed a Tao of Parker when it came to boys. (Anyone who knows something about Parker's own love life knows what a smashing idea this was, but anyway.) Examples: "Never say to him what you want him to say to you." And the equally instructive but far less useful:
By the time you swear you're his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he swears his passion is
Infinite, undying —
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.
I memorized and recited the poems as I rode the train home from school or loaded the dishwasher after dinner. I took three years of high school French and don't remember a word. But I can still do most of "Enough Rope" from memory.
One night while my parents were out, I wrote a few of my favorite Parker poems right on my bedroom wall. I copied "Observation" above the headboard of my canopy bed:
If I don't drive around the park,
I'm pretty sure to make my mark.
If I'm in bed each night by ten,
I may get back my looks again.
If I abstain from fun and such,
I'll probably amount to much;
But I shall stay the way I am,
Because I do not give a damn.
Strong words. Especially, as my mother pointed out, when you write them in Sharpie on your ballet slipper-themed wallpaper.


  1. Nice to have some comic leavening on a Monday. Ms. Parker will be fresh and funny 50 years hence.
    But who is that Frenchman, a l'air garcon de cafe, intoning One Perfect Rose? I was expecting a lady, a l'air ingenue.

  2. Oh dear ... I think I picked the wrong one; meant to get the divine Ms. P herself, not a burlesque Frenchman (although she would probably think it tres amusante).

  3. I first got my hand on a book of Dorothy Parker poetry when I was 15. I devoured it in one sitting, but I remember carry my copy of it in my bookbag for the remainder of my 10th grade year.