OCTOBER 2021 ISSUE of WestVirginiaVille.com
FREE SUBSCRIBE: WestVirginiaVille.substack.com
1) EDITORS/NOTE: It’s a character thing
2) ART/WORKS: Charly Jupiter Hamilton speaks for himself
3) ART/WORKS: The art of Public Art and artistic coffins
4) ART/WORKS: Hippo hearts & Shakespeare meet in West Virginia
5) LISTEN/IN: Michael and Carrie Nobel Kline on the Art & Craft of Listening
6) REVIEW: Considering the Life & Times of Dorothy Parker
7) THE/PAST: When Eugene Debs was locked in WV’s pen for speechifying
By Douglas John Imbrogno | WestVirginiaVille.com | sep18.2021
I wasn’t planning to write a quickie review and reaction to the Sept. 17, 2021, staging of “You Might As Well Live” by The Dorothy Parker Project at the Alban Arts Center in St. Albans, WV. Yet it was such a delight to experience live theater again — and of such a notable personage, portrayed in the sure hands of an accomplished actress — that, well, here you go. Plus, I got to learn far more about this laudable human being from writing this article.
The one-woman play was part of a short, two-night run portraying the acerbic wit and alternately shiny and crabbed life of critic, poet, short-story writer, and screenwriter Dorothy Parker, as depicted in this two-act play by London-based playwright Glenn T. Griffin. (The folks behind the play are soliciting funds for a touring production at PayPal.me/DorothyParkerProject)
If all you know of Dorothy Parker is she was some kind of rapier-wit, around some kind of table in the early 20th century, the play will round her out, although not as completely as her resume might warrant. More on that below.
Parker (1893-1967) is perhaps best known as the barbed wit, founding member, and rare female around what came to be known as the Algonquin Round Table. This rotating group of writers, critics, actors, and epigrammatic folk met for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel for about ten years, starting in 1919. They dubbed themselves “The Vicious Circle” and — as one history of the group puts it — “engaged in wisecracks, wordplay, and witticisms that, through the newspaper columns of Round Table members, were disseminated across the country.”
Some of her most famous, pungent lines you may be using yourself without knowing they are Parker’s. I don’t know how many times I have seen the phrase “What fresh hell is this?” uttered on social media the last five years, over some new depredation of Donald Trump and his Trumpublicans.
Courtesy, Mrs. Parker.
Razors pain you,
Rivers are damp,
Acids stain you,
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful,
Gas smells awful.
You might as well live.
~ “Résumé” from Dorothy Parker’s 1926 poetry collection “Enough Rope”
The shifting cast of members around The Vicious Circle made for a shiny, notable bunch. Among them: playwright Noel Coward; critic and journalist Alexander Woolcott; New Yorker editor Harold Ross; humorist and actor Robert Benchley; actress Tallulah Bankhead; and even Harpo Marx of Marx Brothers fame, among others.
Yet “You Might As Well Live” opens with a disgruntled Dorothy, in a messy apartment on the eve of her death, the spotlight nowhere in sight. (The stage design, by seasoned set designer and Susan’s husband, Doug Minnerly, is spot-on excellent. He also directs with assistant direction by Liz Swick).
The play commences with Dorothy painfully musing on her wish to be remembered as more than just the creator of quips such as: “The overseas crossing was so rough the only thing I could keep on my stomach was the first mate.”
Parker, perhaps, has no one else to blame for her reputational baggage. One of her autobiographical wisecracks features this self-portrait: “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”
Old, alone, and lonely in a room in New York at life’s end, Dorothy undertakes a survey of her Scotch-soaked past. She sustains a running commentary with ‘Fred,’ her pet name for the the ghost of lifelong friend Robert Benchley (with whom she would become estranged and then reconcile in real life). She grouses on about such subjects as the bastardization of literature in the 1960s; her dislike of Ernest Hemingway, and actress Billie Burke (best known as Glinda the Good Witch in “Wizard of Oz”), and her anticipation of relief at knowing the end of her tumultuous, often pained life approaches. (She would attempt suicide more than once.)
“Bewildered is the fox who lives to find that grapes beyond reach can be really sour.”~ Dorothy Parker, “The Collected Dorothy Parker“
One of the real pleasures of this production is watching Marrash-Minnerly effortlessly shift between eras and ages in Parker’s life, often through a modest, on-stage movement of doffing a dowager’s bathrobe, then donning a round-brimmed hat or colored scarf. She is that rare actor who can carry a one-person show, which is no mean feat. Whenever the pace of the play’s dialogue slightly flagged, I never lost interest and checked out — I wanted to see what reaction or character nuance Marrash-Minnerly would surface next, via face, body, and tone of voice.
A scene in Act Two is worth noting. It depicts Dorothy at the height of her fame in Hollywood (she earned two Academy Award screenwriting nominations, including co-writing the script for the 1937 film “A Star Is Born.”). Marrash-Minnerly is dressed in a white stole and matching hat. (The costume design by Susie Sayre of Brier Rose Studio throughout is a lot of fun.) As Dorothy keeps up a bitchy, sardonic stream of observations about the rest of the people seen across the room, she sustains a friendly smile, casting a dozen waves and nods this way and that. It’s a small tour de force of acting mojo.
“I like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I’m under the table,
after four I’m under my host.”
~ from The Collected Dorothy Parker
The play follows Dorothy through her successes and setbacks — landing a job at Vogue, resigning from said job. Landing a job at the prestigious Vanity Fair as its theater critic. Being fired from said job. Moving on to Hollywood and becoming one of the toasts of the town.
Her love life, as portrayed in the play, is a series of hopes and then hopes dashed, not the least reason being that a bottle of Scotch was often what she took to bed.
Griffin’s play chooses to depict the arc of Dorothy Parker’s life through her hunger to be taken seriously and to leave a mark in the world. He captures how her legendary barbed tongue and caustic typewriter came to be something of a curse at life’s end. Her reputation as a target-seeking wit and her skill at puncturing the pretensions of the oh-so-serious-and-high-faluting crowd she traveled in obscured, perhaps, her more serious skills as a poet, critic, and artist.
“If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”~ Dorothy Parker
If I have one quibble/critique/cavil with how the playwright depicts Parker — and I am writing from the cheap seats of a non-theater critic, proscenium passerby — it is that the play, overall, is a portrait of her despair and those things in her life that have made her distraught at its end. That is a perfectly appropriate theatrical strategy for depicting one view of Parker’s life. And there was a lot of messsiness and darkness from which to choose.
Parker was divorced from her husband in 1928, had rounds of affairs, including with reporter-turned-playwright Charles MacArthur, which resulted in a pregnancy. (This produced one of her Parker’s darkest, but most wittily put lines: “How like me, to put all my eggs into one bastard.”) She, then, had an abortion, slipping into a depression that yielded her first suicide attempt.
Yet, unless you are paying heed, you will miss the finer details of her successes, (some are found in the informative “You Might As Well Live” program). Meanwhile, her notable lifelong activism is missing entirely from this version of her life. To the play’s credit, it inspired me to seek out more Dorothy deets. When my wife remarked after the play that she wondered about the achievements that made Parker so famous, I spent the ride home reading out from my phone her accomplishments from Parker’s Wikipedia page, heedful of my spouse’s observation: “You can’t fit everything into one play!”
Just in the 1920s alone, Parker published about 300 poems and free verse pieces in Vanity Fair, Vogue, The New Yorker, Life, McCall’s and The New Republic. Published in 1926, her first volume of poetry, “Enough Rope,” sold nearly 50,000 copies and won glowing reviews such as one by The Nation that described her verse as “caked with a salty humor, rough with splinters of disillusion, and tarred with a bright black authenticity.”
It should also be remembered Parker was a woman in a man’s literary and freelance world, clawing her way to a degree of acclaim in the viciously competitive dipole worlds of New York and Hollywood.
“I hate writing, I love having written.”~ Dorothy Parker
Yet, she seemed ever dismissive of her own skill and came to hate her reputation as a “wisecracker.” One can only imagine how she responded to a review of her poetry by one New York Times reviewer, who dismissed “Enough Rope” as “flapper verse.” (Maybe a trip to the wet bar to top off her Scotch?)
She also came to repudiate the liquored-up repartee and often venomous thrusts from around the Algonquin Hotel lunchroom, which first launched her into the public eye:
“These were no giants. Think who was writing in those days—Lardner, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway. Those were the real giants. The Round Table was just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were. Just a bunch of loudmouths showing off, saving their gags for days, waiting for a chance to spring them … There was no truth in anything they said. It was the terrible day of the wisecrack, so there didn’t have to be any truth …
Parker appeared fearless in publishing her opinions and biting takes on things, often giving voice to first-person demons in the august pages of publications from Vanity Fair to the New Yorker. When Harold Ross launched the New Yorker in 1925, Parker was among its board of directors — she published her first New Yorker piece in the second issue of what would become one of America’s great magazines.
Parker, as this profile notes, “became famous for her short, viciously humorous poems, many highlighting ludicrous aspects of her many (largely unsuccessful) romantic affairs and others wistfully considering the appeal of suicide.”
Her acidic wit as a theater critic made her a must-read in Vanity Fair. But she was eventually fired in 1920 “after her criticisms too often offended powerful producers.” Benchley, a fellow Vanity Fair staffer, resigned in solidarity.
Some of her most widely read work in The New Yorker came in the form of tart book reviews under the byline “Constant Reader.” Have a soft spot for Winnie the Pooh? Parker’s response to to the sweet whimsy of A. A. Milne’s “The House at Pooh Corner” was: “Tonstant Weader fwowed up.”
Her highest profile short story, “Big Blonde,” published in The Bookman magazine, was awarded the O. Henry Award as the best short story of 1929. Her stories showed off her wit, but were also “spare and incisive, and more bittersweet than comic.”
You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks.~ Dorothy Parker
As she grew older and perhaps more unafraid in speaking her mind, Parker became more politically aware and active. This is the part of her life’s resume not communicated in the play, but it’s worth a note to round out the profile.
Her entry into activism began in 1927, when she joined in protests of the pending executions of Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. Traveling to Boston to protest, she and fellow Round Table alumnae, Ruth Hale, were arrested. Parker later pleaded guilty to a charge of “loitering and sauntering,” paying a $5 fine.
In the 1930s and 1940s, she became became a visible advocate of civil liberties, contributing the aura of her fame to left-wing causes.. She reported in 1937 on the Loyalist cause in Spain for the Communist magazine, The New Masses. She helped found the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League in 1936, which the FBI suspected of being a Communist Party front. Parker also served as chair of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee’s fundraising arm and organized a Project Rescue Ship to transport Loyalist veterans to Mexico.
The FBI would come to amass a 1,000-page dossier on her because of her suspected involvement in Communism during an era when Sen. Joseph McCarthy was rooting out suspected communists he saw everywhere, in government and Hollywood. As a result, studio bosses put Parker on the infamous Hollywood blacklist, forestalling her career there.
As she aged, she retreated more and more into the bottle. I find it a perverse commentary on her life that Parker’s alcoholism — which did so much, it seems, to fuel and deepen what appears a lifelong battle with depressive thoughts —is mythologized to this day. Earlier this year, a distiller released a limited edition batch of booze — Dorothy Parker Roundtable Reserve Gin — as a fundraiser to help pay for a headstone after her ashes finally found their way to the Bronx.
Good cause— but another drink is likely the last thing she needed as the spotlight strayed from her life. She would, I bet, have much preferred to hear of this story: “How Dorothy Parker Changed Lyric Love Poetry Forever.” I will, though, give the Brooklyn distiller and Dorothy Parker fan, Allen Katz, the last word:
“She was one of the contemporary cultural figures of the moment in New York City and had a direct impact on cocktail culture. For me, it was a way to honor her memory.”
“You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think,”~ Dorothy Parker
It says something about her truest heart that Dorothy Parker left her entire estate, including all future royalties, to Civil Rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., whom she did not know. After King’s assassination in 1968, the estate become the property of the NAACP. The oddball arc of her bodily remains after cremation are worthy of an arched-eyebrow Dorothy Parker poem. Her will left no instructions on what to do with her cremains. So, her ashes sat in an urn in a crematory for six years before they were sent to the Manhattan office of her attorney, where they sat in a filing cabinet for 15 years.
It took more than a dozen years for her family to reclaim the ashes with help from the New York-based Dorothy Parker Society. Parker’s remains were buried next to her mother in August 22, 2020, on Parker’s birthday. The head of her society, Kevin C. Fitzpatrick, and the civil rights activist Hazel Dukes were among the handful of mourners at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
Her distillery-funded headstone was finally unveiled on August 23, 2021, at the cemetery. The headstone is carved with the last stanza of a poem by Parker written in 1925, “Epitaph for a Darling Lady,” one last bit of wit and pathos for the ages:
“Leave for her a red young rose.
Go your way, and save your pity.
She is happy, for she knows
that her dust is very pretty.”
If I were truly channeling the Spirit of Dorothy Parker, I would never have gone on at such length, on what turned out to be more of an appreciation for her life, than a proper review. A more Parker-esque review of “You Might As Well Live” might have summed things up with far more brevity: “Play so good. Don’t look to me. Just go and see.”
And support the touring production of this show. It deserves to live.
“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”~ Dorothy Parker
Douglas John Imbrogno is the run-on sentence co-founder and editor of WestVirginiaVille.com. See his own poetry and essay what-nots at TheStoryIsTheThing.com