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Dorothy Parker, wordsmith

The wisecracking poet Dorothy Rothschild Parker was the prototypical New Yorker who nonetheless was born in New Jersey, on August 22, 1893. That said, her birthplace was a matter of circumstance—her family was escaping the city heat on the Jersey Shore—and she grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She lived most of her life within five miles of Times Square, in Midtown and on the Upper East Side. Although there were also intermittent stints in Hollywood from the mid-thirties until the early sixties, and a few unlikely years in rural Pennsylvania during the 1940s, Dot Parker was a New York girl.

The usual biographical data is widely known but not particularly revealing: her much-loved mother died when she was five, the less-loved stepmother who followed a few years later, and her ineffectual father also passed along before she turned eighteen. A wartime marriage to the even more ineffectual Eddie Parker was dissolved with little fuss ten years later. Vogue, then Vanity Fair, then the Algonquin Round Table, then celebrity. A series of disastrous affairs, three well-received volumes of poetry, and two less-impressive short story collections. Lethal repartee, too much alcohol, just the right number of anecdotes. The New Yorker and a fabled tenure as a book reviewer. Unsatisfying second and third marriages to the same man (a rumored bisexual more than ten years younger than she was). An abortion and two miscarriages, but no children. Hollywood. Steadily declining professional output, political radicalization, broken friendships. Professional failure, blacklist, struggle. Finally, nearly alone, a fatal heart attack at age 73 in June 1967.

Vanity Fair

She famously captured the spirit of the times in her best (and most astringent) work, and her prose is a rich source of slang and colloquialism. She had a good ear, even if her mouth gained more attention. Mrs. Parker first attracted public notice while working at Vanity Fair magazine, where from 1918-20 she was New York’s only female theater critic. During her early tenure, she made use of terms which would find their way into the Oxford English Dictionary. She wrote in May 1918 “An ‘intimate revue’, a form of entertainment in which each member of the cast gets up and does his little parlor tricks and calls it an evening”, giving the OED’s first example of parlor trick in the transferred sense.

She could be less scathing. Her admiration for one costume designer had her proclaim that “he should have his name in electric lights over the theatre”, supplying OED with its current first quotation for “one’s name in lights”.

Making passes overwell

In January 1920, Mrs. Parker was fired from Vanity Fair, and for the next seven years she scratched out a living writing poems, free verses, and occasional essays for several magazines and newspapers. One of her most famous aphorisms dates from this time, as it happens it comprises the full text of her celebrated poem “News Item”, which observes that “Men seldom make passes / At girls who wear glasses”. First published in the New York World, perhaps the world’s finest newspaper at that time, it is OED’s first example of pass in the “amorous or sexual advance” sense. At the time she supplied most of her material to the New York humor magazine Life—not to be confused with the picture magazine of the same name that started publication in 1936—largely because the Roberts Benchley and Sherwood, two of her closest friends (and fellow “Algonks”) worked there. She published no fewer than 130 poems and free verses in Life, some of which supplied words or phrases that also found their way in to the OED. Her poem Partial Comfort, which appeared in Life in February 1927, is used to illustrate the entry for overwell (adverb), meaning “too well; very well”.

Whose love is given over-well
Shall look on in Helen’s face in hell;
While they whose love is thin and wise
May view John Knox in paradise.

From 1927 until 1933 she served intermittently as the New Yorker’s book reviewer in the guise of “Constant Reader”, and even more intermittently as a film reviewer. One of her pieces for this publication provides OED with an early example of the transferred sense of bush-league, originally a baseball term, which describes an inferior milieu.

The very picture of wit

In 1933 she married again, to a young actor called Alan Campbell. They divorced in 1947, remarried in 1950, then separated, reconciled, and lived more-or-less together until he killed himself in 1963. They spent most of the 1930s and 1940s in Hollywood, where they found work as screenwriters. They weren’t much good at it: when she arrived, they paid her $10,000 per week because they presumed her reputation for wit would translate to the screen. It didn’t, and she made it clear that she did not care. By the early 1950s she was blackballed because of her Communist affiliations, but by then the gesture was more theoretical that practical, because she was effectively unemployable. While they were flush the Campbells bought an estate in Pennsylvania which they sold when they divorced. In the early 1950s, after the remarriage and separation, she returned to New York, where in 1952 she collaborated on the play Ladies of the Corridor with a young playwright called Arnaud d’Usseau. The play generated good reviews but failed quickly.

Ultimately, and to her surprise, she became a cult cultural figure. Entries as diverse as scaredy-cat (It’s so nice to meet a man who isn’t scaredy-cat about catching my beri-beri), mean (And there are the Drawing-Room Stars; / The Ones That Swing a Mean Tea-Cup), and picture (‘Junior would be the very picture of his father, when they got the bands off his teeth’) all feature her pithy and sparkling prose. In 1961 she returned to Los Angeles and Alan’s bungalow in West Hollywood. They had befriended a young screenwriter called Wyatt Cooper, who lived nearby. After Alan’s suicide two years later, she returned to New York, where four years later she died of a heart attack, aged seventy-three. (The week she died, Cooper’s wife, Gloria Vanderbilt Cooper, gave birth to a son. They christened him “Anderson”. Perhaps some of you have seen him on television).

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