I found out about Dorothy Parker in one of those bog-standard Famous Quotes books, or a trivia guide, or the Book of Lists (I loved that kind of proto-Buzzfeed information-entertainment stuff as a kid). Knowing diddly about the Jazz Age or American Literature outside of the Baby-Sitters Club books, I pieced together an idea of what she was, one that cleaved with the still potent myth of Parker: she was a New York writer who enjoyed men and drink, and became famous because of her razor-sharp wit.
That was enough: instant life role model. Just the idea that a woman could rival Wilde with smart one-liners and become rich and famous for it was mindhole blowing. I knew about the many female roles I wouldn’t be very suited to, but this alternative was tantalising. At nine I told my teacher that when I grew up I wanted to be ‘a writer living in New York’. And as I got a little older, the idea of taking a string of lovers and being able to drink anyone under the table seemed like a preferable option than anything promised by Disney Princesses.
Once I told my mum that Parker was my idol, and she groaned: “But she was such a miserable woman!” I outlined the advantages – booze, beaus, infamy – to her, but by then I knew more about Parker’s life and work, and that she was almost as legendary for her misery as her rapier wit.
In a way, the legend of Dorothy Parker is like that of Wilde – I think it’s most attractive when you’re young, and the difference between history and myth, the gray areas of biography, mean less than the romance and tragedy (and the sizzling burns delivered upon one’s enemies). Growing up, comparatively witless, I’m at least able to appreciate her more as a real person, one who struggled with her fame instead of trying to capitalise on it.
This book should’ve been a great idyll, a mixture of the myth and the reality. There’s plenty of odd twists and turns to her life – the 15 (!) years spent in Hollywood, the political rallying, her trip to the Spanish Civil War, her bequest to Martin Luther King, Jnr. The legendary years of the Round Table and her frenemies there are also rich. The structure is simple enough – Day’s framed a short biography around her own quotes, excerpts from her work and interviews. But I found it frustrating to read, and put it aside for a week. The problem isn’t the bitterness of her personality or her awful life choices, but Barry Day’s insistence on trying to be witty in the text, as well as some dodgy flaws in the telling.
A friend of mine who worked at a bookstore coined the expression ‘The Wodehouse Paradox’, for the inverse relationship between Wodehouse fans and any discernible sense of humour. Not people who bought one or two books of his, but the ones who snapped up stacks of his books and any Wodehousiana, and then would say very earnestly, “He is very …witty.” As if wit was a foreign language they were struggling to understand. I’ve noticed this around any ‘Great Wit’, maybe it’s because the light of their genius bleaches out any attempt at humour in direct proximity? I kept thinking about it reading this book, because boy, do Day’s jokes stink. And I’m not that funny, nor refined myself. There’s a reason, aside from fear of liver damage, that I’m not the 21st century Dottie P. But when I saw that Day had also worked on books about Noel Coward and Wodehouse I thought, aha – the paradox strikes!
There’s also annoying ellipses in the book. A reference will be made to a story without it’s title, or an event hinted at (like that Parker ‘would come to regret’ her founding of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi league – eh?) and then bugger-all follow up. There’s sloppy psychology applied to a notoriously mercurial subject, and then all these non sequiturs peppered throughout. Plus a dash of a sort of half-assed attempt to call her ‘the first feminist’ without any apparent understanding of what those words mean. Gah! I don’t have it to hand or I’d quote it – but it drove me up the wall.
On the plus side, plenty of Dorothy herself. I’d forgotten how simply great she was. Particularly the verse. To cleanse the palate, here’s one:
Say my love is easy had,
Say I’m bitten raw with pride,
Say I am too often sad –
Still behold me at your side.
Say I’m neither brave nor young,
Say I woo and coddle care,
Say the devil touched my tongue –
Still you have my heart to wear.
But say my verses do not scan,
And I’ll get me another man!