It would’ve been Dorothy Parker’s 134th birthday last Tuesday. The legendary writer, critic and poet didn’t quite live to such an advanced age, but she packed a punch in the seventy-three years she did spend on this earth. Her legacy is all-encompassing: Parker’s name isn’t limited to the pages of the publications she was a part of. She was one of the founding members of the Algonquin Round Table, and The New Yorker; an Oscar-nominated playwright, and a professor of English.
In honor of this amazing, contradictory woman, behold fifteen interesting facts about her that you might not know.
- She adored Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair. According to biographer Marion Meade, Parker first read Thackeray’s novel at the age of eleven and latched on to Becky as someone whose ability to reinvent herself she wanted to emulate.
- Her first editorial job was captioning pictures for Vogue. Her talent for puns was easy to spot even then, when captions such as “brevity is the soul of lingerie” introduced a note of sex in a magazine otherwise devoid of it.
- She would’ve found When Harry Met Sally preposterous. She spent a good part of her life in the company of Robert Benchley, in an office so small that “an inch smaller, and it would have been adultery.” To the disbelief of pretty much everyone who knew them, Parker and Benchley were only ever best friends.
- She made Condé Nast’s life a living hell. Along with Benchley and Robert Sherwood, Parker drove the editorial magnate mad: they arrived at work late, spent a good portion of the morning holding personal conversations, and went home early. Once, when Nast and Crowninshield went on a lengthy business trip, Benchley was left in charge of the magazine, and Parker and Sherwood were meant to assist. The three of them turned the Vanity Fair offices into a circus.
- Everyone knows she was one of the founding members of the Algonquin Round Table. Not so well known is the fact that they put together a musical titled No Sirree. Parker contributed the lyrics for a song titled “The Everlastin’ Ingenue Blues.” Laurette Taylor’s review for The New York Times deemed the play silly and amateurish.
- She didn’t consider herself a satirist. In an interview published in The Paris Review, she said that satirists were all from other centuries, adding that “the people we call satirists now are those who make cracks at topical topics and call themselves satirists (…) Their stuff is not satire; it’s dull as yesterday’s newspaper.”
- When asked about the source of her work, she replied it was “need of money.”
- She claimed to name her characters from the telephone book and the obituary columns.
- Her writing process put even Flaubert’s to shame. She worked on a story one sentence at a time, and wouldn’t move on to the next until this one was deemed perfect. She once told Marion Capron that she couldn’t “write five words but that I change seven.”
- Not surprisingly, deadlines were her nemesis. During her six-year tenure as a book reviewer for Esquire, she developed new and creative ways of procrastination that both amused and aggravated publisher Arnold Gingrich and editor Harold Hayes.
- She was a terrible teacher. She was Distinguished Visiting Professor of English at California State College, teaching two courses in twentieth-century American and British Literature. The paycheck delighted her. The teaching did not. Her students’ lack of interest in literature, and their general conservatism, irritated her. In turn, her obvious disdain of them angered them. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, she went so far as to say that her students were the stupidest people on the face of the earth.
- She bequeathed her estate to Martin Luther King, Jr. Her will instructed that her legacy ought to go to MLK, and in the event of his death, to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1988, the NAACP claimed her ashes, and deposited them in a memorial garden in its Baltimore headquarters.
- She was passionately involved in the campaign to save Sacco and Vanzetti. The case against the two Italian-American anarchists was her entry point to politics. She had never so much as voted, but this case touched her, deeply enough for her to head to Boston and get involved in the (ultimately unsuccessful) campaign to cancel the death penalty
- She campaigned against Hitler early on. Although Parker struggled with internalized antisemitism for most of her life, she was horrified to learn what was going on in Germany in 1936. She was one of the founders of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League.
- She wanted to write a novel. However, perhaps because her process was too exacting to allow for lengthy works of literature, she excelled at the short story. “Big blonde” is her attempt to combine the two.